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November 13, 2014 standard

Yesterday’s revelation by Washington Free Beacon of documents detailing how secretive progressive outfit Democracy Alliance coordinated its unsuccessful efforts to elect Democratic candidates during this year’s election cycle have certainly stirred discussion. After all, for all the carping of progressive groups (especially education traditionalists) this year over the role of David and Charles Koch in financing political campaigns, the report by Lachlan Markey show that they are also far too willing to leverage money in their campaigning — and even go around campaign finance laws to do so. This includes the Democracy Alliance members working with Catalist LLC, the data hub for the Democratic National Committee, to use the party’s donor and voter data to quietly coordinate their efforts.

Yet school reformers should pay great heed to Markey’s report as well as to the documents revealed. Why? Because they also offer a guide on how the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are co-opting progressive groups in order to defend their declining influence over education policy.

As Dropout Nation readers know by now, the NEA and AFT have long been key donors to progressive outfits willing to do their bidding. In 2013-2014 alone, the AFT gave $25,000 each to Progressive States Network, Progress Michigan, and Netroots Nation, while handing out another $60,000 to Center for Popular Democracy’s Action Fund, which has campaigned against the expansion of charter schools and so-called “privatization” of American public education. In 2012-2013, NEA contributed $332,000 to Progress Now; $100,000 to Progressive States Action, an affiliate of the Progressive States Network; and and $30,000 to the Leadership Center for the Common Good Action Fund, one of the now-defunct ACORN’s many spinoffs.

But increasingly, the NEA and AFT are turning to Democracy Alliance for help. For good reason. As novelist Chuck Palahniuk would write, the first rule about membership in Democracy Alliance is that you don’t say you’re part of it. Such secrecy is especially helpful to the Big Two teachers’ unions, who are required by law to report their finances including contributions to political groups; they can donate to Democracy Alliance and its Committee of States, then team up with other progressive outfits with more stealth than they are used to having.

That Democracy Alliance is tied to many of the groups to which NEA and AFT already sustain through their coffers also assures them that they have (mostly) loyal allies at the table; particularly for the NEA, which has found that its contributions to nonprofits haven’t always led to reciprocal support for its agenda, the existence of Democracy Alliance is especially helpful. There’s also the fact that Democracy Alliance is a hub for some of the leading well-heeled progressive donors and political players in the nation. This includes Rob Stein, the founder of the organization, who was a longtime operative for former President Bill Clinton before becoming a seed investor in tech startups, and hedge fund legend George Soros, who is as much a bogeyman to conservatives as the Koch Brothers are to the left.

[Full disclosure: I am an alum of a Koch-backed nonprofit, the Institute for Humane Studies, and an adviser to Black Alliance for Education Options, which received money from Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Yes, I’m bipartisan like that.]

Over the past couple of years, NEA and AFT have become more-prominent players within Democracy Alliance. Last year, after AFT President Randi Weingarten joined Democracy Alliance as a partner, AFT began donating money to the outfit; it gave $60,000 to the outfit in 2013-2014, while also donating $30,000 to its Texas Future Project, which aimed to help Democratic candidates such as gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis win office. [That donation was part of AFT’s wider mobilizing effort in the Lone Star State.] Weingarten isn’t the only AFT leader or staffer tied with Democracy Alliance. Michelle Ringuette, the former Service Employees International Union operative who is now Weingarten’s assistant, also joined the outfit last year. Weingarten noted that the union would pour $233,000 into Democracy Alliance this year.

The role of the NEA is far more extensive. NEA Executive Director John Stocks (who is now working to coerce the union’s vassals to sign onto its so-called social justice agenda), has long been active in Democracy Alliance’s Committee on States, the hub for its activities on the state level, as well as a member of the organization’s board. This includes bringing in such players as Dave Horwich, a former Clinton Administration advance man who is now the mouthpiece for prime (and secretive) Democratic Party donor Fred Eychaner, to a Democracy Alliance event this year. In April, he replaced Taco Bell heir Robert McKay as chairman of the organization, making the NEA (along with the AFT) the driving force of its agenda. The union is also one of Democracy Alliance’s biggest funders, handing over $110,000 in 2012-2013 (including $25,000 to its Committee on States, the hub for the outfit’s activities on the state level). In fact, the union gave $634,278 to Democracy Alliance between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Meanwhile the Big Two are amplifying their support for Democracy Alliance by backing the array of organizations that are part of the organization’s network of progressive activists. Among the organizations: The Nation, the bible of the progressive movement, which became a member of Democracy Alliance’s network within the past year; its affiliate, the Nation Institute, became a new AFT donor in 2013-2014, receiving $10,000 from the union. Another is Demos, the progressive think tank; it picked up $13,333 from AFT this past fiscal year. The results of AFT support (and likely, the affiliation with Democracy Alliance) can be seen in The Nation‘s report late last month on Teach For America’s public relations statement (and misstatement that it was surreptitiously tipped off by Obama Administration officials about a Freedom of Information Act request), as well as an essay criticizing reform in Politico written by Demos scholar (and former New York Times columnist) Bob Herbert. [Note that The Nation didn’t mention its ties with the AFT or Democracy Alliance in the report.]

There’s plenty for the NEA and AFT to learn from Democracy Alliance. One lesson lies in how to get around the campaign finance laws that often serve as firewalls of sorts between the advocacy activities of 501(c)3 nonprofits and explicit campaigning activities of political parties, Super-PACs, and 501(c)4 groups. Expect the two unions and their affiliates to spend plenty of time understanding how Democracy Alliance works those loopholes — and then take advantage of them in their own activities. Given that AFT President Weingarten has snapped up key progressive players such as Ringuette into the union’s fold, don’t be shocked if Democracy Alliance staffers end up working for the union or even for the NEA, both of which offer sweet compensation packages few outside of K Street can match.

The question for the Big Two is how are their ties to Democracy Alliance playing out for them where it counts: At the ballot box. As you already know, it didn’t work out so well. Davis, who was heavily backed by the group and the AFT, lost big in Texas to Republican Gregg Abbott. Other favored progressives also lost big elsewhere. The rank-and-file members for both unions, most of whom are forced to pay into their coffers, can easily argue that the money both unions have sunk into Democracy Alliance was wasted. Both would have been better off devoting the dollars to activities that actually help elevate the teaching profession they both claim to represent.

Just as importantly, NEA and AFT can’t even say that Democracy Alliance is totally in their corner. For one, the organization’s board includes Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is both a competitor with AFT in the healthcare field as well as a supporter of school reform efforts through locals in Southern California and elsewhere. There’s also Nick Hanauer, the bedding products heir and tech investor, who challenged the NEA’s Washington State local two years ago. Add in the Center for American Progress, a strong backer of school reform (as well as a wayward recipient of NEA and AFT money), and it is clear that there are plenty of progressives who realize that the efforts of the two unions to defend traditionalist policies and practices fail to serve their political priorities. They also know that aiding and abetting NEA and AFT also means supporting a public sector union version of corporate welfare — or protecting the rich, as they would say — at the expense of poor and minority children as well as their families.

For reformers, especially centrist and progressive Democrats within the movement (who end up working closely with Democracy Alliance-backed outfits even as they oppose their ties to the Big Two), it is important to keep tabs on how both the NEA and AFT are structuring their political activities. With Democracy Alliance becoming an increasingly important part of their influence-buying activities, reformers must be ready to counter with even greater political savvy than they usually display.

Featured photo: NEA Executive Director John Stocks.

November 12, 2014 standard

Three years ago, Dropout Nation noted the rampant and abysmally high levels of grade inflation among university school of education majors. As Cory Koedel of the University of Missouri noted in a series of studies he conducted that were the subject of the piece, the average ed school major often had grade point averages often two-thirds of a grade point or more greater than peers in math, science, economics, and even humanities courses. This is in spite of evidence over that ed school candidates often earn lower grade point averages in their basic university course subjects than their peers heading into other majors.

Considering the shoddy quality of ed school curricula and training compared to those of such subjects as economics and the hard sciences, Koedel’s study (along with reports such as former Teachers College President Arthur Levine’s 2006 survey showing that 54 percent of the nation’s teachers are taught at colleges with low admission requirements.) was a reminder of the reality that there is no correlation between the credentials teachers are granted and their ability to improve student achievement over time. In fact, success in ed school doesn’t even ensure that teachers will remain on in classrooms beyond their first year.

So it isn’t shocking that the National Council of Teacher Quality turned up more evidence of grade inflation at the nation’s ed schools in a report it released today. The findings should once again focus reformers on overhauling how we recruit and train teachers — including bypassing ed schools (if not shutting them down altogether).

As NCTQ researchers Hannah Putnam and Julie Greenberg (along with the organization’s president, Kate Walsh), point out, 295 of the 509 ed schools surveyed had grading standards for students that were far lower than those for other majors on campus. At these schools, the percentage of students earning honor’s level GPAs is at least 10 percentage points higher than that for all other majors. Even worse, 44 percent of ed school majors coming out of schools surveyed earned honors-level GPA’s, which is 14 points higher than the average honors rate for other majors. An average ed school major is 50 percent more likely to graduate with honors than their peers in business and other areas of study.

The numbers get even worse. At 34 out of 40 universities where the percentage of ed school majors earning honors-level GPAs is 20 percentage points higher than for business, psychology, and nursing counterparts, ed school students account for the top third of all honors recipients, a far higher distribution than for the three other fields of study. In fact, ed school majors account for a far high higher distribution of honors students than nearly every other major field of study on those campuses. As Putnam, Greenberg, and Walsh put it, “no other popular major rivals teacher preparation for being consistently among the majors in the top third in terms of proportion of honors graduates.”

Why is the grade inflation so problematic? It’s because grades for ed school students, like test score growth data for kids in K-12, serve as a signal of how well they are prepared to work in classrooms upon graduation. A high grade point average, for example, tells an aspiring teacher that they have at least mastered the basics of working in classrooms and helping kids master their own studies. But this only works if the grades are realistic, and are obtained from successful mastery of coursework that actually prepares teachers for the challenges of working with the kids they are supposed to serve.

But as we have learned a long time ago, far too many ed schools do a poor job of providing aspiring teachers with the coursework and training they need to succeed in classrooms. This is a point upon which Putnam, Greenberg, and Walsh further elaborate in their evaluation of ed school courses. Far too often, ed schools aren’t providing criterion-referenced assignments, ones in which aspiring teachers must learn a clear scope of knowledge about a subject and are provided high levels of critical feedback from professors in order for them to gain much-needed challenge for growth and mastery.

Half of the 6,000 assignments given in 862 courses at 33 ed school programs surveyed by NCTQ were criterion-deficient, or lacked the clear scope of knowledge and feedback aspiring teachers need to achieve mastery in their work. Because these courses were so lacking in quality, students ended up getting plenty of easy As, giving them a false sense of accomplishment and preparation. The consequences of the shoddy quality of ed school coursework ends up being borne upon both teachers (in the form of high levels of college debt that can be difficult to pay off), by districts (who struggle to provide kids with high-quality teachers), and ultimately, by children and the communities in which they live.

None of NCTQ’s conclusions should be shocking. [Nor should the response from defenders of ed schools such as the American Federation of Teachers, which gave $69,333 to Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, a key player in defending the ed school lobby formed by last year’s merger of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.] As Dropout Nation has pointed out over the past four years, ed schools remain stubbornly wielded to approaches that have long ago proven to be ineffective in recruiting and training aspiring teachers.

Ed school professors, many of whom have never taught in K-12 classrooms, insist on filling the heads of their students with pedagogy (or instructional theories) that favor their ideologies instead of focusing on teaching practices that actually work for kids, especially poor and minority children in urban settings. Ed schools also fail to weed out potential ed school candidates who won’t make the cut in the classroom by using techniques developed by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee guru Martin Haberman and Teach For America, all of which focus on subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial self-starter ability, and empathy for all children regardless of background. Both failures are among the ultimate reasons why half of all teachers end up leaving the profession in five years.

Meanwhile the universities that run the ed schools are far too concerned with milking their cash cows instead of improving the quality of their instruction and coursework. This is clear in the fact that in many states, many ed schools are producing so many graduates for so few positions that most don’t go into teaching; in Michigan, Supt. Mike Flanagan noted three years ago that, two-thirds of the Wolverine State’s 7,500 ed school grads leave the state, either to work in districts in other states, or perhaps to go into other fields. What is quite likely is that savvy collegians have figured out that ed school courses are easy to take, so they gravitate to those fields with no intention of ever working in classrooms. Ed school deans with any pride should find this troubling.

Certainly the NCTQ report points to the need to continue developing alternative teacher preparation programs that are outside of the university campus. This includes further expansion of outfits such as Teach For America as well as Urban Teacher Residency United, which released a report earlier this week on how two of its most-successful residency programs can serve as models for teacher training. The efforts of outfits such as Relay Graduate School of Education, an ed school program run by a collection of charter school operators, should be expanded to the undergraduate level; an aspiring teacher can earn a major in math, science, or reading, while also taking summer courses with an independent ed school program that includes an internship with a charter or parochial school.

At the same time, states and the federal government must also be willing to do what the Carnegie Corporation did a century ago with the release of the Flexner Report on medical schools: Force the worst ed schools to shut down. One can easily argue that shutting down the worst-performing half of ed schools currently in operation — something that resulted from the Flexner Report — would definitely help improve the quality of teachers going into classrooms. Forcing those that remain to embrace the approaches being developed by Haberman, Teach For America and Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools (as well as new innovations in the field) would go a long way toward helping aspiring teachers become high-quality instructors.

But the need to move beyond the traditional ed school model extends beyond teacher training. As American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess points out this week, ed schools are still the go-to forums for education research. While think tanks such as the American Institutes for Research and Brookings Institution are increasingly big players in the field, ed schools are still dominant because of the patina of respectability given to them by their parent universities. Developing new models of education research activities similar to what is done by the Federalist Society on the legal front, a suggestion offered up by Hess, is definitely something to do. At the same time, it may be time for reformers (including charter school operators) to further expand the array of institutions outside of ed schools that can engage in research in new ways. This includes actually teaming up with charter school operators and traditional districts (some of which already conduct their own research) to conduct such activities in real time.

NCTQ’s latest report is another reminder that overhauling teacher training is as critical as ending near-lifetime employment to improving the quality of teaching for our kids. We owe our children better than this.

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.