Author: RiShawn Biddle

Tom Corbett’s Stand for Parent Power

If there was one state that could be considered the one most-likely to embrace school choice and Parent Power in meaningful ways this year, it was Pennsylvania. Just four years…

If there was one state that could be considered the one most-likely to embrace school choice and Parent Power in meaningful ways this year, it was Pennsylvania. Just four years earlier, the work of activists such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options and state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams led to the passage of a charter school law by the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature. Last year, school reformers had managed to secure support for a school voucher plan from both of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial candidates. And with a (theoretically) more-favorable Republican-controlled legislature in place, Parent Power and school choice activists could easily get a choice plan (either in the form of vouchers or tax credit plans that allow companies to offer vouchers to poor and minority children) passed this year.

It didn’t happen that way. The state’s National Education Association affiliate teamed up with school districts to rally opposition against the plan throughout the state. With two proposals on the table, reformers sabotaged themselves with an intramural sparring match over whether vouchers were preferable to tax credit plans (with the oft-contrary education team at the Cato Institute, which can never make up its mind about whether it wants school choice or just engage in martyrdom of ideological purity, fanning the flames). It then got lost in the much-larger debate over the state budget and cuts in education spending.

The biggest problem started and ended with the lack of leadership on the issue from Gov. Tom Corbett, who, as a gubernatorial candidate, made school choice a centerpiece of his political agenda. Corbett was seemingly absent from nearly all the discussions, essentially allowing the push for school choice to slip into the political quagmire. By the time Corbett corralled together state legislators to push them to vote for at least one of the competing plans, the session was coming to an end. Legislators were too busy wrangling a budget and working on Corbett’s other school reform plan — to force districts looking to hike spending above inflation to seek voter approval for their budgets — to craft together a viable voucher plan.

But now, Corbett is finally stepping up to push through a school choice plan. Besides a series of speeches, Corbett has gotten the state legislature back together to consider a package of legislation that would move the ball on reform. This includes another version of the education tax credit as well as the creation of a state agency charged with authorizing charter schools akin to those in California; expect districts and the NEA affiliate to challenge the latter with the same arguments being made in New Jersey and Massachusetts (and more successfully, in Georgia). All of the plan makes sense.

But the voucher initiative is the centerpiece. Under the proposal — which will face a senate vote by the end of the month — kids from households making less than $29,000 a year can get a full voucher of equal to what is spent in the district in which they reside (including full subsidy the Keystone State hands out) instead of having to attend any of the state’s 144 failure mills; kids from households earning less than $41,000 would get a voucher equal to 75 percent of the subsidy amount. On average, a family would receive $7,700 for each student, but can get as much as $13,000. Essentially, it is akin to the kind of funding follows the child concept Dropout Nation has long touted.

For families from low-income backgrounds, especially black and minority households, the voucher plan would offer one more opportunity to escape schools where educational neglect and malpractice has been the norm for far too long. These families can now take new steps towards helping their kids succeed in school and in life. More importantly, the expansion of choice will also help breed new activism for reform; families who have benefited from choice are less likely to docile and support those who have been far too willing to sacrifice the futures of children in order to remain comfortable in their jobs.

If the voucher plan is passed, it will start another important conversation: Expanding school choice to middle-class households, especially in suburbia, who may know that the traditional districts in their communities offer mediocre instruction and curricula, but don’t have any idea of what alternatives may be. Black and Latino middle-class households are already dissatisfied with schools that seem unwilling to allow their kids to take Advanced Placement courses and stay on the college track. And as Dropout Nation pointed out last week, the achievement gaps among between young men and women — especially those from college-educated households — are as common in suburban districts as it is in their big-city counterparts.

Corbett is finally taking the lead on expanding choice and Parent Power. This is good. But he can also do more. Proposing a Parent Trigger law similar to those already passed in California, Connecticut, and Texas would also help parents take their rightful places as lead decision-makers in education. Families could come together and force overhauls (including replacing the district with a charter school operator or a school management nonprofit they can form themselves) would allow families to bring good-to-great teaching and rigorous curricula to their own communities instead of waiting on either the district to finally overhaul the school or for high-quality charters to move in.

Another important step Corbett can take is forcing the end of the traditional district model of school operations. One way to do this is to require failing districts and those with wide achievement gaps to hand over their schools to a state agency similar to New Orleans’ successful Recovery School District; that agency would then convert every school into a charter, requiring that each is governed by a board of parents who can hold operators and staffs accountable for success. The families in each community can then vote out those boards if they don’t substantially improve student achievement. This idea, along with the Parent Trigger proposal, should be a part of Corbett’s next round of school reform plans.

By the end of this year, Corbett may join counterparts such as Rick Snyder in Michigan, Florida’s Rick Scott, Bill Haslam in Tennessee, and once-and-future Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber as strong school reformers. And Pennsylvania may live up to its promise on this front.

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Charter School Battles in Massachusetts and New Jersey — and the Importance of School Funding Reform

One of the more-fascinating themes in education reform over the past two years has been the successful efforts by the Obama administration and reform-minded governors in states such as New…

One of the more-fascinating themes in education reform over the past two years has been the successful efforts by the Obama administration and reform-minded governors in states such as New Jersey to allow the expansion of public charter schools. But debates raging in Massachusetts and New Jersey brings up one of the most-important reasons why charters have struggled so long to expand their reach and move beyond the big cities into suburbia: The artificial barriers — including school funding systems — that allow traditional districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to keep charters a rarity in the ‘burbs.

In the Bay State, traditional school districts and the AFT’s Massachusetts affiliate are lobbying for passage of a bill that would no longer allow the state to have sole approval over the opening of charters. Instead, authorizing would be done at the local level by the very school boards who also run the traditional school districts with which charters compete. From where traditional districts sit, the fact that the state dares to actually allow families to have any form of choice means that the schools are not “accountable” to districts and thus “undemocratic”. Even though the districts rarely consider the concerns of parents, they have made this a matter of democracy. Declared Brendan Walsh, a Salem, Mass., school board member: ““Are you going to support government by the elected representatives of the voice of the people?”

Meanwhile in the Garden State, legislators have spent the past couple of months considering Assembly Bill 3582, which would require the charter schools to be approved by voters in the neighborhoods that the schools would serve. If the bill is passed (and supporters of the bill can override the likely veto from Gov. Chris Christie), it won’t actually do much to stop the opening of charters in big cities such as Newark (where families have been voting for charters with their feet for some time). But it will likely keep charters from opening in New Jersey’s tony suburbs, which have long opposed any kind of school reform. As one would expect, suburban districts back the plan. But so does groups such as the NEA’s New Jersey affiliate, and the Education Law Center (for whom charters are a threat to both their influence over school funding through the four-decade-old Abbott lawsuits, and their longstanding view that more funding for traditional districts is the only way to ensure that poor and minority children get high-quality education).

As with anything regarding school choice, the issue for suburban districts — and their supporters among NEA and AFT affiliates — has almost nothing to do”democracy” or with local control. Given that states in general account for 48 percent of all school funding (in Massachusetts and New Jersey, it is more like 40 percent), they can shape what public education can look like; since taxpayers from around all states have to fund what happens in each school district, their concerns outstrip those at the local level. As the U.S. Supreme Court made clear a century ago in the Hunter v. Pittsburgh ruling, school districts and other local governments are arms of state governments and thus, have no ability for independent action outside of what state governments decide. Federal education policy has also made that clear; the No Child Left Behind Act actually recognized that reality by requiring states to set proficiency standards, meet Adequate Yearly Progress accountability rules, turn around laggard districts and schools, and expand opportunities for kids to get a high-quality education.

The real issue for suburban districts and their allies is that charters are competition (or as much competition as allowable in American public education) for students and the tax dollars that are collected for each one of them.

Even as big-city districts have been forced to deal with charters , state laws have allowed suburban districts to avoid having them in their back yards. In Missouri, for example, charters can only be opened in St. Louis and Kansas City, allowing suburbia to avoid them; in Tennessee, charters are only allowed to be opened in districts where there are 14,000 or more kids receiving free- and reduced-cost lunch. The fact that in many states, charters have to be authorized by local districts means that those who run them can easily limit their competition by making it harder for national operators such as KIPP and local groups of parents to open charters that serve their kids. This is one reason why there are almost no charter schools in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C. — and only one is opening in the area (located in tony Montgomery County, Md.), two decades after both states allowed for them to come into existence.

But thanks to the federal Race to the Top initiative, and the efforts of reform-minded governors and legislators, caps on the growth of charters have either been lifted or eliminated altogether. As a result, there are new opportunities for charters to spring up in suburbia. Also driving the interest: Families in those communities who are dissatisfied with the quality of instruction and curricula in their burgs. Middle-class black, Latino and immigrant families, who moved to suburbia in the hopes that their kids could attend high-quality schools, have learned painfully that this isn’t always going to happen. Suburban white families with kids suffering from autism and other disabilities have also found out that traditional districts are hardly responsive to their concerns; other families, who have found that they are spending money on tutoring that actually does what districts are supposed to do, want alternatives other than homeschooling (which they may not have the capacity to do on their own) or spending out-of-pocket dollars on private schools.

This hits upon another reality: Suburban districts can no longer hold themselves up as paragons of high-quality. No Child’s accountability provisions have exposed the reality that many of these districts serve kids from poor and minority households as abysmally as their urban counterparts, while offering mediocrity to kids from white middle-class backgrounds. As shown by the George W. Bush Institute’s Global Report Card, few suburban districts make the grade compared to schools in countries such as Singapore. For example, only 30 percent of students in Fairfax County, Va., would outperform kids from Singapore, and only 41 percent would do better than kids from Canada (a nation that is almost as diverse as the United States); a mere 31 percent of students in Montgomery County would outperform Singapore’s students, and just four-out-of-ten would beat out their peers in Canada.

Faced with such threats, suburban districts and teachers’ unions are using any means available to keep charters out of suburbia. In the case of Massachusetts and New Jersey, it’s the matter of the state actually controlling the process of approving charters. The districts rile up families satisfied with what they offer by arguing that their schools will be starved of local dollars that go to charter schools unaccountable to local regulation. They always fail to mention that charters are actually subject to much-stricter levels of accountability — in fact, must prove themselves worthy to state taxpayers up to the risk of being shuttered if they fail to improve student achievement and manage money properly. But given that just 13 percent of Americans can accurately describe a charter school — and the willingness of charter school foes to play fast and loose with the facts — it becomes easy for suburban districts to work state legislators who worry about keeping their constituents satisfied. This is especially true of Democrat legislators, who also think they still need support from NEA and AFT locals — even though moves made over the past year have proven that the two unions are no longer all that influential.

For the charter schools movement — and school reformers in general — the battles in both states are reminders that they must step up their political savvy, especially in a time in which the No Child Left Behind Act may soon no longer be around for reform-minded governors to use as weapons in pushing for systemic reform. This means stepping up lobbying, advocacy, and media activity — including explaining to suburban parents (especially those satisfied with traditional schools) how their families will benefit from expanded school choice. School reform philanthropies should also move down to the grassroots level and help families in those communities start their own charters; doing so will also show to families what charters can look like, fostering new supporters.

Charter school operators also need to find ways to include families within the governance of the schools they run. This, by the way, is a major issue even for parents in urban communities who are generally satisfied with charters. It will take more than just creating parent-controlled advisory boards. Charter school operators need to figure out how to take the saving grace of the otherwise-woeful special education ghetto — the ability of parents to develop individual learning plans — and apply it to their own operations.

But the most-important step must come from states themselves — and the school reform movement must press for this: Overhauling how states fund American public education in the first  place.

Considering that most states are already bearing much of the tab for schools (and that they actually control those systems in the first place), it would make sense for states to replace local property tax funding with state dollars. This would allow for the expansion of all forms of choice by turning the dollars into vouchers that follow every child to whatever school, public, private or parochial, they so choose. And it stop districts from arguing that reforms will cost them in terms of local tax dollars as their justification (as well as spur adequacy and equity in education).

But because states have not moved in this direction — and reform-minded governors have not argued for this step — what happens is stalemate. Districts can justify opposition to charters and all choice — as well as perpetuate the myth of local control — because they   are still dependent on local property tax dollars. At the same time, the districts can engage in hypocrisy by continuing zoned school policies that further restrict choice, and continue to provide their students with mediocre (and in the case of their poor and minority students, abysmal) instruction and curricula.

As a result, only a fifth of the nation’s children and their families can actually take advantage of some form of school choice. That’s shameful. Asking families to put up with mediocrity (or failure) and endanger the futures of their children is absolutely objectionable. Every child, no matter who they are or where they live, should be able to attend schools that can help them succeed in school and in life, and meet their needs, whatever they are.

Massachusetts and New Jersey could easily short-circuit these efforts against charter school expansion by taking over full funding of public education.It’s difficult to argue against local control when the states only provide, respectively, 39 percent and 41 percent of  funding for their public school systems. Same is true for other states. It is easier to push for (and sustain) reform when districts can no longer use local taxation as a means to keep in place a status quo that does little for children.

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The Dropout Nation Podcast: Beyond No Child Left Behind

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I begin mapping out a path for the school reform movement as the Obama Administration and congressional leaders begin eviscerating the No Child Left…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I begin mapping out a path for the school reform movement as the Obama Administration and congressional leaders begin eviscerating the No Child Left Behind Act and its powerful accountability provisions. The scale-back of federal education policy offers opportunities for reformers to use grassroots activism and political savvy — especially learning from the Freedom Rides and 20th-century political mastermind Wayne Wheeler —  in sustaining a decade of gains in overhauling American public education.

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

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Best of Dropout Nation: Elinor Bowles on Black America’s Choice in Civil Rights and School Reform

  If education is truly the civil rights issue of this time, then African-Americans — whose children are often failed the most by American public education — must be more-engaged…

 

If education is truly the civil rights issue of this time, then African-Americans — whose children are often failed the most by American public education — must be more-engaged in education decision-making than they are now. Even with artists such as John Legend and organizations such as UNCF and 100 Black Men joining hands with the school reform movement, far too many old-school civil rights organizations (especially the NAACP) maintain alliances with education traditionalists who perpetuate the harmful effects of poor instruction, lousy curricula and abysmal standards and practices.

In this Best of Dropout Nation from last year’s Education as a Civil Right collection, Elinor Bowles offered her thoughts on what Black America must do to truly achieve the goal of equal opportunity in education sought out by an earlier generation of civil rights activists. Consider her perspective and think about what you think should be done.

Whatever one thinks of Waiting for Superman or its point of view, the movie has made the failure of public education part of the national conversation–a much needed development. American public education has failed to effectively address the needs of its students or the nation. Despite the reality, known since the mid-1980s, that the nation’s schools are grossly inadequate, there has been a deafening silence about their dismal failure, particularly in relation to the needs of students of African-American descent.

The murder rate goes up, the graduation rate goes down and our youth increasingly end up in the wrong institution . Regrettably, African-American adults and community leaders have been seemingly preoccupied with other problems. It seems to take all the energy most parents can mobilize to take care of the needs of their own children. Scattered group efforts at educational improvement have led to extremely few sustained attempts at change, with varying degrees of success. Education is, after all, a complicated and time-consuming affair.

The discussion generated by Waiting for Superman has been promoted and highlighted by Oprah Winfrey, MSNBC, numerous news and special TV programs, and an excellent article in the September 30, 2010, issue of The Root written by R. L’Heureux Lewis, an assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York. His piece, “Waiting for School Reform,” provides an overview of the difficulties confronting efforts at educational improvement, including the enormous financial costs and the lack of comprehensive research. However, as noted in a comment by a reader, E. Cederwell, it only superficially touches on “the single most important element explaining the great disparities in any school’s ability to achieve educational success: the world outside the classroom, and in particular, the culture each young person is surrounded by.” Cederwell states that “the perceived value of learning and education . . . is hugely important. . . . Communities need to be ready to take a . . . searching examination, and, where indicated, be willing to commit to adopt certain values. This may be hardest of all.”

Query: What is the general culture and attitude within the African-American community toward the education of its youth, particularly those who are poor and often in great need of love and guidance as well as material things? In using the word “community,” we are not talking about a geographical space, but a cultural configuration of persons who have a shared history, values, and life circumstances. This focus elicits a multitude of complications, given the current lack of cohesion in the African-American “community,” which many believe is becoming irreparably splintered along economic lines.

The discussion generated by Waiting for Superman has focused on the funding of education and the roles of politicians, administrators, principals, parents, and especially teachers and unions. However, it has failed to seriously address the difficult, dominant, and ubiquitous role of the African-American community in school reform. What can African-Americans and their institutions do to send the message to our young people that education is important, that it is cool, that it is vital to the good life, that it is a requirement for an interesting and safe environment, that it can be exciting, and that it makes you a better, more desirable individual, mate and parent? How can we create an environment that convinces our young people that education has more rewards than merely hanging out and, for most people, more concrete rewards than athletics and music and selling drugs?

How can we make education a dominant, outstanding value in the African-American community like it was in the early 20th century? Those of us who were born in the early or mid-20th century remember the dictum that “you’ve got to be twice as good.” And we all know the important role of the family in forming character and promoting educational values. But as African Americans we also know that many of our families today have been so damaged by a variety of forces that they do not have the will or the resources to be what we are saying they must be in terms of an educational support system for their children. And while we must do everything possible to help them overcome their liabilities, if their children are to be rescued we must also do everything within our power as a community to compensate for what parents lack.

Despite the seeming lack of involvement of the black community in the education of its youth, many individuals and groups actually are addressing this question. Individuals and organizations are providing scholarships, from the Ron Brown Scholar Program, which contributes close to $800,000 in scholarships annually, to people who contribute a couple of scholarships of $500 a semester to youth in their church. People are becoming mentors and big sisters and big brothers. They act as tutors for specific subjects. Professionals and business people visit schools and lecture about the work they do and how students can prepare themselves for various careers. Others invite students to visit or work in their offices during summer vacation. Churches provide space and material for after-school programs. It’s not that nothing is being done. It’s that we need much, much more and we need to do it more loudly and, in some instances, in a more organized way. We need to find more ways to publicly recognize and reward those children who work hard to achieve. We need everybody to know how important education is.

Perhaps we need a national organization to do for education what SNCC did for voting in the 1960s. Maybe we can call it something like Community Campaign for Educational Excellence. Perhaps we need to clearly explain what is meant when we say that “education is today what civil rights was in the 1960s.” We need to make it clear that we are talking about a similar urgency and significance and deterrent to equality, not about tactics like marches or content like legislation. The civil rights movement of the 1960s eliminated the state and local laws that restricted the movement and behavior of blacks. The educational movement of the 21st century must create educational institutions that serve the needs of all of the country’s children.

There are multiple ways the African-American community can change its culture in order to create an environment where education is recognized and honored. These ways are limited only by the imagination. There are, however, three basic requirements: First, we must care about all African-American children and have a burning need to save them from the lives of violence and crime and unemployment and meaninglessness that so many of them are living or facing. Second, we must truly believe that all children can be educated. And third, we must be willing to reach out and touch — to contribute our time, our energy, and our material resources, however limited they may be, to the salvation of our youth. African-American youth, given today’s dominant economic and social condition and trends, are in grave danger. What do we intend to do?

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The Importance of Focusing on Achievement Gaps

One-point-two million fourth-graders in 2009 – 33 percent of the nation’s students in that grade that year — were likely functionally illiterate. They were not reading at grade level, were…

One-point-two million fourth-graders in 2009 – 33 percent of the nation’s students in that grade that year — were likely functionally illiterate. They were not reading at grade level, were struggling in other subjects that depend on reading such as math. And they are unlikely to ever graduate from high school eight years later. Another 948,193 students were likely reading at just basic levels; while they weren’t struggling as mightily as their functionally illiterate peers, they are barely at the academic Mendoza line, barely getting by.

Depending on their racial or ethnic background, whether their families are poor or wealthy, the zip code in which they lived at the time, or even if they are a boy or a girl, there are a lot of American fourth-graders who are not getting the education they need for success in school in life. Altogether, the majority of the nation’s fourth-graders were — and two years later — still are either on the path to dropping out or just graduating with a high school diploma in an age in which some form of higher education is necessary for attaining high-paying jobs as lawyers, accountants, elevator installers, and welders. Those who manage to find high-quality teachers (or, if they are in one of the few parts of the nation in which they can seek out high-quality alternatives to mediocre and failing traditional public schools) may be able to escape this path to economic and social despair. But for most of these kids — and for the millions of children in other grades — this is not likely at all.

These reality is why there is nothing wrong with what Rick Hess and others has deemed “achievement gap mania”. If anything, we need more of it than ever.

As Dropout Nation readers know by now, Hess has prompted a heated month-long discussion about whether school reformers should continue their focus on stemming achievement gaps as part of systemically reforming American public education. While Hess has certainly had some folks defending his positions, more evidence and commentary clearly shows that Hess’ argument is off-base. George W. Bush Institute scholar Matthew Ladner challenges much of Hess’ argument yesterday in his own analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2003 and 2009 exams.

As I’ve said in previous pieces, Hess has done a poor job of proving his argument that there are negative (and terrible) consequences that come out of focusing on stemming achievement gaps. Nor has he proven that the focus of reformers on stemming those gaps have has starved other topics of policymaking and philanthropic resources. As someone who has worked in — and with — a number of education-focused organizations, I can easily attest that there is just as much focus on such matters as school nutrition and bullying as on the problems of at-risk children.

But the biggest problem with Hess’ argument is this underlying assumption: That the problem of achievement gaps are limited only to poor kids of minority backgrounds attending schools in urban cities. This isn’t even close to reality. The fact that out of every four fourth-graders in a suburban school read Below Basic proficiency all but proves lie to assumptions of the contrary. The experiences of middle class black and Latino families in suburbia, who, along with white middle-class households whose kids suffer from autism, must often fight with principals and teachers to get their kids high-quality instruction and curricula, also attests to this fact. And don’t forget,  districts in rural communities — including areas of states perceived to be mostly-urban such as California and New York — account for one out of every five of the nation’s dropout factories.

Then there are the achievement gaps between young men and their female peers, which defy the perception of the achievement gap as just a race and economic problem. Just 66 percent of all young male high school freshmen graduate four years later versus 73 percent of their female peers. Forty-one percent of Asian fourth-grade boys eligible for free-or-reduced lunch were functionally illiterate vs. only 29 percent of their female peers; meanwhile 33 percent of young Latino male high school seniors from college-educated households read Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, versus 24 percent of their sisters. Simply put, our schools condemn far too many illiterate young men to special education ghettos, suspend far too many young men — generally at twice the rate of their female peers — and put them on the path to dropping out.

Hess’ argument ignores the reality that, for the most part, American public education serves up mediocrity to many of kids — and abject malpractice to its poorest children, to black and Latino kids regardless of their levels of wealth, to children in foster care, and to the young men and women its teachers and administrators relegate to the academic ghettos of special education. This week, University of Houston researchers Sai Bui, Steven Craig and Scott Imberman offered one more example in their Education Next report on lack of progress among top-performing students attending gifted-and-talented classes. The low quality of teaching and curricula is not only endemic in classes for kids considered too black, too Latino, too poor (and thus, in the minds of those who serve as gatekeepers to gifted and talented courses) too incapable of taking what are supposed to be rigorous courses even in districts in which they make up the majority of enrollment, it is likely to be a problem for students who get into them. After all, those courses aren’t necessarily cordon solitaires from the systemic problems within K-12 education.

What Hess has proven are these undeniable facts: That our nation’s ed schools fail miserably in recruiting and training aspiring teachers. That school leadership generally remains more ideal than reality at nearly all levels of our districts. That there are folks in education who aren’t innovative in their use of curricula, instruction, or information (and lack sophistication in using data). That the lack of strong performance management and evaluation (along with tenure laws and seniority privileges that protect laggard teachers at the expense of children) have helped foster dysfunctional cultures in which there are no incentives to embrace new approaches to helping kids succeed. And that all our kids, regardless of who they are or where they come from, are not getting the instruction, curricula, and school cultures worthy of them.

Hess is right that the conversation about achievement gaps tends to be far too focused on the abject failures of big-city districts — and has allowed education traditionalists in suburbia to argue against reform. As Dropout Nation has consistently shown since its founding, the systemic problems within American public education that help foster and exacerbate achievement gaps extend beyond Detroit, Indianapolis and Los Angeles Unified. Reformers need to consistently remind Americans that the achievement gap is not just a problem of poor kids in the ‘hood.

But the solution isn’t to move away from focusing on stemming achievement gaps. In fact, it is impossible to solve the nation’s education crisis without it.

As a matter of simple mathematics, doing so makes sense. Young men make up three out of every five high school students who drop out every hour of every day; they also make up more than half of all students. Black and Latino students make up the majority of enrollment in western and southern states, the regions which account for 57 percent of the nation’s student population.

The achievement gap focus is also fiscally sensible. One of the biggest problems in American public education is that we spend $594 billion without any strategic focus whatsoever. We continually fund a system that, as Hess himself pointed out earlier this week at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s confab on student achievement, wasn’t built to provide them with high-quality learning. Even the No Child Left Behind Act’s laudable goal of forcing states and districts to focus on improving the achievement of poor and minority kids only touches a smattering of the dollars spent. Far more children would be helped if most of the $63 billion spent wastefully on school construction was focused instead on intensive reading remediation and expanding school choice.

As Ladner rightly pointed out yesterday, focusing on achievement gaps as a strategy for systemic reform is also absolutely and fundamentally the American thing to do. As a nation, we believe in providing all children with an equal opportunity to get the education they need so they can choose their own economic and social destinies. When the chances of a child getting high-quality instruction is as haphazard now as it was when my grandmother was attending school during the Great Depression, it insults the very idea of our nation as the shining city upon the hill. And we cannot compete in an increasingly global economy when one-third of our citizens can’t read while another quarter barely comprehend what’s written in The Huffington Post.

Finally, it is our moral and civic obligation. Whether you are a Methodist, a Humanist, a Buddhist, or a Benjamin Franklin-styled Deist, we should all be outraged that our tax dollars sustain a system in which 1.2 million children a year are condemned to poverty and system before they even have a chance to determine their own paths in life.  We should work furiously, unapologetically, to ensure that every child to have a good-to-great school at the center of their lives — and should shame anyone who defends practices that keep this from happening.

The solution isn’t to stop focusing on achievement gaps, but to expand that conversation, explaining how helping our kids served the least by American public education also helps all children and their families. You know, self interest. All children are helped when we overhaul how we recruit, train, and reward teachers, and when we replace laggard instructors with dedicated, high-quality teachers. Every child, be they in Detroit or in Grosse Pointe, benefits from high-quality school choices. And the fewer dropouts on the unemployment line, the more money will go into the pockets of those of us who pay nearly half of the nation’s taxes (and shoulder the burdens of a welfare state).

Such an expansive conversation would do more further school reform than a misguided misinterpretation of problems stemming from the nation’s education crisis.

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The AFT’s Full Disclosure: $34 Million to Preserve Its Influence

Dropout Nation just got a hold of the American Federation of Teachers’ 2010-2011 LM-2 filing to the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s lovely. The nation’s second-largest teachers’ union spent $34…

Photo courtesy of the Daily News

Dropout Nation just got a hold of the American Federation of Teachers’ 2010-2011 LM-2 filing to the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s lovely. The nation’s second-largest teachers’ union spent $34 million on political activities (including lobbying) and contributions to what (in theory) should be like-minded groups. This includes $350,000 to the Economic Policy Institute, the think tank whose education studies always seem to dovetail nicely with the positions taken by the AFT and the National Education Association.

The AFT also handed off $150,000 to Build a Stronger Ohio, the political group which unsuccessfully attempted last year to derail John Kasich’s successful campaign for Buckeye state governor; $10,000 to the committee that organized July’s Save Our Schools rally; $165,000 to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network; and $33,319 to the National Council on Accreditation of Teacher Education, the group charged with validating the quality of ed school offerings. Given Sharpton’s vocal support for charter schools (and that another beneficiary of the union’s largesse, the Center for American Progress, is also one of the nation’s foremost school reformers) it’s apparent that the AFT’s spend — and the underlying strategy behind those contributions and advocacy efforts — is working out as well as that of the rival National Education Association. The union found enough money to hand off to once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch; it handed Ravitch a $5,655 honorarium during the reporting period.

As for the AFT’s leadership: They were well paid this year. President Randi Weingarten collected $493,895 during 2010-2011 (a 15 percent increase over 2009-2010), while her second-in-command, Loretta Johnson, picked up $369,408 in compensation, more than doubling her take from last year. The AFT’s top three officials earned $1.2 million, a 28 percent increase over the same period last year. Meanwhile working on the AFT’s staff is also sweet; David Dorn, the union’s director of international affairs, for example, collected $223,965 in 2010-2011, while David Strom, the union’s general counsel, earned $201,472 in the same period. Hartina Flournoy, the longtime Democratic Party operative who now serves as Weingarten’s assistant, earned $231,337 over that time.

Nothing wrong with Weingarten and her team collecting nice checks. But those numbers, along with the big spending by the union this year, points to the corporate nature of education traditionalists who love to perpetuate cheap corporate welfare rhetoric in their defense of the indefensible. Again, it’s what you do with money, not making it, that matters most.

A PDF copy of the filing (which can also be accessed at the Department of Labor’s site) can be accessed here. Dropout Nation will follow up in the coming weeks with additional analysis of the filing.

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