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April 7, 2014 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle takes a look at a new study on the impact of advanced curricula on the achievement of kindergarten students, and explains why all children need challenging, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.

April 5, 2014 standard

A study published in the April issue of the American Educational Research Journal, for example, finds that kindergarten students learn more when they are exposed to challenging content such as advanced number concepts and even addition and subtraction. In turn, elementary school students who were taught more sophisticated math as kindergarteners made bigger gains in mathematics, reported the study’s lead author, Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago.

Another study, published last year by Dr. Claessens with co-authors Mimi Engel and Maida Finch, concluded that as things stand, many children in kindergarten are being taught information they already know. The “vast majority” of kindergarteners have already mastered counting numbers and recognizing shapes before they set foot in the classroom, Dr. Claessens and her co-authors noted, yet kindergarten teachers report spending much of their math teaching time on these skills.

The students don’t gain anything from going over familiar ground: In the article published this month, Dr. Claessens and her colleagues report that pupils do not benefit from basic content coverage, but that all the kindergarteners in the study, regardless of economic background or initial skill level, did benefit from exposure to more advanced content.

Discussions about how to improve learning for young children usually focus on the length of the whole school day or the number of students in classes, but rarely on what is taught during the hours school is in session. Increasing the time kindergarten teachers spend on more advanced math concepts may be a simpler and more cost-effective way to boost learning.

Annie Murphy Paul, in the New York Times, pointing out another reason why arguments against providing all children with comprehensive college-preparatory learning just don’t wash. Every child thrives when given challenging curricula.

The young mother’s voice shook with anxiety. She had just gotten her son’s third-grade test results from his school, and he had scored at the absolute bottom level in reading, and only a little bit higher in math.

“All year,” she said, “my son got mostly B’s on his homework and report cards. I monitored every one. And now I learn that all of that was a lie.”

Like many other low-income mothers of color in America’s urban centers, this Portland mother knew what low performance, especially in reading, meant for her son’s future. She’d even heard that Oregon’s prison planners used third-grade reading test data to determine how many new cells to add.

If she and her son’s school couldn’t find a way to turn those results around — and soon — she feared they amounted to a virtual death sentence.

I hear her words — and remember the fear in her eyes — every time I hear about yet another effort to eliminate the longstanding federal requirement that children in American public schools be tested once per year in grades three-eight and at least once in high school. Proponents of this change argue that students should be tested only once, each during elementary, middle, and high school, if that often.

I can only imagine how frightened that Portland mother would be if she didn’t have an objective check on what her son’s school told her at least by the following year — but, instead, had to wait all the way until he hit eighth grade. In the meantime, all she would have are the grades that research and experience tell us too often paint a too rosy picture of student performance.

Yes, I get that a lot of the anti-testing voices are from affluent parents. Certainly, when the results of state tests just reinforce the message (one they so often get) that their children are sailing along just fine, getting that reaffirmed next year doesn’t seem so important… But that so many policymakers don’t see through all this — and can’t imagine the anxiety of that mother and millions like her who can’t afford to wait five years for an honest evaluation of their children’s preparation for the future — is worrisome.

Education Trust President Kati Haycock, in the Huffington Post, offering a reminder of why testing is so important in helping all children get the high-quality education they deserve.

April 4, 2014 standard

By the time this weekend is over, Richard Iannuzzi will likely no longer be president of New York State United Teachers, the largest state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers which has garnered accolades from hardcore progressive traditionalists and conservatives for its opposition to the Empire State’s implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. And Michael Mulgrew, the boss of the AFT’s Big Apple local, the United Federation of Teachers, will have succeeded in his goals of ousting his chief rival for influence over education politics in New York State, in helping the local reassert its control over NYSUT, in helping national AFT President Randi Weingarten end the embarrassment of Iannuzzi successfully leading a partly-successful battle to kibbosh full implementation of Common Core (which the national union cagily supports), and, ultimately, in building support for his long-term goal of succeeding Weingarten as national AFT president.

But no matter what happens this weekend, the winner of the battle to control NYSUT will have to deal with an affiliate whose financial troubles will continue to undermine its goals of defending traditionalist policies, and the reminder to teachers — as a result of Iannuzzi’s ouster — that the AFT is only interested in listening to them when it suits its interests.

Why is Iannuzzi at risk of losing his place as one of the nation’s most-influential teachers’ union bosses? This is especially curious in light of the fact that Iannuzzi’s bellicose, occasionally Karen Lewis-like style has helped NYSUT occasionally beat back school reformers at the state level, and thwart the efforts of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has emerged as one of the nation’s strongest reform-minded governors. Last month, NYSUT won a partial victory against implementation of Common Core when it convinced the Empire State’s Democratic and Republican legislators to write a provision into the 2014-2015 budget barring student test score data from tests aligned with the standards from being included in student grades. This move, in turn, will likely force Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King to bar the use of the same data from being used in teacher evaluations, handing NYSUT (as well as the Big Apple and national AFT) another win.

But since this past January, Iannuzzi has been the proverbial dead man walking. His fate was sealed in January, when Karen Magee, a boss of a local in Harrison, N.Y.,  announced that she would challenge his bid for another term as affiliate president, and effectively gained the backing of Iannuzzi’s second-in-command, Andrew Pallotta, a former UFT apparatchik and Mulgrew ally. It was confirmed later that month when Mulgrew announced that the Big Apple local, along with those in Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers, and Syracuse, would back Iannuzzi’s ouster. While Iannuzzi retains the backing of 300 AFT locals within NYSUT, they only hold 24 percent of the seats on the affiliate’s governing assembly. The UFT, along with its allies, hold 56 percent of the seats on the assembly, and thus, have won the day.

The fact that Iannuzzi is heading to defeat this Saturday is just another reminder that there are few matters more interesting in American public education than intramural squabbling inside a teachers’ union. After all, the battles and the power grabs expose all the talk of union solidarity as just that. And this is especially true when it comes to the AFT, whose leadership — especially Weingarten — always claims to listen to (and represent) all teachers.

For seven decades, the union has been controlled at the national level by the Progressive faction and at the Big Apple level by Unity; Weingarten and Mulgrew control both coalitions. Both Progressive and Unity are ruthless when it comes to ensuring their hegemony over AFT politics — and beating back dissidents to their party line. For Unity, this includes allowing retired teachers — many of whom are loyal to Unity, and ultimately, Progressive — to cast votes in union elections, often at the expense (and to the ire) of younger, more reform-minded teachers (who now make up the majority of the rank-and-file), and traditionalist-minded Baby Boomers still working in classrooms.

Progressive’s and Unity’s control of AFT used to extend to NYSUT, the union’s largest state affiliate. In fact, the UFT controls one-third of the seats on NYSUT’s governing board, while Iannuzzi himself was a protege of Thomas Hobart, a Shanker ally who ran the affiliate for four decades. But over the past eight years, NYSUT has escaped from under Progressive’s and Unity’s thumb. Thanks in part to a 2006 merger with an affiliate of the National Education Association (a move that brought NYSUT back into the fold of the AFT’s counterpart and rival), and the retirement of longtime UFT honcho Alan Lubin as executive vice president of NYSUT and overlord of the union’s political action committee, the state affiliate has embraced a somewhat hardcore traditionalist agenda (as well as confrontational approach) that at times runs counter to that of the national union and the Big Apple local. Let’s be clear: Iannnuzzi isn’t the second coming of Lewis, who is the proverbial bull in the china closet. But within an AFT that has embraced a co-opt reformers approach to preserving its declining influence, Iannuzzi is more than willing to spar with the opposition.

More importantly, NYSUT has been willing to throw its political weight around, opposing state legislators and politicians that don’t support its agenda. This includes going toe to toe with Cuomo, who has been among the nation’s strongest reform-minded governors. Four years ago, it refused to back Cuomo’s successful maiden campaign for governor. This year, it was threatening to not back the governor’s re-election campaign — and in the process, make sure that one of its allies, the Empire State affiliate of the AFL-CIO, would also not give its backing. [This is why Iannuzzi fumed last January over a move by Pallotta to spend $10,000 in union funds for a table at a Cuomo fundraiser.] Cuomo doesn’t exactly need NYSUT’s or AFL-CIO’s backing; he is an overwhelming favorite to win re-election. But losing the backing of the biggest players in state Democratic politics would have been particularly embarrassing for Cuomo, who is likely looking to follow up on his gubernatorial campaign with a run for the Democratic presidential nomination (and a fierce battle with Hillary Clinton) in the next two years.

None of this is to the liking of Mulgrew or Weingarten, his longtime sponsor. For the ever-ambitious Mulgrew, Iannuzzi is a competitor for influence over education policy, both at the state level and within the national union. The fact that Iannuzzi has seized control of NYSUT’s political action committee from Mulgrew ally Pallotta (and therefore, has weakened UFT’s control over state education politics) is not to Mulgrew’s liking. More importantly, Iannuzzi’s aggressive stance against systemic reform also fuels complaints from dissident Baby Boomers within both the Big Apple and national AFT that Mulgrew (along with Weingarten) is far too willing to give in to reformers on rolling back the traditional teacher compensation deals and other arrangements the union has long fought to gain and preserve.

Meanwhile NYSUT’s agenda — especially against Common Core implementation — undercuts Weingarten’s efforts at triangulating the school reform movement at the national level; it’s hard for her to declare that the AFT some reforms (while otherwise preserving the status quo) when the union’s largest affiliate loudly opposes all of them. As it is, Weingarten has had to figure out how to deal with Iannuzzi’s colleague, Lewis, who has become the darling of hardcore traditionalists for her efforts to roll back the reforms undertaken by former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and successor Rahm Emanuel. Damage control against Iannuzzi has push back against Common Core is one reason why Weingarten is attending NYSUT’s pow-wow this weekend.

But in ousting Iannuzzi, Mulgrew and his ally, Magee (along with Weingarten) will end up with two big messes on their hands.

The first is financial. As Dropout Nation reported this past December, NYSUT is in a state of virtual insolvency. Thanks to the affiliate’s fiscal fecklessness, NYSUT has just $102 million in assets against $336 million in liabilities. Between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013, the affiliate’s pension and retired staff liabilities increased by 61 percent (from $190 million to $305 million). Considering that economic realities will mean that there will be fewer teachers being added to payrolls — and therefore, no new dollars for NYSUT coffers — the affiliate will have to raise dues even higher just to pay down its liabilities and at the same time, spend heavily on political campaigning. Some help may end up coming from the national AFT, which subsidized NYSUT to the tune of $12.1 million last fiscal year (as well as from the NEA); but the national union itself is struggling financially and must also concern itself with stemming declining national influence. Considering how poorly NYSUT has managed its finances — and the likelihood that Magee will be less successful than Iannuzzi in beating back reform efforts at the state level — rank-and-file members would be right to wonder if handing more of their hard-earned cash to the union is worth it.

The second is political. The fact that the AFT’s governing faction has ousted a moderately dissident voice within its ranks proves once again that the union only “listens” to teachers when it suits its own agenda. or both sides, the AFT at both the local and national levels hardly represents an organization that “listens” to teachers. This has always been clear. For younger teachers, the AFT has always proven to be more-interested in preserving seniority-based privileges (including quality-blind Last In-First Out layoff rules that protect longtime veterans at the expense of younger teachers in the ranks) than addressing their concerns about elevating the profession. As for traditionalist-minded Baby Boomers? The fact that AFT’s affiliates such as that in New York City structure voting rules to ensure that retirees are better-represented than they are is particularly grating.

This is no small thing. AFT membership isn’t voluntary; even those teachers who don’t want to join the union are still  forced to pay dues in the form of so-called agency fees. And when the union that proclaims to listen teachers does anything but, then it is time for teachers of all philosophies to move away from the AFT (as well as the NEA) and embrace a different form of professional representation.

April 2, 2014 standard

Certainly it isn’t a surprise that Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray failed yesterday to win the city’s Democratic nomination, and ultimately, lost his bid for a second term. As your editor wrote two years ago in The American Spectator, Chocolate City residents were tired of the scandal over his successful mayoral bid against predecessor Adrian Fenty — including allegations that onetime power-broker Jeffrey Thompson recruited straw donors so they could funnel $653,000 in campaign dollars to Gray and other candidates. Thompson’s statement last month during a court hearing that Gray allegedly asked him to lead this “shadow campaign” against Fenty, along with other new allegations of impropriety, rightfully stoked concerns among D.C. residents that city government was once again being mired in the culture of bureaucratic ineptitude, graft and chicanery, and race-baiting that typified city politics during the mayoralty of the notorious Marion Barry. And ultimately, the allegations aided Muriel Bowser, a Fenty protégé (and successor to the former mayor’s old city council seat), in her effort to end Gray’s re-election bid.

But Gray’s defeat isn’t likely fretting school reformers within the District. Why? Because of their efforts, it is more than likely that Bowser and her opponent for the city’s top office, David Catania, are more than likely to stay the course on the reforms that Fenty began and Gray continued. This likelihood, along with Gray’s transformation from teachers’ union ally to reform-minded mayor, offers lessons for all reformers on the importance of building and sustaining their efforts.

Whatever Gray’s other flaws, one can easily give him credit for staying the course on systemic reform. It wasn’t clear that he would. After all, Gray’s successful run for mayor four years ago was supported in part by the American Federation of Teachers and its D.C. affiliate, which spent $1 million on his behalf. For the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union and its boss, Randi Weingarten, defeating Fenty (and, in the process, ending the tenure of his school czar — and Weingarten foe — Michelle Rhee) was an important stand for defending the traditional practices the union held so dear. This fact, along with Gray’s own disdain for Rhee, made many reformers fear that Gray would dismantle the efforts his predecessor undertook — including successfully forcing the AFT to to accept a new contract that allows for the use of student test score growth data in evaluating teacher performance, and firing laggard teachers.

But as it turned out, Gray has proven to be as reliable as Fenty on the reform front. Upon taking office, Gray stunned the union (and school reformers) when he chose Rhee’s low-key protégé, Kaya Henderson, to take her place. While Henderson has eschewed Rhee’s high-profile approach to running the district, she has proven to be as hard-charging as Rhee in overhauling the district. Gray further dismayed the AFT two years ago when a mayoral commission recommended that the city replace shutter some of its traditional district schools with charters; Gray effectively embraced this advice last year when he allowed charters to lease space in 16 buildings formerly occupied by traditional district schools that the city was shutting down.By the time Gray embarked on his third year in office, he had all but distanced himself from traditionalist AFT rhetoric. Effectively declaring that he was pushing to expand school choice, Gray launched an effort to develop a unified enrollment Web site that allows families to choose between traditional district and charter schools.

This isn’t to say that Gray always followed the reform line to the letter. The mayor deserved scorn for his move two years ago to move half of the 2,204 kids in special education from availing themselves of court-mandated school choice into its traditional schools, especially in light of the district’s struggles to improve teaching and curricula for those kids. Charter school operators, who were among Gray’s earliest supporters, continue to be miffed at the mayor for not fulfilling his campaign promise to make sure the District provided equal funding to both charters and the traditional district. But for the most part, Gray has proven to be Fenty’s equal when it comes to advancing and sustaining D.C. Public School’s overhaul.

Muriel Bowser, who defeated Gray for the Democratic nomination for D.C. mayor, is likely to follow in his path (and that of mentor and Gray predecessor, Adrian Fenty) on school reform. Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

This didn’t please the AFT or its local. By 2012, then-AFT local president Nathan Saunders criticized Gray and Henderson for outlining a five-year plan that “only amounts to half” of what the union thinks the city should do. It also didn’t work out well for Saunders, whose own successful election to the top AFT local job was built upon his commitment to getting the city to go the union’s way; by the end of last year, Saunders was ousted by Elizabeth Davis, who like Saunders before her, promised to oppose reform. But like Saunders, Davis has found that Gray isn’t an ally of the union and its interest in restoring the status quo ante.

The fact that Gray has become the reformer no one expected him to be raises the question: Why? After all, Gray’s support for reform didn’t help him win re-election. In fact, one can say that Gray’s decision to turn his back on the AFT may have actually damaged his ties to the city’s Ancien Regime of which the union has long been a player, while, at the same time, didn’t win Gray any support among more reform-minded residents who backed Fenty wholeheartedly the last time around.

One reason why lies with the fact that Gray had no choice. The very overhaul efforts Gray opposed during his campaign have been one of the reasons why D.C.’s population has increased by 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, after five decades of decline. Particularly for black and white middle class households, the possibility that they have a chance to send their kids to a high-performing school has made the District a more attractive place to live. This was clear during the Democratic primary (and de facto mayoral election) battle between Gray and predecessor Fenty four years ago. If not for the widespread support for then-chancellor Rhee, along with fears that Gray would let D.C. Public Schools slide into decrepitude, Gray would have beaten Fenty in a landslide.

There is also the fact that Gray, as predecessors Fenty and Anthony Williams, long ago realized during their tenures, that overhauling public education is as critical as the presence of the federal government to revitalizing and growing the District’s economic and social fortunes. This is a lesson mayors in other cities, along with county chief executives such as Rushern Baker of Prince George’s County, Md.), have learned. Certainly education isn’t the only issue a mayor must address. As Gray, like Fenty, has learned the hard way, mayors can only succeed in continuing reform efforts for the long haul if they master keep crime low, attend to quality of life issues, efficiently managing city government, artfully divide or placate opponents, and remain relatively free of corruption allegations. But mayors can’t ultimately improve quality of life without ridding their cities of the failure mills in their midst.

Meanwhile there is the fact that reformers were key players in Gray’s successful mayoral campaign four years ago. Sure, most reformers backed Fenty. But Gray could count on support from charter school operators, who were miffed with Fenty for not pushing for equalizing funding between their schools and the traditional district. This fact, along with the support Gray garnered by longtime D.C. reformers such as Lisa Raymond (who served on the District’s board of education) and Atlantic Monthly co-owner Katherine Bradley (who co-chaired Gray’s transition committee) meant that the mayor could not ignore break with Fenty’s efforts without endangering his tenure.

The lessons Gray learned are ones that both Bowser (who is now likely to become D.C.’s next mayor) and Catania have also gleaned. While Bowser criticized Gray for not increasing the number of middle schools serving D.C.’s communities, her allegiance to Fenty (and support for the reform agenda Gray has continued) likely means that she will keep the reform effort in place as is. Catania, who serves on the city council as chair of its education oversight committee, is slightly more critical. But many of the reforms he has proposed (including forcing failing traditional district schools to either be overhauled, turned into a so-called “innovation school” free from the city’s contract with the AFT, or handed over to a charter school operator) differ little from those Gray has advanced.

Both Bowser and Catania understand that any Bill de Blasio-like move to turn back reform won’t serve them well at the polls. This fact, along with Gray’s transformation from AFT ally to reform-minded mayor, offers some important lessons from reformers in the rest of the nation.

The first? That they must continually build the case for systemic reform. This includes demonstrating the connections between the need to overhaul education and the quality-of-life concerns voters find to be more-pressing. Considering that mayoral control of schools is a new feature of city government in places such as D.C., it is easy for voters to pay more mind to matters such as crime than to the quality of schools.

Secondly: That they must constantly inform politicians, especially city council members, about why they must make school reform a key part of their platforms. After all, city councils are key players in shaping public policy, and thus critical to shaping education decisions, especially in mayoral control districts. The fact that D.C.’s last two mayors (and likely, its third) previously served on the council, also emphasizes the importance of reaching out to local legislators.

And finally, reformers must also build networks of support within their communities. As reformers in D.C. have understood well — and as their counterparts in New York City are learning painfully every day — it isn’t enough to hope that their favored politician retains office; reform must be sustainable regardless of who sits inside a city hall. Strong support for reform within communities, especially in the grassroots among families, is critical to long-term success.

The good news for reformers in D.C. is that their efforts to build brighter futures for the District’s children will continue regardless of who becomes mayor. As with Fenty’s loss four years ago, Gray’s defeat won’t mean that D.C.’s traditional district schools will slide back into utter ineptitude.

Featured photo courtesy of Washington City Paper

April 1, 2014 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle explains why we must take it personally — and even call people and their ideas on the carpet by name — in order to advance systemic reform. Failed ideas, policies, and practices have real consequences, especially for young men and women who look like our own children.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.

March 27, 2014 standard

I am a proud member of the San Poil Band of the Colville Confederated Tribe. I grew up on a reservation and attended Paschal Sherman Indian School. I have fond memories of learning geometry through basket weaving and studying star knowledge as a part of my science curriculum. My school emphasized the importance of aural learning skills and as a child, I developed the ability to focus and recall information as I listened to elders recite descriptive tribal tales. In the classroom, I excelled and worked hard to learn and exemplify the traditions and values of my tribe.

However, when my family and I moved from the reservation to a town an hour south of Seattle, I was faced with a harsh reality. I was nearly three years behind in reading and writing compared to my peers in my new school. Instead of embracing my differences or working with me to overcome my setbacks, many of my teachers decided that there really wasn’t anything they could do to help me. At school, I had few close friends and felt that even they didn’t quite understand me either. When it was time to apply for college, I received minimal guidance or counseling. In fact, I was never asked about my college aspirations, and no one took the time to explain the college or FASFA applications to me. Upon graduation, I had no college plans or a road map for my life after high school.

It was from these experiences that I gathered the determination to succeed, despite the odds, and recognized that the traditions of life on a reservation did not have to determine my ultimate level of achievement…

When I entered the Crazy Horse School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I knew I would provide a better educational experience for my students than I had received. My teachers looked at my Native culture as a deficit, but I would use my students’ as an asset… I understand how they learn and what obstacles they may encounter along the way, allowing me to exercise their strengths and quell their weaknesses…

I aspire to be a familiar face of hope and an example of promise for students facing adversity. But the work doesn’t end there, because we have so much more to do as a nation to grow culturally responsive teaching of our Native Students. They are diamonds, and they deserve teachers who excavate their strengths and allow them to shine.

Teacher Jamie Gua, on, explaining why we must do more to build brighter futures for Native children — and why we shouldn’t regard any child, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, as not being “college material”.

This March Madness, we’ll be pulling for our favorite teams and celebrating the players for their hard work and commitment – both on and off the court. And, while we may have differences in our final bracket picks, we know one thing is certain: many of the players we’ll be cheering for are student athletes who were given the opportunity to earn a quality education based on their athletic talents… Sadly, in the United States, too many children do not have these same opportunities due to gaps in their educational experience that lead to a lack of fundamental knowledge and skills – those same skills that are necessary to be accepted into college and to succeed in life.

That’s why as we focus our attention on March Madness, I  hope to shed a light on the true “madness” in this country – the fact that every 26 seconds a student drops out of school… To put it into perspective, an estimated 366,369 kids will drop out of high school while we watch the 63 games throughout the tournament. This is madness.

Charter school operator and former NBA star Jalen Rose, a member of the University of Michigan’s legendary Fab Five of the 1990s, pointing out on the pages of RedefinEd why expanding choice is critical to helping children attain brighter futures.

Loads of interesting stuff in this new New America Foundation report on graduate student debt–a major and under-acknowledged contributor to sky-high national student debt levels. But what strikes me is that a lot of the growth in this sort of graduate debt is directly related to public and licensure policies.

Consider: Fully 16 percent of graduate student debt holders hold a master’s degree in education–many as a direct result of certification policies that require individuals to earn such credentials to become teachers through alternative route programs and/or to earn a certain number of graduate credentials every so many years in order to keep their credential. Others earn masters degrees because of the incentive to do so embedded in most teacher collective bargaining agreements. The crazy thing is, research suggests most of these master’s degrees aren’t doing anything to improve their recipients’ actual skills or effectiveness as educators!

Sara Mead, in< Education Week, noting how traditional teacher recruiting and compensation is both costly for kids and teachers, too.