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November 11, 2014 standard

Back in September, Dropout Nation took a hard look at Minneapolis Public Schools’ overuse of suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline, detailing how Supt. Bernadeia Johnson’s move to halt the overuse of suspensions and expulsions on kids in its early childhood education, kindergarten, and first grade classes only scratched the surface of the district’s problem. Your editor called upon Johnson to go further and address the underlying instructional, leadership, curricula and diagnosis issues that were the underlying reasons why so many kids were suspended in the first place.

Some good news came from Johnson last week when she announced that her central office staff would review any suspensions of black, American Indian, and other minority children for nonviolent offenses recommended by school leaders on the ground. This can be a sensible interim step in overhauling Minneapolis’ school discipline practices if done properly. Your editor would have recommend that the district also review suspension recommendations for white kids as well because it is both the right thing to do — no child, regardless of their background, should be subjected to harsh discipline that is inappropriate for the behavioral issue at hand — and because it would allay any concerns from white families about reverse discrimination. But it does make sense for the district to monitor what school leaders and teachers are doing on the ground on this front.

Johnson deserves credit for taking another step. Of course, she’s not doing this just of her own accord. Thanks to an investigation by the Obama Administration as part of its efforts to halt overuse of suspensions and other harsh discipline — one that has been senselessly criticized by conservative reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (who doesn’t think that the disparate impact of overusing suspensions is a civil rights issue) as well as movement conservatives opposed to anything done by the administration on everything — the district is now being forced to deal with a problem it has long swept under the proverbial rug. [One of Petrilli’s staffers at Fordham, Jessica Poiner, rightfully chastised him for his less-than-thoughtful position.] Johnson’s move is an important validation of the Obama Administration’s sensible decision to address a civil rights issue (as it is constitutionally required to do) that is also a culprit of the nation’s education crisis.

But as your editor noted two months ago with the moratorium on suspensions of kids in the early grades, the review process isn’t enough. For one, the review will likely involve staffers who have been as much a culprit in the overuse of suspensions and expulsions in the first place; unless Johnson launches a division staffed by outsiders who can take a fresh look at how school leaders and teachers mete out discipline, the review process will just be a rubber stamp of status quo actions.

There’s also the fact that the review process doesn’t deal with another aspect of school discipline that is also a problem in Minneapolis: High numbers of referrals of black and Native kids to Hennepin County’s juvenile justice system, along with arrests by law enforcement. Two-point-six percent of Native kids attending the Twin City district’s schools, along with 1.3 percent of black peers, were either referred to juvenile courts or arrested, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s higher than the two-tenths of one percent of white kids, four-tenths of one percent of Asian and white schoolmates either referred or arrested. The good news is that none of these kids were arrested.

Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The juvenile court referrals and law enforcement arrests are especially high for black and Native kids condemned to Minneapolis’ special education ghettos. Eighteen-point-three percent of black kids in special ed, along with 11.1 percent of Native peers were either referred or arrested in 2011-2012. This was higher than the 2.4 percent of Latino and white students in special ed, along with 3.2 percent of Asian schoolmates referred or arrested. On average, 6.6 percent of Minneapolis’ special ed students were referred or arrested, a rate nine times higher than the eight-tenths of one percent average for kids in regular classrooms. Reviewing suspensions alone isn’t enough to address the totality of the district’s school discipline issues.

The more-important reason why the suspension reviews aren’t enough lies with the fact that the review process doesn’t address the cultural problems at the heart of Minneapolis’ problem in the first place. As Dropout Nation noted back in September, the district is dealing miserably with the underlying illiteracy that is the key culprit for student misbehavior. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are functionally illiterate in third grade end up becoming discipline problems by fifth. With only 47 percent of black third-graders and 45 percent of Native peers in Minneapolis reaching the North Star State’s (rather lowly-set) level of reading proficiency according to its 2012 exams, it is no surprise that those kids are acting out in school; they know that the schools that they attend will never provide them the reading remediation they desperately seek.

Certainly this is a problem resulting from shoddy reading curricula. But it is also a problem of low-quality teaching. As your editor continually argues, the consequences of laggard instruction are borne both in the struggles of kids in academics, in their perceptions (as well as that of school leaders) of the potential of black and Native children, and how their learning issues are dealt with through overuse of harsh school discipline. Johnson herself made light of this last week when she revealed that 13 of the district’s schools — all of whom serve mostly poor and minority kids — were staffed by the highest levels of laggard teachers. This included Bethune Elementary, where one or more suspensions were meted out to 20.6 percent of black kids attending the school, nearly double the district’s already high 13.1 percent average, as well as Anishinabe Academy, where 13.6 percent of Native students were suspended one or more times, slightly higher than the district average of 12.6 percent.

For Johnson and the district to end overuse of suspensions and other harsh school discipline, they will have to address literacy and instruction. This means intensive reading remediation, especially in the early grades when discipline issues can be headed off, as well as leveraging approaches such as Response to Intervention to identify kids struggling with literacy. The district will also have to push hard, especially at the state capital as well as at the bargaining table with the American Federation of Teachers’ local (which has defended overuse of school discipline) in order to undertake steps to address low-quality teaching. Systemic reform, in short, is key to reducing overuse of suspensions for the long haul.

Johnson (along with the Obama Administration) deserves praise for tackling this problem head-on. But more needs to be done beyond suspension reviews to address discipline practices that condemn far too many Twin Cities children to the abyss.


Some of you know my story. Others do not. But I can tell you why, as both a native Washingtonian and a teacher in Los Angeles, why so many students don’t get the access to high-quality math instruction they deserve, an issue featured last month on Dropout Nation‘s report last month on the lack of college-preparatory opportunities for kids attending D.C.-area schools.

My mother and father taught in D.C. Public Schools from the 1960s through the 1980s. Because our family were practicing Catholics, my brother and I attended Catholic schools our entire secondary lives. I didn’t take Algebra 1 in middle school. But I still ended up taking A.P. Calculus by my senior year at a very competitive high school (or, as my former pastor described, the good Jesuit one downtown versus the expensive one in the ‘burbs).

I’ll start off by saying this: Algebra 1 in middle school should not be a prerequisite for access to higher mathematics in high school and beyond. What is needed and deserved for all students is a continuum of quality, committed educators who can teach the math they require.

Teaching in urban schools here in L.A., I can tell you that many schools choose not to instruct math in the sequence they should for two reasons. The first has to do with students unprepared for math. It is hard to teach Algebra 1 to 13-year-olds, or even high school students who cannot multiply fluently as well as lack a deep and broad vocabulary. How students are getting out of 3rd grade without multiplying through their 12’s should be a crime, a crime that’s committed with regularity in our urban schools.

The other has to do with the dearth of qualified teachers. Stanford, USC, Alabama and Oregon have an easier time finding 5-star football recruits than urban schools have finding high-quality, committed math teachers. We know what high quality is. Committed is a different story. When I talk about committed, I mean educators willing to hang around in urban schools for an extended period of time, as well as help a school build and maintain a culture of expectation and excellence.

Back when California required Algebra 1 instruction in eighth grade, you still had many students not taking Algebra 1 because schools and districts feared that the poor performance of the students would hurt the scores on the Academic Performance Index. Just 30 percent of eighth-graders took Algebra 1 in 2009-2010, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis last year. Of course in the long run it would help the student; even if they failed in eighth grade, they would excel in ninth and still be on the path to calculus. But, of course, student needs often become secondary to the edu-bureaucracy’s needs.

One lesson for families and others in the D.C. metro area is that if districts (and teachers’ unions) aren’t willing to put educators where they need to be to fix this problem, then families must have the flexibility and freedom to demand other educational options that will work for this purpose. This includes launching charter schools, voucher programs, and other choices.

Another lesson can be seen on the boots on the ground level where I work. Give me some students who can multiply and reduce a fraction, and I’ll have them ready for high school. Then I can pray they will get the same commitment from other teachers that they have gotten from me when they leave me — instead of the “could you come teach at our high school?” request I get way too unacceptably often.

November 7, 2014 standard

Even as Dropout Nation continuing covering the results of this week’s elections, your editor has given plenty of thought to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for turning around the Big Apple’s worst-performing schools. There have been plenty of sparring between the new mayor and staffers for predecessor Michael Bloomberg (whose approach included shutting down failure mills and replacing them with smaller operations), while the New York Times and other outlets (along with former Chancellor Rudy Crew, who attempted a similar overhaul before Bloomberg succeeded in taking control of the district 11 years ago) have weighed in with their own skeptical conclusions about the effort.

But then came Chalkbeat reporter Patrick Wall’s report this morning that one of the schools being targeted for turnaround, the long-woeful Boys and Girls High, has already undertaken the effort in its own special and rather old-fashioned way: By coercing struggling kids to transfer to other schools. Instead of working hard on providing struggling kids with reading and math remediation as well as revamping teaching staffs, the new principal of the high school, Michael Wiltshire, is allegedly working with guidance counselors to coax the kids into the Big Apple’s notorious collection of alternative high school ghettos (where kids are even less likely to be provided high-quality teaching and curricula). So far, according to Wall, 30 students have agreed to the “voluntary” transfers, which will help the school magically boost its performance (in the form of graduation rates as well as test scores) because those kids aren’t counted in the cohort. Unless de Blasio and his schools czar, Carmen Fariña, fire or discipline Wiltshire, even more kids will be pushed out by school year end.

From where your editor sits, none of this is surprising. Pushing out students is as old a trick as socially promoting struggling students from grade to grade — and one that can be especially effective for high schools because of how graduation rates are calculated. A child who “transfers” to an alternative high school ghetto or goes into “homeschool” won’t count against official numbers (even though they probably should since, well, the transfer is often a result of systematic failure to provide kids with high-quality education). This is why so many districts are so diligent in launching alternative high schools and General Education Development programs in the first place. A report released three years by A Better Way Foundation on Connecticut’s pushout activities determined that one-third of the 30,000 students in the Nutmeg State’s GED programs were aged 16-to-18, essentially should have been in high school; only 17 percent of them ever left those programs with a not-good-enough diploma.

At the same time, it is almost hard to blame Wiltshire for his alleged atrocious actions. After all, the school turnaround plan his bosses at the old Tweed Courthouse and City Hall are putting in place — a rehash of failed approaches tried by others both in New York City and elsewhere — give him few options to actually undertake a successful turnaround.

Under de Blasio’s School Renewal Program, the Big Apple will use something akin to the transformation model allowed under the federal School Improvement Grant program in order to revamp 94 perpetual failure mills. The city will spend $150 million to develop partnerships with community groups, extend instructional time in schools by one hour, develop “strong parent-community collaboration”, and provide teachers with more so-called professional development. The hope is that these steps will somehow lead to schools improving their performance without having to take tougher steps such as replacing laggard school leaders and low-quality teachers working in those classrooms.

As you would expect, de Blasio and Fariña offered few details on how the New York City Department of Education would develop these partnerships, how the schools would collaborate with families and communities, or what kind of professional development the teachers would attain. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing — if done properly.

The mayor could build upon the arrangement struck between the city and New Visions for Public Schools, which works with 75 of the city’s schools to improve student achievement (as well as run its own charters), as well as team up with Johns Hopkins University’s Talent Development initiative. But that would mean giving those organizations (along with community outfits on the ground) control over school operations and even letting them hire and fire teachers; given de Blasio’s adherence to the traditionalist line (as well as his desire to keep happy the United Federation of Teachers branch of the American Federation of Teachers, this isn’t going to happen.

The city could actually build strong ties to families by implementing a Parent Trigger provision allowing for them to either take control of failure mills or force the district into developing programs that will help their kids. This is something that some families in the Los Angeles Unified School District have done so far with some success, as have families in Adelanto, Calif. But again, this would mean giving families real decision-making power in schools and letting them lead on rebuilding cultures. That won’t sit well with de Blasio, Fariña, or with the UFT. So that is also a nonstarter.

Even the professional development idea would work — if such training actually were effective in the first place. Decades of data have proven that this isn’t even close to reality. Just 132 of 1,200 professional development programs surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education focused on reading, math and science; only nine actually met federal What Works Clearinghouse standards for quality and outcomes. Meanwhile there is little evidence that site-based professional development teams — in which teams of teachers meet to brainstorm and learn from one another — works either. Given that most professional development is done by university schools of education and their professors (who have done such an awful job of training teachers in the first place), this isn’t shocking.

de Blasio’s school turnaround plan won’t amount to much. But at least it comes with a pretty chart.

Meanwhile de Blasio’s plan doesn’t actually address some key problems that go far beyond the failure mills. This starts with the Big Apple’s continuing struggle to ensure that eight-graders, especially those from black and Latino households, are reading proficiently and on grade level before entering high school; that issue, by the way, is why Boys and Girls (along with other high schools in the Big Apple, are struggling mightily in the first place). As Contributing Editor Michael Holzman would say, focusing on early literacy would help in the long run. But the city just decided to bring back Balanced Literacy, the failed approach to reading instruction, despite evidence that it does little for kids in most need of help on this front.

There is also another approach de Blasio and Fariña could embrace: The shutdown of failing schools and replacing them with smaller operations staffed by new leaders and teachers. The success of this approach was validated once again last month by MRDC in its continuing research on that effort. That, however, won’t happen, because de Blasio thinks shutting down failure mills is the worst possible thing — even when it is evident that keeping them open isn’t working for kids, their families, or their communities.

So the likelihood of de Blasio’s plan working out is zero and none. But again, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Districts have used the approaches offered up in de Blasio’s plan for decades — and have failed miserably. As Dropout Nation noted last year in its review of results for schools in the SIG program — most of whom use the transformation model being applied by de Blasio — just three out of every five middle- and high schools being turned around under the $3.6 billion program have made some sort of progress in improving student achievement in reading; in fact, a third of schools being turned around under SIG actually experienced declines in their performance.

The long-term evidence is cause for even more disillusionment about de Blasio’s plans. A mere 11 percent of California elementary schools forced by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to Andy Smarick (now of Bellwhether Education Partners) in his famed Education Next treatise on school turnarounds. Just eight percent of laggard traditional district schools and nine percent of failing charter counterparts identified in 2003-2004 were successfully turned around six years later, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Meanwhile the education landscape is littered with numerous examples of school overhauls that haven’t made educational death traps any better for kids. This includes Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis and Eastside High School in Patterson, N.J., of Lean On Me fame.

There are plenty of reasons why school turnarounds fail to work out. One lies with the fact that the turnarounds are overseen by the very districts that managed the schools into academic failure in the first place. Expecting a failing district with incompetent central office staffers to somehow revamp failing schools — especially when it isn’t overhauling its own operations — is simply insane. Even in the case of New York City, which has succeeded under the tenure of Bloomberg and his cadre of school czars in improving student achievement, the obstacles to turnarounds in the form of near-lifetime employment laws and teacher dismissal policies that keep even criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms, make overhauls harder to undertake than they should be.

The other reason why de Blasio’s plan won’t work is that it doesn’t address the underlying toxic cultures that are a root reason why schools are failing in the first place. Culture, especially that which is toxic, will overcome any one individual’s effort to go against the grain and can even overcome the efforts of a rival culture to put it asunder; this is especially true in situations in which the methods by which one can easily remove the elements of culture cannot be used easily (if at all). A principal who cannot remove laggard teachers from classrooms will have almost no success in fostering cultures of genius that nurture the potential of struggling and high-performing kids alike. [Update: Today, de Blasio struck a deal with the UFT that technically requires teachers at the schools to reapply for jobs; but given that there are no limits on the number that can be rehired, don’t expect much in the way of personnel changes.] Given de Blasio’s and Fariña’s unwillingness to push hard for systemic reform — and the mayor’s explicit rejection of the successful efforts of the Bloomberg era — school leaders on the ground are being asked to perform miracles without the tools to make realistic progress.

What will likely end up happening under de Blasio’s plan is what is starting to happen now with Boys and Girls High: Principals being discouraged by Tweed from kicking laggard teachers out of classrooms and into the displaced teacher pool will simply resort to coaxing struggling students out of their schools into alternative school and GED programs that serve as way stations toward dropping out. In some cases, they will use “voluntary” transfers. In others, they will use the city’s complex and arbitrary school discipline code to suspend as many of the kids deemed unteachable as encouragement to flee. The performance of the schools will improve dramatically even as the lives of the children they no longer serve do not.

The kids, especially those from poor and minority communities (who, by the way, look like de Blasio’s own progeny), will be condemned to the economic and social abyss. The communities in which they live will continue to suffer. But at least de Blasio gets to say that he’s not doing what Bloomberg has done. Not that this is worth anything to any of our children.

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.


November 5, 2014 standard

Your editor hasn’t spent any time so far on what yesterday’s Election Day results mean for federal education policy. That piece will come later. Right now, however, here are a few other points about state-level races that should be considered.

As I noted earlier today, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers suffered near-total defeat at nearly all levels of politics. Certainly this is a matter that AFT President Randi Weingarten attempts to dance around in her latest press release; after all, she would engage in her typical class warfare rhetoric and complain about the losses all about the unwillingness of voters to consider “everyday concerns”. But given the defeats the two unions have experienced in gubernatorial races, state board seats, school board elections, and even legislative races, Weingarten’s rhetoric is just plain laughable. [Her colleague at NEA, Lily Eskelsen Garcia was more honest, admitting that it was “sad” that “so many friends” of the unions lost their seats.]

This can be seen in Louisiana, where an effort by the AFT and its Jefferson Parish local to win control of the traditional district’s school board fell apart. Despite spending $446,000 in political action committee spending campaign itself (as well as pouring another $40,542 from the main coffers into an organizing project there), the AFT only captured one of the four new seats it sought on the nine-member board,while losing another. [There will be runoff elections for two other seats,both of which will likely result in losses for the union.] All the money the AFT has sunk into Louisiana in the past couple of years is resulting in nothing but defeat.

This is also clear in New York State where the AFT’s losses extend beyond Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s re-election in spite of their snub of his candidacy earlier this year. In Albany, Republicans regain sole control of the senate after four years of sharing control of the body with a small group of dissident Democrats egged on in part by Cuomo. For the AFT, which has poured plenty (including contributions from its New York State Public Employees Federation affiliate) into backing the Democratic bid to take control of the Empire State upper house, this is a tremendous loss.

Senate Republicans will give Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King freer hands in advancing their reform efforts; this is something that the governor (who helped orchestrate the senate’s governing coalition two years ago) appreciates because he knows his fellow Democrats are often unreliable on education policy. Senate Republicans will also have long memories of how the AFT tried to wrest power from them. Expect the senate to pass at least one school choice measure, most-likely the voucher-like tax credit plan that Cuomo has publicly endorsed, as well as give King leeway to shut down failing districts. Certainly both measures may not make it past the state assembly and Speaker Sheldon Silver (who is in the AFT’s pocket). But given the political weakness of the AFT’s affiliates — and the demonstrated inability of them to launch effective reprisals against wayward politicians — Silver may actually be willing to go along with modest versions of both.

But the AFT isn’t the only one who lost big in the Empire State. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also took it on the chin. Several of the Democrats he backed for the state senate lost their bids. As a result, de Blasio will also face a hostile state senate willing to back Gov. Cuomo’s efforts to beat back the first-term mayor’s efforts to roll back predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s overhaul of the Big Apple’s traditional district. Cuomo, in particular, will be more than happy to remind de Blasio that he is the most-influential politician in the Empire State the same way his father, Mario, put then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch back in his place four decades ago.

What should be clear for the NEA and AFT (as well as for de Blasio) after last night is that their embrace of policies that damage children, as well as their defense of quality-blind practices that do little for high-quality teachers and help laggards instead won’t lead to political victories. Most of the few wins the unions managed to gain — most-notably in Pennsylvania (where Democrat Tom Wolf beat incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett) — resulted either from the inability of their opponents to mount effective campaigns or from their timid leadership while in office. So long as the two unions continue to hold on to traditionalist thinking and old-school industrial union models, their influence and relevance will remain in free-fall.

Across the country in California, the NEA and AFT did a tad better. Incumbent Supt. Tom Torlakson, who was backed by the two unions to the tune of $5.2 million in direct donations (as well as millions more in independent spending) beat reformer Marshall Tuck. But it wasn’t by much. Torlakson won by a mere 181,489 votes, or a margin three-quarters smaller than the 746,828-vote lead he had over Larry Aceves four years ago. For the two unions, along with their fellow traditionalists, Torlakson’s victory can be best-considered a defensive win. A pliant ally remains in office and in control of the education agency at the heart of the Golden State’s balkanized educational governance structure, while also avoiding a high-profile win that would be nearly as big for reformers as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election victory last night.

As for reformers? There is plenty of good news from Tuck’s defeat. For one, the small margin of Torlakson’s victory shows that there are plenty of Californians ready to embrace systemic reform. The state superior court’s ruling last June in Vergara v. California, along with the outcry over the state legislature’s unwillingness over the past two years to pass legislation that would make it easier for districts to remove criminally-abusive teachers from classrooms, has galvanized many families. This is especially true for black and Latino families who attend the Golden State’s failure mills and have benefited the most from the few systemic reform efforts that have been undertaken in the state. The fact that reformers showed up with cash to fund Tuck’s campaign is also important; they are realizing that favored candidates need money to have a chance to back traditionalist opponents backed by NEA and AFT coffers. That reformers such as Ben Austin of Parent Revolution and former Los Angeles Unified board president Caprice Young stepped up and campaigned for Tuck is also heartening.

Yet because school reformers, especially in Los Angeles, have spent so little time courting and building up grassroots support, Tuck didn’t have enough votes to overcome Torlakson’s natural advantage as the incumbent. You can’t expect to win when you only reach out to your allies during election cycles. The misplaced hostility among Beltway reformers outside of the Golden State, as well as wonks within it to Vergara suits and Parent Trigger laws have also alienated the movement from the very families and activists who rightfully recognize both as key tools for helping families become lead decision-makers in education policymaking.

Yet as I mentioned, there is plenty of opportunities for reformers to turn Tuck’s defeat into long-term success. This starts by building stronger support among the grassroots, especially with the single-parent households and immigrant families from Latino and Asian communities. This means adopting the approach of listening and engaging intently and deliberately with communities that Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr (now the chairman of Democrats for Education Reform’s Golden State branch) used successfully in the last decade. At the same time, it also means embracing the tactics of Vergara and Parent Trigger efforts to build allies on the ground; you can’t claim to be for poor and minority kids if you are opposed to the very tools that empower their families. This has to be done every day starting now, in an open-ended way; helping out communities with critical needs builds goodwill that is useful at the ballot box.

These tactics, along with embracing traditional political mobilization approaches such as voter registration drives, wouldn’t just be helpful to California’s school reformers. One of the biggest problems of the movement on a national level is that its leading lights have been so focused on winning over statehouses and political leaders that they struggle when faced with traditionalists with greater presence on the ground. As seen yesterday, the advantage traditionalists have doesn’t always show up at the ballot box. But as seen earlier this year in Newark N.J. (where school principal-turned city councilman Ras Baraka beat out Shavar Jeffries for mayor, and became for Supt. Cami Anderson, a well-deserved thorn in her side), reformers can end up on the losing end of political battles. This lack of political savvy (along with an overemphasis on being the smartest in the room instead of the savviest in politics) is one of the reasons why Common Core supporters have been on their heels for most of the past two years.

The benefits of strong grassroots ties can be seen in Minneapolis, where Don Samuels, a former Twin Cities councilman, won a seat on the traditional district’s board. Certainly Samuels was helped out by funding from reformers; this includes $228,000 raised by the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund, which spent plenty backing Samuels and his teammate, American Indian education activist Iris Altamirano. But Samuels, a Jamaican émigré who came into politics after a varied career that including gospel singing and running a toy design studio, also had strong community ties at his disposal. The onetime mayoral candidate has spent years volunteering with community organizations working on children’s issues, and has won both controversy and acclaim for speaking truth to influence, especially to fellow blacks in the city. So Samuels had a leg up on the traditionalist competition when announced his run for the district board this summer.

There are plenty of lessons from last night for reformers to heed. Embracing the grassroots, as well as addressing the concerns of poor and minority communities who are damaged the most by the nation’s education crisis, are two of them.

*Editor’s Note: Updated to note the role of reformers in backing Tuck’s campaign, as well as the Jefferson County school board results.


Certainly Election Day has proven to be a bloodbath for President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee. From the loss of senate seats in North Carolina, Iowa, Montana, and Colorado, to the defeats of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the usually-reliable Maryland and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s unexpected comeback victory, the president and his party now are now forced to deal with a revived Republican Party that will work hard to make the last two years of his tenure tougher than ever.

But for the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which were expected to spend $80 million in an effort to defend their declining influence in education policy, the setbacks are even worse.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker won a second term over Mary Burke by a seven-point margin even after the NEA and AFT (along with other public-sector union allies) vigorously propped up the Democratic gubernatorial nominee;s campaign. As it turned out, the NEA’s and AFT’s arguments that Walker’s successful effort to end collective bargaining and forced dues collections were terrible for teachers and other public-sector employees fell upon deaf ears. Walker’s fellow Republicans in the legislature will also retain control, which bodes well for expanding the state’s voucher program and other school choice efforts.

In Michigan, Rick Snyder beat the NEA- and AFT-backed Mark Schauer by a four-point margin. As with Walker, the NEA’s and AFT’s arguments against Snyder’s school reform efforts — including ending the ability of the two unions to force teachers into becoming members — also didn’t resonate with either teachers or the rest of the public. Thanks to the victory, along with keeping control of the legislature in the hands of his fellow Republicans, Snyder will have another four years to advance other key reforms — including further expanding the Wolverine State’s inter-district choice program

Then there is Rhode Island, where State Treasurer Gina Raimondo won a first term as governor in spite of opposition from the NEA earlier this year over her successful push to replace the state’s virtually-insolvent defined-benefit plan with a hybrid plan featuring defined-contribution elements. Without having to repay the NEA for their support, Raimondo has a free hand to back the reforms being undertaken by Supt. Deborah Gist, which, like Raimondo’s pension reforms, don’t make the union all that happy.

And let’s not forget Bruce Rauner, the private-equity fund boss who defeated incumbent Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to become the Land of Lincoln’s next chief executive. Rauner’s victory is especially embarrassing for the AFT. After all, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten, went barnstorming for Quinn even as its affiliate, along with that of the NEA, are suing to stop implementation of the modest pension improvement plan Quinn successfully passed last year. Now the two unions face a governor who can work with a state legislature likely willing to go further on addressing a teachers’ pension insolvency of $76 billion, according to Dropout Nation‘s latest analysis.

But these aren’t the only defeats for the NEA and AFT. In Florida, Rick Scott, who found enough backbone during his first term to pass a teacher evaluation overhaul (before backing down on passing a Parent Trigger law and other measures) managed to win a second term despite intense opposition from the two unions. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich — who has backed Common Core against opposition from movement conservatives as well as backed Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s reform initiatives (to the annoyance of the two unions) — won in a landslide. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who successfully backed a referendum giving the Peach State the ability to authorize charter schools, gets  a second term. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy will likely win re-election after forcing the AFT (through the AFL-CIO’s state branch there) to back his run — two years after passing a modest overhaul package both it (along with the NEA affiliate there) strongly opposed. And in New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was snubbed by the AFT’s New York State affiliate earlier this year, now has a freer hand to take on the union and other traditionalists thanks to his re-election victory.

The only good news for the two unions: That Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett lost to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf in a landslide. But given that Corbett had been trailing Wolf in the double-digits for some time –along with the lack of enthusiasm among reformers tired of his unwillingness to aggressively lead on systemic reform (and flip-flop on Common Core) — this wasn’t shocking. Based on the early counts so far in California, the NEA’s and AFT’s ally, Supt. Tom Torlakson, may keep his office and beat Marshall Tuck. But it is still early. [Update: Torlakson is the winner by just four percentage points, a squeaker given that he is the incumbent in what is supposed to be a traditionalist-friendly state.] And even if Tuck wins, he would still be one of many players in the Golden State’s byzantine education governance structure still dominated by traditionalists.

But when you look at other races — including wins by two reform-minded candidates for the board of Indianapolis Public Schools (the worst district in the Midwest outside of Detroit), and the likely takeover of the West Contra Costa district in California’s Bay Area — it is clear that the NEA and AFT have been beaten. Badly. So bad that Weingarten cancelled what was supposed to be a gloating victory call with the press. Oh well.

Two lessons are clear in the results from Election Day. The first? That governors who aggressively undertake systemic reform (and smartly challenge NEA and AFT affiliates) will not only keep office, but can actually build coalitions that can help them on other issues. In the case of Walker, Kasich, and perhaps, even Snyder, their efforts even give them a chance to compete for the Republican presidential nomination two years down the road. When governors use their considerable reserves of political support to advance reform, leverage their bully pulpits effectively, be willing to suffer temporary political setbacks, and successfully built coalitions, they can achieve reforms that can help build brighter futures for all children.

The second: That the NEA’s and AFT’s influence continues to be in decline. This has been the reality for some time. But the inability of the unions to count on unquestioned support from a Democratic National Committee they have long bankrolled became especially visible this summer when the two unions made desperate and unheeded calls by both unions this summer for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign. That Duncan and the Obama Administration ignored them — and that other reform-minded Democrats such as Cuomo have done the same — is evidence that the once-strong ties between the unions and Democrats have frayed. Especially in light of the fact that the NEA and AFT will back Democrats anyway, the party has no reason to do more for the unions other than pay them lip service every two years.

But the problem isn’t just external. Especially among younger, reform-minded teachers who make up the majority of rank-and-file members, the NEA’s and AFT’s unwillingness to move on from the outdated industrial union mindset toward one that embraces elevating the profession has made them even less loyal to the unions than ever. This has been made clear in Wisconsin, where the NEA and AFT affiliates are merging after losing, respectively, one-third and 63 percent of membership after Walker successfully ended compulsory dues collections. When given a choice to stay or walk, many teachers will run toward professional associations who will do better by their careers and the teaching profession.

As for those who stay? They may not even be willing to come out and campaign for the NEA’s and AFT’s favored candidates. This is especially true for hardcore progressives among traditionalists, who are just as dismayed with the unions over what they consider a lack of willingness to fight hard for the established order. That the AFT, in particular, does all it can to clamp down on dissent through the tactics of its governing Progressive coalition (as well as by increasing the number of loyal retirees voting in elections) also makes it difficult for the unions to mobilize. This is one reason why Walker and others won this time around.

Instead of celebrating Tom Wolf’s victory in Pennsylvania, the NEA and AFT should abandon their outdated thinking that weakens them (and also helps perpetuate the nation’s education crisis). Or face their own abyss. All the influence-buying in the world will not help them.

*Note: Updated to include new information on the California Superintendent results.