Author: RiShawn Biddle

The NEA Talks Out of Both Sides of Its Mouth on Teacher Quality

  When it comes to teacher quality reform, it is clear that the National Education Association likes to talk from both sides of its proverbial mouth. Even as its president,…


When it comes to teacher quality reform, it is clear that the National Education Association likes to talk from both sides of its proverbial mouth. Even as its president, Dennis Van Roekel, proclaims support for efforts such as the proposed ed school accountability plan proposed by U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, the nation’s largest teachers’ union works hard to successfully scuttled efforts such as the recently-excised proposal in the Harkin-Enzi plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act that would have required states use student test score data in teacher and principal evaluations.

So it is curious to see the NEA join together with 80 other organizations — including fellow-travelers such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (along with its legal defense fund), and the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education — in demanding that Senate Democrats actually be concerned about teacher quality when they mark up the Harkin-Enzi plan this morning. Under the umbrella of the so-called National Coalition on Teacher Quality, the NEA and its allies say they are concerned that the Harkin-Enzi plan “undermines the critical goal of providing all children with equal access to competent teachers”. From where they sit, the plan essentially renders No Child’s Highly Qualified Teacher provision meaningless by allowing “untrained, novice teachers” to teach poor and minority kids, and thus denying them experienced, competent instructors. And they want Senate Democrats to pass an amendment being offered up by Vermont’s Bernie Sanders that would “address our concerns.”

It would be nice to think that the NEA signed on to this letter because it actually cares about helping poor and minority kids get high-quality teachers. But that would require your editor to suspend all forms of reasonable skepticism. The real issue has actually has little to do with preserving the No Child’s Highly Qualified Teacher provision — which even most reformers agree is already rather meaningless thanks to moves by states to grandfather in veteran teachers. Instead, it is about the longstanding effort by the NEA and their allies among the nation’s university schools of education to stop the expansion of Teach For America and other alternative teacher certification programs, the vanguards of the teacher quality reform movement.

Under Harkin-Enzi, new teachers trained by TFA, The New Teacher Project and other alternative teacher training outfits could be considered Highly Qualified under federal law. The proposal, in part a response to a federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling handed down last year that struck down efforts to allow those aspiring teachers (many of whom hadn’t yet received full certification in California and other states covered by that appellate court) to be considered highly qualified under federal law. Congress allowed for this to happen last year during one of the many wranglings over the federal budget. But now, Harkin and Enzi are pushing to ensure that it remains codified under No Child, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that is the centerpiece of federal education policy.

This doesn’t sit well with either the NEA or its fellow-travelers among the nation’s ed schools, which train all but a smattering of the nation’s 200,000 newly-minted teachers entering the profession. So they have recruited Sanders — who has never met a teachers’ union proposal (or any union plan) he didn’t like — to counter Harkin’s and Enzi’s plan on this front. Under his proposal, TFA and TNTP trainees couldn’t be considered Highly Qualified until they either passed state certification or been trained in an ed school (or other state-approved teacher training program). This would particularly hurt TNTP, the offshoot of TFA, which provides new teachers to some of the nation’s most reform-minded districts. Add in the fact that 23 states don’t allow for any alternate teacher training programs of any kind, and suddenly, you now have new restrictions on innovative ways of training teachers — which would certainly please the ed school crowd.

Now, one can argue reasonably that newly-trained teachers coming out of alternative teacher training programs are still rookies, and thus, haven’t proven themselves to be high-quality teachers. But this is true of all rookie teachers, especially those from ed schools. As University of Washington Bothell scholars Dan Goldhaber and Stephanie Liddle  noted in a recently-released report on teacher quality in Washington State’s schools, teachers with three-to-five years of experience outperform those just entering the profession by at least six-percent of a standard deviation based on the model. (But teachers generally don’t improve their performance after four years on the job.)

But this argument over certification is senseless. A decade of research has largely proven that there is little correlation between a teacher’s certification and their success in improving student achievement. Essentially, the nation’s system of teacher certification has largely been a failure when it comes to ensuring high-quality instructors for traditional public and charter schools, regardless of the backgrounds of the children they serve. And No Child’s Highly Qualified Teacher provision, while a good idea when it was first enacted as part of that law’s passage a decade, is not worth preserving in its current form, especially in an age in which we have some tools to identify high-quality instructors.

What is starting to come to fore is that there is some slight correlation between the kind of institution training aspiring teachers and student achievement. And in some cases, the ed schools are coming up short compared to their alternative counterparts (many of which, by the way, are affiliates of these very ed schools). In Louisiana, for example, TNTP was the state’s top teacher training program when it comes to mathematics, with its graduates performing two times better than the best traditional ed school, housed at the University of New Orleans (UNO’s graduates, in turn, only slightly outperformed their traditional ed school peers). And over the past few years, studies have shown that TFA grads either perform as well or outperform their traditional ed school counterparts.

The real issue isn’t that TFA trainees and their colleagues from other alternative certification programs shouldn’t be designated Highly Qualified. The real issue is that the current system of recruiting, training, paying and evaluating America’s teachers is ineffective in ensuring that every child has a chance at being taught by a high-quality teacher. From the reality that 54 percent of teachers are trained at universities with low entrance requirements, to the abysmal quality of teacher preparation by many of those schools, to the system of seniority- and degree-based pay scales that reward teachers for merely occupying space instead of for successful work in helping children succeed, to seniority-based privileges that allow experienced teachers to leave schools serving poor kids for what they consider to be better spots (and also allow laggard veterans to bump better-performing junior colleagues from their assignments), all of our children — especially our poorest and minority kids — are cheated out of high-quality instruction. Sanders’ amendment won’t do a wit to solve this problem.

What can improve teacher quality — and help every child get the high-quality teaching they deserve — is the restructure of the entire process of recruiting, training, and managing the performance of teachers. One step in achieving this element of systemically reforming education lies in requiring the use of Value-Added analysis of student test data in evaluating teachers, something that the Harkin-Enzi plan for revamping No Child originally aimed to do. But the NEA, along with the American Federation of Teachers, strongly opposed that effort (along with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which has nudged states such as New York in taking those steps). The NEA would also likely oppose one of Dropout Nation‘s suggestions for teacher quality reform: Launching a Race to the Top-styled program that would award states and districts additional dollars in exchange for abolishing near-lifetime employment for teachers in the form of tenure (one of the reasons behind the abysmal quality of America’s teaching corps) and enacting laws that would only allow a teacher to be considered high-quality after proving that they can improve student achievement consistently over the first five years of their career. After all, they would lose more than a few dues-paying members.

Add in the fact that the NEA continues to finance the efforts of ed schools to avoid reform — including $252,262 the union gave in 2008-2009 to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the main trade group for ed schools — and it’s hard to take the NEA seriously when it comes to the matter of teacher quality. Actually, when it comes to actually doing something to improve the teaching profession — and helping poor and minority kids get high-quality instruction — the NEA doesn’t live up to the mission statement Van Roekel touts constantly during his speeches.

But this is one matter that can’t be laid at the feet of the NEA alone. A number of the signatories that are supposed to be dedicated to improving education for black and Latino children — including the NAACP — also deserve look askance for joining common cause with the union for supporting amendment that will actually do little to improve teacher quality. The NAACP, which hasn’t covered itself in glory on the school reform front, should be particularly ashamed for continuing an alliance with the NEA that harms the very black children it vows to protect and defend.

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Challenging Education’s Status Quo, One Parent at a Time

As far as education traditionalists are concerned, families are to be barely seen — and never heard. For them, the very idea of families taking their rightful roles as lead…

As far as education traditionalists are concerned, families are to be barely seen — and never heard. For them, the very idea of families taking their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education is absolutely unacceptable. After all, how dare mothers and fathers actually demand the ability to choose high-quality schools, overhaul failure mills and factories of mediocrity, and hold teachers, principals and superintendents accountable for improving student achievement? Such ideas, an anathema since the days of Horace Mann, cannot possibly be tolerated even if education traditionalists continue to embrace practices that fail the children in their care.

Such sentiments have become especially prevalent in the past couple of months as education traditionalists have been forced to deal with the nation’s growing Parent Power movement. With 13 states having either launching and expanding school voucher plans, and 19 states partly lifting or abolishing arbitrary limits on the growth of charter schools, families have more opportunities to escape schools that poorly serve their children. The passage of Parent Trigger laws in California, Texas and Connecticut have also given parents more influence in actually forcing the overhaul of failure factories and removing those schools from the control of districts that have long fostered educational neglect and malpractice. And with Michigan’s state senate moving yesterday to pass a proposal to abolish its restrictions on charter school expansion — and Gov. Rick Snyder’s effort to expand public school choice and allow kids to attend any school throughout the Wolverine State — Parent Power and school choice are becoming more prominent than ever.

But as Dropout Nation noted in August after revealing the American Federation of Teachers’ presentation on how its Connecticut affiliate weakened the state’s Parent Trigger law, any expansion of Parent Power is considered a threat — especially if it solely gives families full control instead of the “collaborative” (or, as your editor likes to call it, protect teachers’ union and status quo influence) model they prefer. And their allies are more than willing to argue against choice and Parent Power on their behalf.

Once-respectable New York University education historian Diane Ravitch complained earlier this month that Parent Trigger laws are merely “a stealth assault on public education” that goes against the role of schools as “a public trust” that “doesn’t belong to the students who are currently enrolled in it or their parents.” Then there is San Francisco State University professor Mark Phillips, who declares on Valerie Strauss’ blog that Parent Trigger laws are “foolish and potentially destructive” to education. Why? Because, as far as he is concerned, the laws (and school choice in general) gives power to ” to individuals who have neither the expertise nor the knowledge base needed to make the right decisions.” Such sentiments extend to school choice as well.

It’s all so sweet for Ravitch, Phillips and others to talk about education as some form of “public trust” when it suits their interests. Unfortunately, families have no reason to continue to place their trust in schools that, despite claims by those who run them that they are experts, have continually failed their children. Especially when they treat families as afterthoughts and nuisances unworthy of their consideration.

As Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement, urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.” Certainly some of this has to do with the negative experiences these parents have had with schools — especially those failure mills that they once attended and to which their children now go. But it is also about the fact that there are many teachers who look at parents — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — with condescension and disdain.

The reality is that we have far too many teachers who look down on poor urban parents who may not be capable of helping their kids because of their own learning issues; who are hostile to those families who want to take an active role in shaping the education their kids receive in school; and would rather keep those families servile. And it’s not just these teachers: As revealed in survey of Houston principals conducted by the New Teacher Project, administrators who felt they didn’t have time to handle teacher evaluations and serve as instructional leaders wanted to spend less time working with parents. As Dr. Steve Perry noted in his book, Push Has Come to Shove, the way schools deal with parents of all backgrounds (especially poor families) is particularly disdainful; from inconveniently-scheduled parent-teacher conferences, to the lack of meaningful communication about student progress until it is far too late to help kids succeed, traditional districts offer little to parents. It is ridiculous to ask families in these failure mills to “trust” schools that have failed children for decades.

The beauty of vouchers, charter schools and Parent Trigger laws is that these tools not only allows families to actually help their kids succeed in school and in life, they also spur parents to be fully engaged in education and learn more about how their kids can get a high-quality education. As James Guthrie of the George W. Bush Institute has pointed out, the only real way that families can really be engaged in schools is if they actually have the ability to actually shape the education their kids receive. They also become the kind of unabashed school reformers and impromptu leaders we need to overhaul American public education.

Certainly these families need tools in order to make smart decisions; this is why robust school data systems that inform parents about the performance of schools — along with the kind of school accountability and reporting of data on student achievement fostered by the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act a decade ago. But parents are capable of making smart decisions when they have the power to do so. And they can actually spur reform — and challenge the status quo — both by demanding better for their kids and escaping schools that are unworthy of their families and communities.

But the need for Parent Power isn’t just limited to urban dropout factories. The penchant for many teachers and administrators to treat families as nuisances and afterthoughts is as strong in suburbia — where parents supposedly have the clout to force change — as it is in big-city districts. Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews made that clear earlier this month when he wrote about the fracas between parents at Leesburg Elementary School in Virginia’s Loudoun County and the school’s principal. When parents demanded that the school provide better accounting of funds raised by families through its parents-teachers organization, communicate more-effectively with them, and offer more details on how the school was helping kids improve their achievement (and meet Virginia’s state standards), the principal, Clarke Magruder, didn’t exactly pay them any mind. The Loudoun County district itself proved far more-interested in defending Magruder’s record than being responsive to these families.

These are just the suburban families from white middle class backgrounds. For black, Asian and Latino families, especially those from poor backgrounds and others entering the middle class for the first time, they are finding out that suburban schools can be just as abysmal as the urban dropout factories they fled, and that the racial divides can be just as deep. Their kids are often afterthoughts in instruction and curricula.  As University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacy noted in Blue-Chip Black, her sociological study of middle-class black families in the area surrounding the nation’s capital, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs. They are often not informed about their options for preparing their kids for success in school and in life, including opportunities to take Advanced Placement courses or participate in the growing number of dual-credit programs that allow them to take community college courses that they can use for getting ready for the rigors of higher education.

For these families, the need for options that better-suit their educational goals is one that most traditional districts cannot (and often, will not) meet. Allowing for those families to participate fully in structuring education for their children — or leave for charters and private schools that will allow them to do so — is as important for them as it is for their counterparts in urban communities. More importantly, expanding Parent Power and choice also helps suburban families fully understand the depths of the nation’s education crisis. An increasing number of suburban families already understand that education is critical to helping their kids remain in the middle class — and yet, the schools their kids attend offer instruction and curricula that lag behind Singapore, Canada and other nations. But other families won’t acknowledge this reality until there are high-quality alternatives to the laggard schools in their communities. Once those families see better, they can also demand better, breaking ranks with education traditionalists who see them as little more than foot soldiers for preserving their privileges.

But it isn’t enough to just expand choice and Parent Power. School reformers should actually work in urban communities with grassroots outfits to create family information centers and online tools that provide families with clear, understandable information on school options so they can make smart decisions. This must also happen in suburbia. Particularly with Parent Trigger laws, the information that families will need to undertake overhauls is also important. Connecticut and Texas should follow California’s example and build out a Web site that can helps parents know all that they need in order to be successful in improving schools.

Meanwhile the need to develop new models that expand Parent Power is critical. Abandoning the traditional district model along the lines of the Hollywood Model of Education would bring school governance down to the building. This includes creating school boards of directors with parents in majority control; principals would then report directly to families and serve them accordingly. The advent of digital learning options can also expand Parent Power by allowing families to develop DIY schools for their kids.

When parents have power, they can change American public education for the better. So we must continue expanding choice, Parent Trigger laws and other tools that help them build cultures of genius that nurture the kids that they love.

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Centrist Democrat Reformers and the Price of Rushing No Child’s Reauthorization

Over the past two years, Dropout Nation has argued forcefully and consistently that efforts by President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan and their centrist and liberal Democrat school reform…

Photo courtesy of Time

Over the past two years, Dropout Nation has argued forcefully and consistently that efforts by President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan and their centrist and liberal Democrat school reform allies to push for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act was a bad idea. The most-important argument was clear: There was more for the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other defenders of traditional public education to gain from reauthorization than for school reformers, providing them opportunities  to weaken the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions within No Child that have helped shine light on the academic mistreatment of poor black, white and Latino children.

The past five months have since proven this point. Starting with Duncan’s effort to grant states waivers from AYP and other provisions, the NEA, AFT and other education traditionalists are getting exactly what they wanted: A retrenchment of federal education policy that not only guts accountability, but doesn’t even advance reform in other critical areas such as overhauling the way we train, compensate and manage the performance of the nation’s teachers. Yesterday, Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Republican Ranking Member Mike Enzi, after facing the ire of the NEA and AFT (and looking to get a No Child revamp passed in the Republican-controlled House), stripped out the mostly-admirable teacher quality provisions in their proposed plan, which would have required states to develop teacher and principal evaluations based on student performance on standardized tests (along with other measures). Declares Kevin Carey of the Education Sector: “So now we’re left with (Maybe Standards) + (No Accountability) + (Continued Teacher Injustice).”

Centrist and liberal Democrats, of course, want to just blame all this on the pressure of movement conservatives who are pushing for an overall pullback in federal policymaking (and want to abandon anything associated with former president George W. Bush’s regime). But this would be an oversimplification. It ignores the political realities faced by Harkin and his fellow Senate Democrats in the coming election year. More importantly, it ignores the missteps made by players on their side — including Duncan and Obama — in pushing for a speedy and unnecessary reauthorization.

When looking at this, always remember that Senate Democrats are desperate to keep their majority control of the federal upper house. With President Obama facing a tough re-election campaign next year, those Democratic senators up for re-election have no coattails upon which to ride; the miscalculations made by Obama and the Democrats on federal stimulus spending and other areas outside of education have also opened up the possibility of Republicans not only keeping control of the House, but capturing full control of the two branches of government.

So Senate Democrats are going to cater to the NEA and AFT, which have ladled most of their $293 million in campaign donations between 2000 and 2011 on national, state and local Democratic election campaigns. Even though last year’s congressional and state elections have proven that the NEA and AFT are not nearly the valuable allies they may have been a decade ago, Democrats still need the vast coffers the two unions bring to the table. And while the two unions are no longer the only forces shaping federal education policy positions within the Democratic Party, their heft remains considerable. Add in the fact that Harkin, unlike predecessor Ted Kennedy, is no fan of the school reform movement (and has no stake in preserving No Child as is), and suddenly, any substantial effort is out the door.

None of this would have mattered if not for the effort by Duncan and his centrist and liberal Democrat allies to push for a speedy reauthorization of No Child in the first place. After all, given the gridlock on Capitol Hill at this point, nothing would have gotten done. But within the past year, Duncan and his team at the U.S. Department of Education have engaged in what can be best called a misinformation campaign that has denigrated No Child’s accountability measures as being broken. Since January, Duncan has continued to play up an estimate that as many as 90 percent of schools would be found academically failing, even though current numbers coming in have shown otherwise (and reformers such as Charlie Barone of Democrats For Education Reform and Andy Rotherham had called Duncan and the administration on the carpet for disseminating these numbers). He has also argued that the revamp is needed in order to help states stave off sanctions for not meeting the 100 percent proficiency provision by the 2013-2014 school year, even though everyone knows it is actually more-aspirational (which is what No Child’s authors had always intended it to be) once one looks what proficiency actually looks like (getting half the answers on a test correct in many cases).

Then came Duncan’s waiver gambit. Calling it a tactical and strategic disaster is being kind. The move, aimed at pushing Congress to revamp No Child according to the administration’s wishes, certainly did have an impact. And not the way either Duncan or his boss, Obama, ever wanted. It has allowed congressional Republicans to accuse the administration of constitutional overreach, rally the movement conservatives on which they depend– and still join common cause with the NEA and AFT in pushing the abolition of  No Child’s accountability provisions. It has also allowed Harkin and Enzi to offer a revamp of No Child that is now even less palatable to both the administration and school reformers on all sides of the political line than what any of them wanted. And it has also weakened efforts to get states to enact Common Core standards in reading and mathematics, as congressional Republicans, movement conservatives and libertarians argue that the waivers will essentially force the creation of a national curricula.

As a result, centrist and Democrat school reformers (and even conservative reformers who have agitated for a scaled-back federal role) are getting everything they didn’t want. Essentially the very tool that have helped the movement make gains on systemic reform — including requiring the use of student test data in evaluating teachers, expanding school choice and Parent Power, and providing college-preparatory curricula to all students — may end up being ditched altogether. It may not happen this year; after all, the Harkin-Enzi plan, in its revised form, is still unlikely to be given a hearing by congressional Republicans (who also want to deny Obama a legislative victory, cosmetic or otherwise). But it is likely to happen in 2013, especially if Republicans gain full control of Congress. The missteps by Duncan and centrist Democrats, who never fully considered the consequences of pushing hard and fast for a reauthorization — especially given that education traditionalists finally and begrudgingly began accepting No Child and expanded federal education policy as a reality — have hurt their efforts. Taxpayers, families and children — especially those from poor and minority households — are the ones who will ultimately pay the price.

It would have been better for Duncan and company to leave No Child alone. But they didn’t. Now, the blunders made by Duncan and centrist Democrats pushing for a speedy and unnecessary revamp of No Child have set back all the gains the Obama administration have made in advancing school reform. It has further weakened Obama’s re-election chances. And it has set back school reform. Good job, folks. (Right.)

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The Dropout Nation Podcast: No Silence for Our Children

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I discuss the importance of keeping school reform focused on giving all children schools fit for their futures. Discussions over revamping the No Child…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I discuss the importance of keeping school reform focused on giving all children schools fit for their futures. Discussions over revamping the No Child Left Behind Act and achievement gaps have split the movement — and at the same time, taken away the ultimate focus of reform. It’s time to get back to business.

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: Eight Questions: John Kline

When Dropout Nation interviewed John Kline last year, the Minnesota congressman was only months away from taking control of what is now the House Education and the Workforce Committee. But…

When Dropout Nation interviewed John Kline last year, the Minnesota congressman was only months away from taking control of what is now the House Education and the Workforce Committee. But since that time, Kline has managed to help force  what could soon be the gutting of the No Child Left Behind Act and the accountability provisions that have spurred much-needed efforts in improving teacher quality, expanding school choice and other systemic reforms. While the congressman hasn’t garnered many headlines in the past couple of weeks, the plans offered up by Kline’s senate counterpart, Tom Harkin, and Sen. Lamar Alexander echo many of the changes Kline wants to make in stemming back federal education policy.

Read this Eight Questions interview, consider Kline’s answers, and think about what you can do to expand accountability.


Few would have thought that John Kline would be just a month away from assuming the most-important education policymaking role in Congress — that of Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. California Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, who had been chairman of the committee before the Democrats took control of the federal lower house, was the one most-likely to be in position for reassuming the job. But thanks to President Barack Obama’s appointment of New York Republican John McHugh (and McKeon’s successful effort to replace him as Ranking Republican on the House Armed Forces Committee), Kline has gotten the opportunity to reshape the Republican agenda on education, reversing support for the GOP’s most-important stamp on education policy, the  No Child Left Behind Act, and pursuing a local control-oriented platform.

Given that Kline’s own district is suburban and very much filled with folks opposed to No Child, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The implications of Kline’s possible (and likely) ascent is analyzed further in my latest column for The American Spectator.

Your editor got the opportunity to interview the presumptive Education and Labor Committee chairman, who was back in Minnesota campaigning for office. Whether or not one agrees with Kline’s positions (or with his underlying thinking), he gives some eloquent answers that both centrist Democrat and conservatives should consider.

What is the congressional Republican agenda on education?

The Republican position has been to abide some basic principles. There is a widespread opinion that No Child Left Behind is too broad.  Another is parental choice. We want teachers to be able to teach without too much intrusion.

[No Child is] a very large intrusion into education, into areas of education that the federal government shouldn’t be involved. This isn’t just Republican dissatisfaction. When I talk to teachers, parents, superintendents, my colleagues, everyone wants to fix No Child Left behind. There is great dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind.

My staff has worked all summer long with our colleagues on the Democratic side. Unfortunately we have run out of time. That work is still very important because when we come back for the 112th Congress, we have to fix No Child Left Behind.

In your mind, what parts of No Child are particularly troublesome?

[Adequate Yearly Progress], where I’m from in Minnesota, that guarantees that every public school in America is failing. We have to go in and fix it. When you talk to superintendents, they say that they resent being told by the federal government that they are failing.

But hasn’t AYP actually done more to focus education on addressing the neglect of poor and minority kids by those superintendents and districts?

There were well-meaning people who put together No Child Behind.  And they thought some measure was needed to spotlight those schools. [AYP] has certainly been helpful. But there is a great deal of disagreement and dissatisfaction about how AYP should be measured. The question of accountability is one that needs to be sorted through.

So what would you put in place  of AYP and other  No Child accountability measures?

We want taxpayers to get their money’s worth. We want to have some measure of what kids are doing. And we want to get rid of some programs that are counterproductive and ensure a better return on the dollar. But it is not easy because you are coming from two different perspectives. [Republicans] are wary of too much power coming out of the federal government. The longstanding Republican position is to hold back the federal government. There isn’t universal agreement on how to fix it.

Throughout the past year, you have argued for a return to local control. At the same time, you argue for greater school choice. Yet school districts oppose — and would fight against — any expansion of choice. Doesn’t the two positions prove to be mutually contradictory?

We should be giving more choices than fewer. For example, the D.C. Opportunity System program is one experiment we support. It would not be practical for the federal government to fund a voucher program. Bu we support more choice. Now, you are right that there isn’t stakeholder agreement on how to fix education. There would be some pushback from some elements of the public school systems [against choice].

You have been skeptical of Race to the Top. Why?

I think it was irresponsible of Congress to give [Secretary of Education Duncan] $5 billion with no strings attached. Race to the Top did some pretty bold things and some of them were in line with the Republican agenda like expanding charter schools. Other parts can be problematic. When you begin moving to a common assessment, if you’re only going reward states for adopting common standards, then you are moving into creating a common curriculum. Many of us are afraid that with common curriculum, are moving to a national curriculum. If you look at the second tranche of Race to the Top, only the states that adopted common standards would get Race to the Top money.

This year, President Obama asked for $1.3 billion more for Race to the Top this budget year.  Why should Congress give more money to a program that hasn’t proven itself? Race to the Top money is just one-time money. A lot of states didn’t get it.. And the states who got the money, I’m not sure that they would have done [undertaken the required reforms] if they didn’t need the money.

What about the competitive grant process at the heart of Race to the Top. Would you support efforts to expand that approach to other funding?

Republicans are going to be very leery of giving Department of Education granting authority over Title I money. It politicizes Title I. ‘If you do it my way, you get money; if you don’t do it , you won’t get money.’ Republicans are going to be very leery of politicizing programs because administrations will change.

What are your thoughts about what President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan are doing when it comes to dealing with teacher quality issues?

You have an interesting situation with a Democratic administration and a Democrat as secretary of education saying that [teachers unions] have to give and you have to have some way of rewarding good teachers. Secretary Duncan and the administration brought out the idea of breaking up the ironclad rules on tenure. I have told them “If you can do this, God Bless you. Because Republicans can’t do it.” It would be expected [that Republicans want to abolish tenure]. There are Democrats on the other side who are allied with the teachers unions, who oppose any end to tenure, which I disagree with.  There are folks in [House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller’s] caucus who wouldn’t think of crossing the teachers unions.

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More on Harkin-Enzi: The Young Men Get Left Behind Again

One of the aspects of the education crisis that gets little discussion from reformers and education traditionalists alike is the yawning achievement gaps between young men and their female counterparts….

One of the aspects of the education crisis that gets little discussion from reformers and education traditionalists alike is the yawning achievement gaps between young men and their female counterparts. No matter the racial, ethnic or economic background, far more young men fall behind in school and never catch up. One-fifth of young white male 12th-graders from college-educated households read Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress versus just one out of every ten of their female counterparts, while the percentage of black male high school seniors mired at levels of functional illiteracy is 14 percentage points higher than for their female schoolmates. The low levels of achievement explain why women earn 62% of all two-year degrees, attain 57% of all four-year degrees, and young men are absent on nearly all college campuses.

Given the woeful statistics and the reality that young men make up three out of every five high school dropouts, it is critical to focus on their achievement gaps in order to stem the nation’s education crisis. And yet, for the past decade, it has been of little concern at the federal level. The No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions didn’t require gender as one of the subgroups for holding schools accountable for performance. And now, the plan for reauthorizing No Child proposed by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Mike Enzi will do even less in tracking how schools are poorly-serving young men of all backgrounds.

As you already know, the Harkin-Enzi plan would scrap AYP altogether, allowing for all but the worst 5,000 failure factories and another five percent of the nation’s schools with wide racial- and economic achievement gaps to escape scrutiny. The rest of the nation’s schools would only be responsible for “continuous improvement” in each subgroup including gender. But continuous improvement under Harkin-Enzi is vague; it doesn’t even require schools to at least improve grade performance of each cohort by as much as two grade levels.  So most schools, especially suburban districts whose performance have been revealed to be mediocre under AYP and independent studies by outfits such as the George W. Bush Institute’s Global Report Card, will avoid improving curricula and instruction for the young black, white, Latino and even Asian men in those schools — especially those from college-educated homes. So the boys, along with poor and minority kids who have long been neglected throughout American public education, get the proverbial short stick.

Under Harkin-Enzi, failure mills and schools with wide achievement gaps will still be subjected under some kind of an AYP mechanism. But the plan still ignores the young men’s crisis because it doesn’t require states and school districts to address the activities that have long perpetuated these achievement gaps — including the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities and the overuse of suspension and expulsion in school discipline. Adding gender as an accountability category is one for which Why Boys Fail’s Richard Whitmire and I argued four months ago in our column for USA Today. While one can argue that school reformers can push to address those matters through the use of litigation (specifically under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act), doing so wouldn’t work to force systemic reform en masse.

This silence on the boys crisis isn’t limited to Harkin-Enzi alone. The even less useful No Child revamp proposed by Enzi’s Republican colleague, Lamar Alexander, is also silent on this matter; the waiver plan being pushed by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan allows for states to subject their schools to accountability for the low performance of young men, but it doesn’t force them to do so. None of these plans for revamping No Child will comprehensively advance the reform of American public education.

Let’s be clear about this: When men don’t graduate from high school and move on to college, they will fall into poverty and unemployment. They are more likely to end up in prison, unlikely to be the kind of men well-educated women want to marry, and are cannot be the kind of fathers and husbands society needs for preserving communities and families — especially in the age of the knowledge-based economy and the decline of traditional manual labor. Ignoring this important aspect of the nation’s education crisis is perilous for millions of young men who need (and deserve) the kind of high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula that will allow them to write their own stories. More importantly, by not addressing these problems and their underlying causes, we will not succeed in building cultures of genius that nurture the potential of all of our students.

This reality is also another reason why the argument against focusing on achievement gaps advocated by American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess doesn’t make sense. When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by traditional public schools — including for young black, white, Latino and Asian men — we are improving education for all children. By addressing achievement gaps, we are also tackling the underlying problems that have made the nation’s education crisis a threat to our immediate- and long-term economic well-being. When we address the low graduation rates and underlying literacy issues facing young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds, we are also helping high-performing young women of all races and economic backgrounds succeed. And when we provide strong reading remediation to young men in the early grades, we also keep more kids out of the educational ghetto that is special ed — and put more kids on the path to higher education of all forms.

Senators Harkin and Enzi need to pull this No Child revamp and come up with a better plan. Such a plan would ultimately challenge states and districts to engage in reforms that will help young men — and all children — succeed in school and in life.

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