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October 18, 2014 standard

It would be an understatement to say that John Deasy’s last few months as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District haven’t been delightful. Those last days are the reasons why was traditionalists on the district’s board finally succeeded Thursday in ousting him from the top job — and why reformers in L.A. didn’t try to stop them.

Deasy’s ambitious effort to provide every student with an Apple iPad tablet, already bungled because of his failure to address the underlying information technology issues, came to a bitter end this summer amid revelations by public radio station KPCC that district officials surreptitiously met with officials from Apple Computer and Pearson Plc.’s education division about a deal a year before it formally went to bid. For traditionalists, that news gave them enough ammunition to call for Deasy’s head once and for all. And for reformers in the City of Angels, who helped Deasy keep his job last year after board president Richard Vladovic and the AFT local tried to oust him, the revelations made it difficult for them to help him out.

Then Deasy lost reform support when it was revealed that the district would disobey California’s Parent Trigger law and essentially deny families within the district the ability to either take over or negotiate with it to help their kids gain high-quality education. When Deasy went forward with the decision even though his justification for the move — that use of the Parent Trigger wasn’t allowed by the No Child waiver given to it and six other districts — was refuted by the Obama Administration, Parent Power activists and other reformers pretty much decided it may not be such a bad thing for Deasy to go.

So even as Deasy took other important steps to help the district’s children — including instituting a new school discipline policy that eschews the overuse of suspensions and referrals of kids to the juvenile justice system — he was a virtual dead man walking. So this week’s announcement was greeted less with outrage from reformers than with praise for his successes and a lot of relief that it only ended with a whimper.

In many ways, Deasy’s departure is a shame, both for him and for reformers. As Dropout Nation pointed out last year, the longtime school leader and L.A.’s reformers had a great opportunity to take even bolder steps on behalf of all children. After all, the failed effort by Vladovic and the AFT local, United Teachers Los Angeles, to oust Deasy was the latest in a string of bad decisions by traditionalists that put them on the defensive. Particularly for Vladovic, who had faced the possibility of censure for allegedly harassing current and former staffers, and for then-UTLA President Warren Fletcher, the poor handling of their effort to get Deasy out of the district’s top job weakened them politically; for Fletcher, it led to his ouster by hardcore traditionalists dismayed by his tenure months later.

Deasy and reformers could have gone bolder in this environment. For Deasy, it meant pushing the envelope further on revamping how L.A. Unified recruited, trained, evaluated and compensated its teachers, further supporting the use of Parent Trigger by families of kids attending its schools, and reviving predecessor Ramon Cortines’ earlier plan to spin off 200 of the district’s schools into the hands of families, charter school operators, and even teacher-led groups. For reformers, it meant gaining additional seats on L.A. Unified’s board (especially in December after the death of longtime board member Marguerite LaMotte) as well as building stronger support reform on the ground, especially in black and Latino communities in most need of systemic reform.

Yet neither Deasy nor reformers achieved much in a year’s time. Sure, Deasy scored a victory in June when L.A. Unified’s board adopted directed him to develop a so-called “equity-based index” — a version of the poverty indexes used by states such as Indiana — to direct $800 million in so-called supplemental funding coming from California state coffers to district’s neediest children. This was a key step in his goal of embracing a weighted student funding approach to budgeting, handing more dollars to schools serving poor and minority children while allowing principals to manage their own budgets. But Deasy played it to cautious up to that point, which meant that he made little headway on any reform.

After the win on weighted student funding, Deasy spent most of his time playing defense as the failures of the iPad roll-out grabbed more headlines, leading to revelations that his staff may have rigged the bidding process in favor of Apple and Pearson despite concerns about implementation. His failure to fully apologize for either the roll-out or for the failure of leadership in coming clean about the bidding process merely aided his foes and their sympathizers, including Los Angeles Times editorialist Karin Klein, who continued to demand that the district and Deasy fully account for the matter.

Meanwhile reformers didn’t win LaMotte’s seat. Certainly they did their best on the money front, pouring $1.1 million into the campaign of Alex Johnson, a former New York City Department of Education staffer who worked for L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The Service Employees International Union and Johnson’s boss, Ridley-Thomas (who is surpassing Congresswoman Maxine Waters as the leading black power-broker in Southern California) also supported Johnson’s bid. But because reformers didn’t do a good job over the past few years building grassroots support on the ground, Johnson ultimately lost to the AFT’s favored candidate, former L.A. Unified bureaucrat George McKenna, by seven percentage points.

Reformers also failed to heed Dropout Nation‘s advise last year to hold Deasy’s feet to the fire on advancing reform. The move by L.A. Unified to ignore the state’s Parent Trigger law had been in the works since November. But reformers, most-notably Parent Revolution, failed to make anyone else aware of Deasy’s decision until August (likely after former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, who authored the law, found out during a meeting with the district, took on the matter head-on). The impotence of reformers who should be acting boldly for kids when dealing with Deasy is absolutely shameful. They should have been demanding more and better of him.

The failures on the part of Deasy and reformers came just as UTLA, now under the leadership of the Karen Lewis-wannabe Alex Caputo-Pearl, began a renewed agitation for Deasy’s firing. Capitalizing on the iPad fiasco and now in control of the district’s board, the AFT local took aim at Deasy’s bungling of the iPad rollout while hinting that it would go on strike if the district didn’t agree to its demand for a 17-percent pay hike over the next two years. [Deasy offered just a two percent increase.] While it is unlikely that L.A. Unified will even agree to that deal, Deasy’s departure all but ensures that the AFT will get a 10 percent raise, as well as weaken the district’s existing efforts. Sure, the union will have to face Cortines, who returns to the top job in a caretaker role. But he doesn’t have the strong backing of a reform-oriented board (or a change-oriented mayor) as he did during his last go-round three years ago.

This isn’t to say that Deasy hasn’t done a good job overall as head of the nation’s second-largest traditional district. His willingness to side step traditionalists on L.A. Unified’s board (with the implicit support of Monica Garcia, the former board president, and other reformers) has proven crucial to making the few advancements in reform possible in the Golden State. It was his backing of Vergara v. California that led to the ruling handed down in June striking down near-lifetime employment for teachers as well as teacher dismissal policies that do little more than keep laggard and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms.

Deasy’s aggressiveness on removing laggard teachers and school leaders from schools also deserves praise. By 2011-2012, L.A. Unified removed 99 laggard and criminally abusive teachers, while another 122 resigned ; this is more than the 10 teachers dismissed two years earlier. Deasy’s backing of Parent Trigger efforts in the district (before his reversal of course) has helped families of kids in several schools get the teaching and curricula they deserve. In the process, Deasy helped continue Cortines’ efforts at ending L.A. Unified’s penchant for ignoring the desires of families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, for better than the worst the district offers.

Meanwhile he continued improvements in curricula that began earlier in the last decade under another predecessor, Roy Romer. The percentage of fourth-graders reading Below-Basic, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, declined by five percentage points (from 55 percent to 50 percent) between 2011 and 2013, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by three percentage points (from 15 percent to 18 percent) in the same period. The average L.A. Unified fourth-grader scored four points (or nearly half a grade level) higher  in 2013 than in 2011. These results aren’t unqualified signs of success  After all, L.A. Unified excluded 19 percent of fourth-graders in its special ed ghettos from the exam (tied for seventh among the 12 districts with exclusion rates greater than 15 percent). Even with that proviso, Deasy deserves credit for helping more kids escape illiteracy and reach proficiency in reading.

Yet Deasy has not nearly the strong reformer those in the movement, both in L.A. and nationwide, like to think him to be. After all, his tenure at the helm of L.A. Unified has been filled with has weak moves such as striking a deal with the AFT on a teacher evaluation plan that does little to actually measure the performance of teachers based on their success with the students they instruct in classrooms.Given L.A. Unified’s longstanding (and likely, never-reversible) dysfunction, some will say Deasy has done the best he could. There’s some truth to this. As I noted three years ago, district turnarounds rarely succeed because toxic cultures will overcome any individual effort (or even group action) to put it asunder. This fact is one reason why the average big-city district chief executive stays in the job for a mere four years. A Brookings Institution report on school leadership released last month further raises the question as to whether superintendents alone can achieve change on their own. And Dropout Nation has consistently called for L.A. Unified’s breakup into smaller school operators.

But as seen in the successes of former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein and onetime Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant, school leadership does matter. More importantly, strong leaders figure out how to take bold steps even in tough political environments, using every tool (from political capital to leveraging media coverage and advocacy) to make things possible. Deasy clearly had the skills and tenacity to achieve success — and did so on occasion. But more often than not, he didn’t push more boldly on reform. Even worse, he didn’t even take advantage of the breathing space he gained this time last year (as well as the defensive position traditionalists were placed in) to go even further, especially on the teacher quality front.

Then there is the iPad roll out which ultimately brought Deasy down. This is one of the few areas in which Deasy acted boldly — and he shouldn’t have. As in the case of another school leader, former Indiana superintendent and Florida commissioner Tony Bennett, Deasy should have proceeded more-slowly amid concerns early on about the technology challenges in providing the tablets. Given the tech market’s judgement (in the form of stalled sales) that tablets are not suited for the kind of productivity activities that children and adults undertake, it may have made more sense to just not bother. But Deasy moved forward without regard for L.A. Unified’s technology or operaional shortcomings — and it (along with the lack of candor about the revelations of behind-the-scenes dealings with Apple and Pearson) came back to haunt the last days of his tenure.

Meanwhile Deasy’s tenure also included some backsliding on helping kids gain college-preparatory learning. The percentage of L.A. Unified middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1 declined from 34 percent to 28 percent between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile the percentage of high schoolers taking trigonometry, statistics, and other advanced math also declined in that period, from 12 percent to nine percent. While it is possible that those declines could have been reversed by the time of Deasy’s departure, the dramatic declines in kids taking college-preparatory math cannot be ignored in any assessment of his tenure.

What becomes clear is that while Deasy hasn’t been the failure traditionalists want to say he was, the former superintendent also wasn’t the strong reformer kids in Los Angeles needed him to be. This isn’t the assessment many within the movement may want to accept. But it is the conclusion that needs to be admitted.

Your editor hopes that Deasy learns from his tenure and does better in his future endeavors. As for reformers in L.A. (as well as their allies in the rest of the country)? It’s time to regroup on advancing systemic reform — and that starts with looking at Deasy’s tenure for the missed opportunity it was.

October 15, 2014 standard

Your editor would like to spend less time on how the American Federation of Teachers’ spends its money to preserve its declining influence on education policymaking. But the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union keeps giving me more fodder — especially when it comes to Philadelphia, which has become an keystone in its efforts against systemic reform. Today, AFT announced that it made a “six-figure radio ad buy” in Philadelphia focused on whipping up indignation over last week’s move by the traditional school district to cancel its collective bargaining agreement with the union’s City of Brotherly Love local. This spend comes on top of the $2 million AFT spent in 2013-2014 on behalf of its local. [The union will hold a protest tomorrow.]

As you would expect, the ad isn’t focused on the fact that teachers are finally contributing something to their healthcare benefits (as professionals in the private sector must do) after years of getting it for free. After all, the AFT would then have to admit that the high costs of those benefits (which have increased by 53 percent between 2002-2002 and 2011-2012 thanks to deals the local struck with the district) is the reason why the School District of Philadelphia’s state-controlled board decided to not bother with renegotiating the already-expired collective bargaining agreement with the union’s Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in the first place.

Instead, the ad takes aim at Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett for reducing state subsidies to Philadelphia and other districts in the Keystone State by $1 billion. Which isn’t exactly so. For one, state subsidies for public schools (excluding funding for community colleges and higher ed aid) actually increased by 7.4 percent (from $9.3 billion to $10 billion between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014), according to state budget data. [This, by the way, doesn't include the additional $300 million that will be spent in 2014-2015 under the recently-enacted budget.] In fact, state spending for education increased by 38 percent between 2002-2003 and 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Chances are that AFT is pointing to the lost dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided an additional $1 billion in subsidies in 2010-2011 alone. But those were temporary funds, and therefore, were unlikely to be picked up by the state once the feds turned off the tap.

Many — especially school choice activists and Parent Power advocates fighting Pennsylvania’s Zip Code Education laws –can rightfully argue that the state should take over full funding of education and the reliance on local property tax dollars. But the AFT will never make that argument because it opens up the door for expanding choice, voucherizing school funding, and putting traditional districts from which the union draws its very existence out of business.

Philadelphia would be the only district that can make a case for losing out on additional state funding. But even that would be specious given that state subsidies increased by 38 percent between 2002-2003 and 2010-2011, before an 8.4 percent reduction in 2011-2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. [There's also the fact that Pennsylvania provides 48 percent of Philly's funding, which is higher than the 36 percent statewide average.] The district would have been able to withstand those reductions if not for its costly deals with the AFT local as well as a $1.5 billion building spree that ended up costing it plenty, both in terms of half-empty buildings that it would shut down last year as a result of enrollment declines (as well as a series of interest rate swaps that cost the district $72 million by 2011, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.).

Certainly the AFT could make the case that Philadelphia has been fiscally feckless for quite some time. But doing so would then point to the union’s own role in the district’s spendthrift ways, including those very sweet healthcare benefits for which the union is fighting heartily. And in the process, admit its role in Philadelphia’s virtual insolvency.

But in buying the attack aid, AFT and its local has once again reminded reformers and others that the AFT is far more-concerned about defending traditional teacher compensation from which it benefits than about helping children succeed or the social justice for which they proclaim interest. More importantly, it is a reminder that it will spend plenty to advance those interests.

This can also be seen in the most-recent reports AFT and its units have submitted to Pennsylvania campaign finance officials. The political action committee for AFT’s Philly local, for example, has spent $252,476.25 so far this year, according to data from the Department of State; the PAC has $661,450.39 left in its coffers that AFT national can indirectly leverage on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial nominee (and Corbett opponent) Tom Wolf, who has expressed interest in handing back control of the Philadelphia district to a locally-elected board if he wins the top office next month. As for the PAC run by AFT Pennsylvania? It spent $30,000 so far this year, and has $9,075.24 left. But it may also end up getting a cash infusion from national before voters go to the polls.

Altogether, the AFT and its units has $670,525.63 that can be used to further its goals in Pennsylvania just in existing political action committees alone. This is less than the 57,772.52 on hand for Parents & Teachers for Putting Students First, the PAC controlled by reform outfit StudentsFirst; the $5,000 in cash remaining for American Federation for Children’s PAC in the Keystone State; and the $3,176.05 still available for Democrats for Education Reform. All three, by the way, spend a total of $180,335.88 (of which the StudentsFirst PAC accounted for $151,335.88).

As Dropout Nation Contributor Dmitri Mehlhorn pointed out earlier this month, reformers are still outgunned by the AFT as well as the National Education Association on the money front. And this is clear in Philly.

October 14, 2014 standard

One thing is clear when you look at the American Federation of Teachers’ financial filings: It rarely spends money without an ulterior motive. Even as younger members demand that the AFT become more like a professional association focused on elevating the profession, the union continues to focus on bolstering its declining influence and even expanding its reach. This can easily be seen in Texas, where the nation’s second largest teachers’ union is spending plenty to oppose the state’s overhaul of teacher evaluations and gain new members at the expense of the National Education Association’s affiliate there.

These days, as the 2013-2014 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor reveals, the AFT is becoming an active force in the Lone Star face. In May, its Houston local filed suit against the traditional district to end its use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations. As far as the union is concerned, the Houston Independent School District’s use of Value Added Measurement violates the due process of their rank-and-file under the U.S. Constitution*, and thus, their ability to keep their continuing contracts (also known as near-lifetime employment or tenure around these parts). If the suit is successful, the AFT could end up filing suits against similar evaluations across the country.

Meanwhile in Austin, the AFT and its Lone Star State affiliate, AFT Texas, fought hard earlier this year to oppose the state’s overhaul of teacher evaluations. From where the union sits, the state’s move to require test score growth data for 20 percent of an overall evaluation under the new regimen is illegal under state law. [The fact that observations still constitute 70 percent of the evaluation while teachers get to game the measure thanks to a self-evaluation, all rendering the performance management tool absolutely useless, doesn't factor into their thinking.] While the AFT and other traditionalists didn’t succeed in halting the state’s effort — which is now being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the state’s No Child waiver request — expect them to work hard within districts (which are forced to “conference”, also known as bargain, with NEA and AFT locals) to weaken implementation.

Meanwhile the AFT is looking at Texas as a bellwether of things to come across the nation. The union is likely heartened by the Lone Star State legislature’s passage last year of House Bill 5, which scaled back the battery of standardized tests and effectively weakened accountability. AFT Texas supported the bill’s passage. There’s also August’s ruling in Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition et. al. v. Williams, in which a judge determined that the state’s school funding formula was neither adequate or equitable. The possibility of districts gaining more money means higher salaries for the AFT’s rank-and-file, and thus, more money into its coffers through the dues it often forcibly collects.

With Latinos and other minorities becoming the majority of the state’s population (and already the majority of public school enrollment), the AFT is also betting that the Lone Star State will go from being a conservative and Republican bastion to a stronghold for Democrats and progressives, the latter of which the union has long ago co-opted. It is one reason why AFT Texas took the time this year to endorse Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee whose already-sluggish run for the top office took another hit last week after unveiling an ad featuring an empty wheelchair that offended the disabled as well as Republicans.

But for the AFT, spending time on Texas isn’t just about principle. It’s also a growth opportunity. Even as the NEA’s Texas unit, the Texas State Teachers Association, has seen membership decline by 3.4 percent between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, AFT Texas increased membership by 14 percent. This growth is occurring even as the AFT’s Houston local has seen membership declines. With 40,000 rank-and-filers, AFT Texas is nearly as formidable as the rival TSTA, at least in terms of bodies. [Both are still slightly smaller than the 50,000-member Texas Classroom Teachers Association.] The fact that there are 320,000 teachers, many of whom the AFT can try to unionize, is also appealing.

But like TSTA (which has ran deficits for two straight years), the AFT unit is also struggling financially. It generated a deficit of $309,204 in 2013-2014 on $5.9 million in revenue. Since the affiliate also generates half the revenue its NEA rival does, it needs all the help national can provide.

So the AFT is pouring money into Texas. It has directly subsidized AFT Texas (including its solidarity fund) to the tune of $1 million in 2013-2014. That’s a 23 percent increase over what it spent in the previous year. But that’s not the biggest dollars the union has poured into Texas. The AFT has devoted even more money to the affiliate’s Professional Educator Group, which serves to funnel money ($12 per member a year) into its political action committee. AFT poured $2.9 million into the PEG last fiscal year. This is on top of the $4.5 million poured into it by national in 2012-2013. Altogether, the AFT poured $3.9 million into its Lone Star State unit and its operations in 2013-2014, and has poured $9.3 million into the affiliate’s operations over the past two years, making the Texas effort one of the biggest stands against systemic reform for the union.  Not one dollar, by the way, has likely gone to helping teachers improve their classroom instruction or elevate the profession.

But AFT spending in Texas isn’t just limited to the affiliate alone. It poured $100,000 into the PAC run by its Texas Organizing Project, put $21,840 into its Southwest and Mountain States regional office, and devoted $24,453 to the office’s Houston Organizing Project. The Houston local picked up $20,616 from national while the San Antonio affiliate garnered $62,790. It also spent plenty on meetings there. This included $20,372 for a Martin Luther King Day meeting at the Wyndham San Antonio Riverwalk Hotel, $32,921 at the Doubletree Houston-Greenway Plaza for “member related services”, and $6,608 at the Embassy Suites Downtown in Austin for another meeting.

Then there’s the money AFT gave to groups and individuals aligned with its interests. This included $30,000 to the Texas Future Project, an effort run by the secretive Democracy Alliance; AFT President Randi Weingarten is a key player within the group, but, like Fight Club, the first rule of Democracy Alliance is that you can’t talk about it. The AFT also paid $82,498 to Ross Fitzgerald, who used to work for the now-defunct ACORN’s Community Labor Organizing Center, for his “member related services”, and gave $5,000 to grassroots outfit Dallas Area Interfaith.

Will any of this spending help the AFT preserve its declining influence for the long haul? Probably not. Based on the ruling in the Harris decision handed down in June, the AFT may not even be able to keep forcing teachers to pay dues for long. But for now, the spending is the AFT’s stand at the Alamo, a fight to preserve the clout it has left.

*Updated to clarify due process rights being discussed in the AFT’s Houston lawsuit.

standard

No matter what your editor thinks of Karen Lewis’ rhetoric and defense of traditionalist practices, all I have right now is prayers for her to make a speedy recovery from her surgery last week to remove a brain tumor. As children of God and people of goodwill, we share in the pain of life threatening illness faced by our fellow men and women. Let us all keep Lewis and her family in our prayers through their tough time.

October 11, 2014 standard

The American Federation of Teachers and its defenders always like to claim that the millions it and its affiliates spend annually on preserving influence is nothing more than an effort to advance social justice. Especially when it comes to the donations the union makes to supposedly like-minded progressive and old-school civil rights groups. Even as outfits such as the Alliance for Quality Education and New York Communities for Change spend their time (and donations from the AFT) targeting reformers who threaten the union’s influence such as Campbell Brown and her Partnership for Educational Justice, union president Randi Weingarten and her traditionalist allies always proclaim the spending is really geared toward helping the poor.

Which brings up the curious case of United Students for Sweatshops, whose unit at Harvard University garnered attention last week  when it issued a letter to the Ivy League institution’s president that it should cut ties with Teach For America, the alternative teacher training outfit that has long ago showed up the nation’s university schools of education. Proclaiming that Teach For America somehow destabilizes public education, USAS’ Student Labor Action Movement is demanding Harvard and its graduate school of education stop working with the outfit unless it makes a laundry list of changes. As you would expect, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who uses her Answer Sheet blog to give voice to every bit of wrongheaded traditionalist thinking, wrote about the affair.

Considering that Teach For America attracts applications from one out of every five Harvard seniors, along with the university’s strong ties to the outfit (and the fact that, as with nearly every university, Harvard’s president wields little in the way of power in its shared governance), this isn’t likely to happen.

The Harvard affiliate’s move is just part of United Students’ much-wider effort against Teach For America. This includes a tour of at least five universities to supposedly tell “truth” about the outfit, as well as issuing letters such as the one it sent in September to cofounder Wendy Kopp and co-chief executives Matthew Kramer and Elissa Villanueva-Beard imploring them to meet United Students’ demands. This includes requiring Teach For America recruits to get “adequate training” from “an Official Teacher Preparation Program” (read: one of the outfit’s competitors among the nation’s ed schools). Given the overwhelming evidence — including a study released last year by the U.S. Department of Education (conducted by Mathematica) — that TFA recruits are more-effective than peers coming out of ed schools, I would say that Kopp and her crew should take a pass on all of United Students’ suggestions.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to pressure university leaders, a reactionary group that is always concerned about maintaining appearances with progressive and other left-leaning outfits, to shut the door on Teach For America’s recruiting efforts. Could it work? Perhaps, perhaps. But given Teach For America’s broad reach into higher education — along with its bona fide success in helping kids from poor and minority backgrounds receive high-quality education they need and deserve — there’s little chance of universities even bothering with that step.

But one has to wonder why would a group geared towards rallying collegians to the cause of “economic justice” and improving workplace conditions for low-wage workers is so concerned about Teach for America? Alexander Russo of This Week in Education, in particular, wondered if United Students was getting some kind of union support. To get to the answer, follow the money. And it leads back to Weingarten and her crew at AFT.

The union gave United Students Against Sweatshops $58,650 in 2013-2014, according to its latest filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. Thanks to that donation, AFT was single-biggest donor to United Students in the fiscal year; the Communications Workers of America handed the group an almost-as-hefty $55,000, while the AFL-CIO donated $12,415 to its cause. AFT is helping out United Students in other ways. Yesterday, staffers from the AFT’s Beantown local, the Boston Teachers Union came to Harvard’s campus to help United Students’ Harvard wing talk about Teach For America’s “shortcomings”, a stop-by that was mentioned by the AFT’s Twitter feed for organizing higher ed faculty.

For the AFT, the cash to it gives to United Students ends up being a two-for-one special. As part of the outfit’s Education Justice effort, it is also targeting Students for Education Reform, the group cofounded by Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin five years ago while they were attending Princeton University. As far as United Students is concerned, both Teach For America and SFER are not progressive enough because of their funding from the Walton Family Foundation (yeah, that anti-WalMart stuff) and other deep-pocketed reform-oriented philanthropies. The fact that United Students itself is being funded by the AFT, an equally deep pocket which garners its funds by forcing teachers (and ultimately, taxpayers) to pay into its coffers thanks to compulsory dues laws, doesn’t factor into their thinking.

Nor does United Students consider the fact that the AFT, along with the National Education Association, are no different than the companies they rail against. For the unions, who collect $2.2 billion annually from teachers by force, this includes corporate social responsibility activities such as handing money to United Students. This gives the AFT the patina of being progressive even as their efforts (including opposing Parent Power activists) only serve to preserve failed policies and practices that hurt the very poor and minority communities for which United Students claims concern. One has to wonder if United Students’ eager-beaver members consider these issues (along with the fact the AFT refuses desires of its rank-and-file, violates their first amendment rights through compulsory dues, and actively stifles their voice), as they rail against Teach For America, which has been lauded by reformers and traditionalists alike for an openness and willingness to listen to recruits and alumni. Guess they can be comforted by the fact that, unlike the NEA, the AFT hasn’t been called on the carpet for union-busting.

For the AFT, the largesse handed out to United Students gives them some mileage with the progressive groups they have long co-opted. As for United Students? The upside really isn’t there.

*Updated to include reporting on the Boston Teachers Union’s appearance at Harvard.

October 10, 2014 standard

There have been plenty of comments about the report released yesterday by Education Trust on school ratings used by Florida, Kentucky, and Minnesota as part of accountability systems developed as part of the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit. As you would expect, fair weather accountability hawks within the school reform movement such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute criticize Education Trust for clearly pointing out once again that these systems — including the A-to-F grading approach used in the Sunshine State — are concealing the failures of schools and districts to address achievement gaps.

From where Petrilli and others sit, Ed Trust is off-target because it is arguing for accountability systems that focus”gap-closing and proficiency rates” — the principle at the heart of No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision — that the new regimes replaced. Instead of going back to an accountability approach that was supposedly “demoralizing” teachers and school leaders charged with helping poor and minority kids succeed, Petrilli and others prefer the new approaches, which attempt to focus on the growth schools and districts make in helping our most-vulnerable.

Yet what Petrilli and others fail to admit is the reality that Ed Trust is pointing out in its report: That A-to-F grading and other approaches implemented as part of the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit actually do little to inform families, teachers, school leaders, or policymakers how well districts and schools are helping poor and minority kids, either in terms of proficiency, gap closing or growth. You can’t spur systemic reform if the accountability systems in place are neither transparent nor hold anyone accountable.

Even before Ed Trust issued its latest report, there have been plenty of concern (especially from the civil rights wing of the school reform movement) about the displacement of AYP with new accountability systems. For plenty of legitimate reasons. For one, instead of focusing on how schools addressed achievement gaps and subgroup accountability, the administration allowed states to develop accountability systems that primarily focused on the worst-performing five percent of schools along with an another 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps. As a result, states receiving waivers carte blanch to let schools and districts — especially those in suburbia — off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula to black, Latino, Asian, and poor white children. This was made clear last year in a report released last year by the New America Foundation that showed that 73 percent of 6,058 failure mills in 16 states identified under No Child in 2011-2012 escaped scrutiny under the waiver gambit a year later.

Over the last two years, new questions have been raised about whether the new accountability systems are transparent enough to hold schools and districts accountable. Indiana’s A-to-F grading system came under scrutiny last year after it was revealed that former Supt. Tony Bennett amended grades for 165 schools because the underlying formula couldn’t deal the nontraditional kindergarten to 10th grade format for those schools. Hoosier State officials cleared Bennett of allegations that he changed the grades as a favor to Christel House Academy South, whose founder, Christel De Haan, gave to his unsuccessful re-election campaign. But evidence that the underlying formula behind A-to-F grading was far too complex to implement in the aggressive time frame Bennett had set, along with Bennett’s failure to be candid about the decision, raised questions about the transparency of Indiana’s system, as well as similar systems in Florida and New Mexico.

As I noted yesterday, the effort to eviscerate AYP and No Child Obama Administration (along with plans from House and Senate Republicans, egged on by Petrilli and other Beltway conservative reform types, to do the same) is ditching an approach to accountability that has helped spur reforms from which children have benefited. But as Ed Trust research czar Daria Hall points out along with Natasha Ushomirsky and David Williams, the biggest problem with these post-AYP systems don’t honestly detail how schools and districts are doing in improving student achievement.

One of the problems with the accountability systems is that they obscure school performance in stemming achievement gaps, a key goal of systemic reform. This is a particular problem with A-to-F grading systems. Because of how the systems are structured, a school can be rated an A even if it has done little to stem achievement gaps, or does little better on that front than peers in lower-ranked schools. Hall and other civil rights activists within the reform movement have made this point for the past two years. But she, along with Ushomirsky and Williams illustrate that in the case of Florida,where the proficiency levels for black students in A-ranked schools are, on average, four percentage points lower than for white peers in C-ranked schools.

But the problems aren’t limited to A-to-F grading. Take Minnesota, which uses a three-point scale that features Recognized (or top-performing schools), as well as struggling schools which are either “Continuous Improvement” or “Priority”. As Ushomirsky, Williams, and Hall point, out, the average gap in on-track performance rate for black and white students in Recognized schools is 18 percentage points, a mere two points better than for peers in low-performing schools. Yet because the schools are highly-ranked under the accountability system, few would ever know this unless they dig deep for the data.

Of course, for Petrilli and others, the focus on achievement gaps is a non-issue for them. They argue that the focus should solely be on growth (or progress) schools are making in improving achievement for poor and minority kids. Certainly it should be a component of accountability. But focusing growth only works if the accountability systems adequately account for it. Ed Trust didn’t put much focus on this aspect. But based on what it has turned up so far, it is clear this isn’t happening.

Post-AYP accountability schemes such as A-to-F grading used in Florida and other states are obscuring what is actually happening for our kids.

Let’s go back to Florida. Thirty-nine percent of Sunshine State schools rated A in 2013-2014 saw declines in reading proficiency rates for black students from the previous year. Another 45 percent of schools rated B in 2013-2014 experienced year-to-year declines in math proficiency for Latino kids in their care. These are clear signs that schools are failing to improve achievement over time. In short, no growth. Yet families, researchers, and policymakers wouldn’t immediately know this (if at all) because these schools were still given the two highest letter grades. This isn’t shocking: Reformers in Indiana such as Indiana Chamber of Commerce education czar Derek Redelman were equally critical of that state’s A-to-F grading system because of concerns that it didn’t actually measure growth or hold schools and districts accountable for failure on that front.

These are serious problems. Why? One of the underlying reasons why AYP helped spur reforms that have improved student achievement for poor and minority kids is because it exposed how schools and districts failed to focus on helping those very children (as well as held them to account for doing so). The accountability systems that have replaced AYP are obscuring subgroup performance, essentially allowing the adults who work within them off the hook for doing well by the children in their classrooms. Put simply, these new systems are a step back for systemic reform.

Two other decisions made by the Obama Administration in its less-than-infinite wisdom make all this even more troubling. The first? Thanks to the No Child waivers, which exclude all but a few schools from sanctions, highly-rated schools aren’t likely to ever be penalized for widening achievement gaps. Second? The Obama Administration’s decision to allow states to implement supposedly “ambitious” yet “achievable” proficiency targets — usually with lower proficiency rates for poor and minority kids than for middle-class and white counterparts — allow districts and schools to do little to help those kids succeed. Because these Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets are tied to the accountability systems, low expectations for black, Latino, low-income Asian, and poor white kids are being compounded.

Another reason lies with the fact that these new accountability systems hide crucial data that all players in education decision-making, especially families, need to make smarter choices for their children. After all, a school that is top-performing in general may not be the right fit for particular groups of children, especially young black men who, along with American Indian peers, suffer the most from the nation’s education crisis.

Certainly there is a need for accountability systems to provide comprehensive-yet-simplified data, and A-to-F grading, in particular, attempts to make that a reality. But obscuring a key indicator of performance does no favors for families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who need that data the most. Just as importantly, what is the point of focusing accountability on growth if the system used for holding schools and districts accountable essentially don’t account for it?

Meanwhile Petrilli and other critics of the Ed Trust report fail to remember this fact: That policies are clear expectation in action of what we expect for our society. You can easily surmise that these post-AYP accountability systems essentially proclaim that state leaders (along with those such as Petrilli who support their efforts on this front) don’t expect districts to do very much for the black, Latino, and Native kids in their care. You can even say that they don’t even expect much from those kids themselves. And the children and families, in turn, probably shouldn’t expect anyone outside of themselves to be concerned for their futures.

Which makes the lack of concern about stemming achievement gaps on the part of Petrilli and other critics of the Ed Trust report particularly troubling. By being more concerned about how accountability supposedly feels to those working in schools than on the demonstrable benefits to the poor and minority kids who deserve high-quality education, Petrilli and others have failed a key tenet of being school reformers. You cannot proclaim you want to help all kids succeed, and yet essentially argue that those long-mistreated by traditional public education should be left behind. Considering that minority children now make up the majority of enrollment in American public education (especially in suburbia), along with the fact that half of the nation’s fifth graders are either reading Below Basic or just at suboptimal levels of literacy, you cannot blithely declare, as Petrilli does, that stemming achievement gaps is “a terrible principle to embed” in accountability.

Instead of criticizing the Ed Trust report, reformers such as Petrilli (along with state officials and the Obama Administration) should welcome it. They should then go back to the AYP model, then add on growth components that can result in a focus on both stemming achievement gaps and on growth in achievement over time. This can easily be done with a narrow No Child waiver similar to that granted by during the last years of the Bush Administration.

What Ed Trust has demonstrated is that the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit is damaging to children in ways we are just beginning to recognize — and that the opposition of some reformers to AYP is equally counterproductive. It is time for the administration to abandon its misadventure in reckless policymaking, and for all to once again embrace an approach to accountability that actually works for kids.