Author: RiShawn Biddle

Senate Republicans to Poor and Minority Children: Fuggedaboutit

  Five steps backwards to the bad old days of federal education policy. Tossing in the towel on the systemic reform of American public education at the time when kids…


Five steps backwards to the bad old days of federal education policy. Tossing in the towel on the systemic reform of American public education at the time when kids and the economy need it most. What else can be said about the proposed revamp of the No Child Left Behind Act being pushed by Tennessee U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and some of his fellow Republicans in the federal upper house?

The proposed elimination of the law’s Highly-Qualified Teacher provision isn’t exactly bad news. After all, all it has done is allowed states to simply grandfather in Baby Boomer teachers and others who may not necessarily be fit for classrooms instead of actually addressing teacher quality issues. But the Alexander plan — also known as Put Head in Sand and Ignore Reality — doesn’t take the same approach to pushing for teacher quality reforms — including requiring the use of student data in teacher evaluations — that has been embraced in the first two rounds of the Race to the Top initiative. At the very least, states should have to earn their federal subsidies.

As for the rest of the package? It’s hardly the “rare combination of thoughtfulness and humility” that Fordham’s Mike Petrilli dares to proclaim it to be. As with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s No Child waiver effort, the Alexander plans proposes to simply do away with the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions that have exposed the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia. Essentially, Alexander is proposing a set of mealy-mouth college- and career-ready standards that simply avoid holding states accountable for the quality of education provided in all but a few of its traditional public schools. Poor and minority children in suburbia — and even white kids in those schools — will simply have to struggle in cultures of mediocrity that, as Dr. Steve Perry noted in this month’s Conversation podcast, are often just marginally better than urban dropout factories.

Meanwhile the Alexander plan fails to deal with the reality that accountability needs to be expanded, not scaled back. The need to force the overhaul of ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, is still critical to the reform of American public education. Yet the Alexander plan is silent on that issue. Nor do Alexander’s proposals address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis. As Richard Whitmire and I proposed in June, simply requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability would do plenty to force states and districts into dealing seriously with this problem. And setting a plain, simple measure of chronic truancy — an early warning indicator of academic failure — would give teachers and principals honest data that they can then use in keeping kids in school. Right now, only two states — California and Indiana — offer some sort of breakdown of chronic truancy data, and that’s not good enough. And school choice and Parent Power? Save for supporting the expansion of charter schools, not a thing.

What is particularly amazing is that the Alexander plan simply returns things back to the days when the federal government ladled out dollars with almost no accountability in return. It doesn’t embrace the best elements of Race to the Top — including its emphasis on forcing states to compete for federal money and show results. This is especially shameful because maintaining the program-based funding nature of Title I will do little to spur reform. If anything, it will eventually lead to a renewed form of compliance-based approach to how the feds oversee those funds that everyone — including Republicans and conservative reformers — decry. This is because under the Alexander plan, many states will simply go back to spending federal money without any consideration of results, which will lead to an eventual backlash.

There are those who will argue that the efforts by reform-minded states will continue without strong federal education policy. But they fail to remember that No Child is one of the main reasons why these reforms have accelerated in the first place. For reform-minded governors on both sides of the political aisle, No Child has proven to be the tool they need to beat back opposition from suburban districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have long dominated education at the state level. The law, along with Race to the Top, is the leading reason why 13 states this year expanded school choice, either in allowing for the expansion of charter schools and starting various forms of school voucher plans.

All in all, the Alexander plan, like Duncan’s waivers and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s own efforts, simply does the bidding of education traditionalists (who don’t want any form of accountability) and fails to serve children. And any reformer who can defend this mishmash should look in the mirror and ask where do they really stand when it comes to our poor and minority kids.

But the proposal isn’t exactly surprising. As with the current GOP aspirants for the White House, the Alexander plan is shaped by the rebellion against the excesses of George W. Bush’s presidency and his legacy, on education, as the Democrats’ favorite Republican. Movement conservatives may be generally supportive of expanding vouchers and charter schools, two of the most-prominent elements of Bush’s education policy. For Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education who ushered in the development of Value-Added Assessment of standardized test score data during his tenure as Tennessee’s governor, he must also keep in mind that he is up for re-election in 2014. He doesn’t want movement conservatives to offer up any challenge that will upset his goal of continually holding some form of political office.

No matter how one looks at it, the Alexander proposals aren’t worth the paper they are printed upon. The only good news is that Republicans are in the minority — and thus the plan has almost no chance of seeing the light of day this year. Unfortunately, Duncan’s waiver effort is still under way and some centrist Democrat reformers (notably Democrats for Education Reform, which rightly trashed Alexander’s plan) are moving away from outright opposition to trying to make it more-palatable for children’s consumption. Like conservative reformers who back the Alexander plan, they too should just stop and get back to work on pushing for an expanded federal education policy that pushes states further on embracing systemic reform.

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The End of Ed Schools — and Teacher Credentialing?

  When it comes to America’s system of training teachers, two things are crystal clear. The first? That America’s university schools of education, which train nearly all of the 200,000…


When it comes to America’s system of training teachers, two things are crystal clear. The first? That America’s university schools of education, which train nearly all of the 200,000 or so teachers who attempt to enter the profession every year, are doing a shoddy job of recruiting aspiring teachers and providing them with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the classroom. The second: That there is no correlation between the credentials teachers are granted and their ability to improve student achievement over time.

This week, two studies once again confirm both realities. And it is past time to take real action to improve the teacher training pipeline so that our kids get the high-quality education they deserve.

The first bit of latest news comes courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute, which released a study earlier this week on the abysmally high levels of grade inflation among ed school majors. The average ed school student at Indiana University’s ed school on its main campus in Bloomington had a simple grade-point average of 3.66, higher than the g.p.a.’s of students in the university’s other majors; as the study’s author, Cory Koedel notes in another study he conducted this year, math, science and economics majors only average g.p.a.’s of 3.06 , while those taking social science and humanities courses barely average over a 3.0.

At the University of Missouri’s ed school, the average student garners a simple g.p.a. of 3.80, nearly a full point higher than a student majoring in math, science and economics. Only psychology ranks as the second-easiest major on its campus — and even an average student in that major is only rewarded a 3.43. In fact, every student received a 4.0 g.p.a. in one out of every five ed school classes they took, a far higher percentage than what students in other majors ever receive. Stated simply, an ed school student has a one-in-five chance of earning an easy “A” regardless of their work product.

Essentially, ed school professors — many of whom have sparse experience in the classroom — are doling out too many high grades far too often, providing students with unrealistic assessments of their ability to perform in the classroom. This isn’t surprising: As former Teachers College president Arthur Levine surmised six years ago, one out of every two teachers in America are trained at schools with low entrance requirements. The results that are seen in our classrooms are even less shocking. As longtime teaching guru Martin Haberman has noted, half of all aspiring teachers never make it into the classroom, while Richard Elmore has pointed out that half of those who did get employed left the profession within five years — and this in spite of the fact that in most states, teachers attain near-lifetime employment within three years.

As for those who remain? Given that one-third of America’s fourth-graders are functionally illiterate — and our best-performing students rank 32nd in the world on the PISA test of international student achievement — the quality of teaching in our schools among those who attain tenure is abysmal. But doesn’t our teacher credentialing system help weed out laggards? Not at all. As Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters and his team point out in a study of Florida teachers also released this week, there is no correlation between credentials — including certification and attaining graduate degrees, the two things education traditionalists tend to tout in their arguments over school reform — and student achievement. This confirms studies that have shown that credentials and experience account for only three-to-five percent of the student performance.

Yet we continue a system of teacher training and certification that all but ensures that low-quality teachers will continue their educational neglect and abuse on our children. As Winters notes, the pedagogical theories taught by ed schools have little positive impact on student achievement (and ultimately, teacher performance). Yet ed schools have not done anything to move from that emphasis to focusing on the things teachers need to have for success — subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial and leadership ability, instructional method, and the ability to analyze and use data in their work. Nor do they screen out ed school candidates for their subject-matter skills and care and empathy for children; the latter of which can be done simply by following Haberman’s suggested method of having an aspiring teacher show how he works with a child who looks different (and has a different socioeconomic background) than them.

Part of the problem lies with the fact that ed schools, like other institutions in traditional public education, are simply too stuck in their ways to change. The other problem is likely to be purely arbitrary. As Michigan Superintendent Mike Flanagan noted last month, far too many ed schools are focused on revenue instead of quality, and that is particularly clear in his state: Two-thirds of the Wolverine State’s 7,500 ed school grads leave the state, either to work in districts in other states, or perhaps to go into other fields. Savvy collegians may have figured out that getting a teaching degree is such easy work that they just go in, grab the degree, and then head into another field. For ed schools, which receive $7 billion annually for teacher training, tightening up standards (and improving teacher quality) could also mean sacrificing revenue.

But it’s not just the ed schools alone that are responsible. The fact that state teacher certification agencies, which oversee ed schools, are often separate from education departments means that ed schools are not well-scrutinized and regulated; the fact that the certification agencies themselves are also stuck in an old-school mindset (and, until recently, have been banned in nearly all states from even allowing for the use of value-added data in certification) is also a problem. The federal government has also neglected its role in this arena, failing to make ed school accountability an element of the No Child Left Behind Act when teaching (and how teachers get into classrooms) is a critical reason for the nation’s academic failure.

Then there are school districts and those who lead them. As Koedel notes in the AEI study, far too many principals are giving too many of their teachers high marks for performance — even when their ratings don’t correlate with actual classroom performance. The fact that many principals themselves aren’t exactly up to snuff in their performance is part of the problem; as Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha has also pointed out in his series on school leadership (and I pointed out last week in my piece on the school data) these principals, often drawn from the teaching ranks, are often unsophisticated in areas such as data analysis and incapable of leading adults. As I noted in the 2008 report I co-wrote for the National Council on Teacher Quality, state laws (influenced by the lobbying of teachers’ union affiliates) have made it difficult and expensive for principals and superintendents to dismiss laggard teachers. But the laggard talent in the administrator ranks, along with the cultures they and incompetent teachers perpetuate, also make improving teacher quality a tough problem.

It will take plenty of work to solve the teacher training problem. And it may have to start with the end of ed schools. The fact that alternative teacher training programs such as Teach For America now account for four out of every ten teachers hired since 2005 means that ed schools are starting to lose their monopoly. But remember, many of those programs actually are started by ed schools themselves, which means that there are still plenty of laggard teachers coming into the field. We need more outfits of the likes of TFA, Urban Teacher Residency United, and Teach Plus, who stand outside of the ed school world, and can recruit and quickly train teachers at higher levels of quality and lower cost.

In fact, one can dare argue that there is almost no reason for ed schools to exist. After all, if an alternative teacher training outfit, a school district or even a teacher professional association in the guild mold, can recruit aspiring teachers, weed out the proverbial chaff from the wheat, and get those teacher up to speed during the first two years on the job, then ed schools can go out of business altogether. This is one idea the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can fund and make a success in quick order. And definitely needs to do so: Our kids deserve better than what they are getting now.

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The Dropout Nation Podcast: Forget Stimulus, Focus on School Reform

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I focus on President Obama’s latest stimulus plan and explain why he should stick to school reform in order to solve the long-term unemployment…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I focus on President Obama’s latest stimulus plan and explain why he should stick to school reform in order to solve the long-term unemployment crisis that is a key reason for the current economic malaise. Pouring $60 billion into bailing out faltering American public education systems — and $450 billion of good taxpayers money overall after bad — will not put high school dropouts to work or keep 1.2 million at-risk high school students from joining them this year.

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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Barack’s and Arne’s Teachers’ Union Payoff Plan

  Let’s say this much about President Barack Obama’s latest stimulus plan: At least the plan to cut payroll taxes in half for small businesses may be worth supporting. The…


Let’s say this much about President Barack Obama’s latest stimulus plan: At least the plan to cut payroll taxes in half for small businesses may be worth supporting. The rest? Not so much. Considering that the more than $1 trillion in stimulus subsidies offered up by the president and his predecessor, George W. Bush, has not done much to address the nation’s immediate- and long-term economic problems. And the $105 billion spent on bailing out states and school districts have done more to keep many of them from dealing realistically with decades of feckless spending  — including $1.4 trillion in long-term pension deficits and retired teacher healthcare benefits — that have exacerbated the nation’s education crisis.

This latest stimulus will do even less. The $25 billion being proposed for rebuilding schools would increase spending on construction by 40 percent, which makes no sense given that the nation spends $63 billion a year on school construction and maintenance. This money is often spent badly, with as much going into expanding football fields as into classrooms. Essentially, the proposal tosses money into buildings when the nation’s education crisis has almost nothing to do with edifices.

Meanwhile the $30 billion being proposed to help school districts avoid layoffs is just another repeat of last year’s Edujobs bill, which tossed $10 billion in subsidies to supposedly save teacher jobs that, as it turned out, weren’t actually reduced. Just $2.5 billion of Edujobs money has been spent. Twenty states and the District of Columbia, for example, spent less than 5 percent of their Edujobs allotment, according to Education Week‘s analysis of U.S. Department of Education data; only four states — California, Georgia, Kansas, and South Carolina — spent 80 percent or more of the dollars they were given.

But didn’t Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have good reason to push for Edujobs? Not really. Why? Because the layoffs that were expected to come down the pipe equaled out to just a mere 1.6 percent of the 6.2 million people employed by American public education. While no one likes layoffs, that number was a pittance compared to the millions laid off in the private sector. And in the end, the layoffs didn’t materialize at all.  But this isn’t surprising. In most states, school districts are required to inform teachers chosen for reductions in force (along with their National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates) about layoffs. This results in headline-grabbing stories about teachers losing jobs. But in most cases, districts — mindful of their servile relationships with NEA and AFT locals, who pull out all the stops politically and otherwise — rescind the layoffs, usually choosing to lay off school custodians and other staff, deciding to not fill open positions, or cutting expenditures in other areas. So the layoffs often don’t materialize.

Given that the U.S. Department of Education projected that some 13,000 teachers were added to payrolls in the 2009-2010 school year, according to its own annual book on school statistics, and another 24,000 should be added this past year, it is unlikely that mass teacher layoffs will happen this year. Are layoffs likely to happen in the coming years? Possibly. But given that states are facing $137 billion in budget shortfalls in the coming two fiscal years, layoffs may be necessary, especially given that there are also far too many teachers in classrooms who are failing our children through their educational neglect and malpractice. This process would be easier if not for the quality-blind reverse seniority layoff rules that require teachers to reduce teaching staffs without regard to performance in improving student achievement. But governors and legislatures need to face down NEA and AFT affiliates and toss those rules into the ashbin of history. Which is what the Obama administration supports. But this stimulus, as with previous efforts, will only delay those days of reckoning.

But, as I noted last year with Obama’s and Duncan’s push for the Edujobs bill, this latest stimulus has almost nothing to do with layoffs or with school reform. Anticipating a tough re-election, both for himself and for his fellow Democrats in Congress, Obama is looking to make sure that the NEA and AFT (with which his administration has long clashed) mobilize their members for the 2012 campaign. Given the results from last year’s bailout — the loss of full control of Congress and the following clashes with Congressional Republicans that have helped weaken the administration’s public standing — the two unions will be of little real help. In fact, as the NEA has shown in June with its vote to endorse Obama’s re-election, the Democrats clearly call the shots.

This move is really just a waste of both taxpayer’s money and time that Obama could use to rally support for the education reform efforts that have been mostly-embraced on a bipartisan level. He would be better off tossing out the education portion of this stimulus and getting back to pushing for systemic reform.

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Two Thoughts on Education This Week: Memphis and John Kline Division

  Memphis-Shelby County Merger and the Hollywood Model: Since last December, Dropout Nation has followed the move by the Memphis school district to force a merger with the rival Shelby…


Memphis-Shelby County Merger and the Hollywood Model: Since last December, Dropout Nation has followed the move by the Memphis school district to force a merger with the rival Shelby County school district surrounding the Blues City limits. There are have been plenty of twists and turns. First, Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature (along with Gov. Bill Haslam) stepped in, passing a law that would forestall the merger from happening for two years. Then Shelby County — which started the maneuvering last year when petitioned the state legislature to allow it to become a special taxing entity to siphon off funds from the much-larger urban district — filed a federal suit to stave off the merger, accusing the district and the Memphis city government of violating the 14th amendment rights of Shelby’s taxpayers. Meanwhile governments in six cities surrounding Memphis (and served by Shelby County) began looking into creating their own school districts, separating from any merged entity. But last month, the Shelby County suit was suddenly settled, with all of the players involved in the fracas agreeing to let the merger happen by the 2013-2014 school year. That settlement was finally approved this past Tuesday by the Memphis city council.

What has been wrought by the consent decree and the state legislation? On one hand, Memphis residents are none too thrilled that Shelby County will essentially be calling the shots in this merger, with the former district and the county government holding 14 of the 23 seats on the  temporary board that will run the entire district for the next two years. Not only does the mostly-black city lose control of the district to suburbanites — in spite of the fact that Memphis brings more students and tax dollars to the table — but the county benefits from all the work (including the early teacher quality reform efforts funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) that the city has done over the past few years.

More importantly, there is plenty of questions about who will run the district’s operations. For now, the new Memphis-Shelby County district has two superintendents, including the well-regarded Kriner Cash, who would probably be the better choice for the top job. There is also the uncertainty of whether any of the suburban Shelby County cities will manage to form their own district; if it passes muster with the state, then the consolidated Memphis-Shelby County district will have fewer students and tax dollars from which to draw.

What is missing throughout the discussion — and in many ways, a lost opportunity, for Tennessee state government — is the idea of moving away from the traditional district model that has neither served students in Memphis nor Shelby County all that well. While Memphis has improved its five-year graduation rate (based on 8th-grade enrollment), one out of every four middle-schoolers heading into high school in both districts drop out by senior year. Based on these numbers (along with the low four-year graduation rates for young black and white men (43 percent and 53 percent in 2008, according to the Schott Foundation), one can say that the two districts weren’t offering high-quality education before the merger. This may not change afterward either.

What Tennessee could have done is allowed for the consolidation, then move away from the traditional district model by adopting the approach taken in New Orleans, essentially transforming traditional schools into charters while the district bureaucracy serves only in an oversight role. This approach, which may also be adopted in the coming year across the Tennessee state line in Fulton County, Ga., would allow for the proliferation of high-quality charter schools that can do the job that neither Memphis nor Shelby County have proven capable of doing.

As Dropout Nation noted last year, the state could have also used a merged Memphis-Shelby County district as an experimental model in which funding follows the students to any school option available. The district could either be just a pass-through entity or a provider of transportation services and buildings to school operators. The role of running schools could be taken over by high-quality charter school operators such as KIPP and Green Dot (the latter of which can serve the county’s growing Latino population), white and black churches, including the Church of God in Christ, the nation’s largest majority-black Protestant denomination that is headquartered in the Land of the Delta Blues, the city’s Catholic archdiocese, which already runs Shelby County’s third-largest school system, and even PTAs and other grassroots groups.

Given that the suburban cities served by the Memphis-Shelby County district want to opt out, this model could still happen, if Gov. Haslam and state education commissioner Kevin Huffman abandon the traditional model of education that hasn’t worked well as of late. The merger remains an opportunity, but only if state and local leaders have the vision to take it up.

Is John Kline More than a Few Press Releases? That’s the only question one can surmise from the flurry of e-mails sent by the House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman today touting the consideration of the charter school expansion bill he has brought onto the House floor. While the law itself is a commendable next step in further expanding school choice for our children, the reality remains that Kline remains stuck in neutral when it comes to federal education policy and reform.

For one, Kline continues to dawdle on reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, whose accountability provisions he wants to ditch altogether. If Kline was truly serious about school reform, he would either tell U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to come down and begin work on a bipartisan reauthorization that expands accountability — especially in areas such as the nation’s ed schools (whose laggard teacher training is a culprit in America’s education crisis). Kline would even revise the school choice provisions within No Child — which have largely failed because of the recalcitrance of school districts that don’t want to allow students to leave failure mills, and the reality that those districts offer few high-quality options in the first place — by requiring states to allow for inter-district choice along the lines of what is being proposed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as part of his reform efforts.

Certainly, Kline does have some obstacles in his way, starting with the fact that Republicans are just as divided as Democrats over what a reauthorized No Child should look like. But given that he was able to move a few small bills out of committee, it isn’t nearly as hard for Kline to show his hand and offer a version of federal education policy that falls along his feigned small government views. At this moment, however, nothing is coming out of Kline’s committee, either on No Child or even on such matters as the labor that fall within his purview.

Kline does have time to focus on such matters as H.R. 1891, which is aimed at reducing the number of Department of Education programs that often duplicate each other’s work. Again, all well and good. But he continues to push for increases in the $11 billion supplied by the federal government to special education programs. The fact that special ed has helped fuel the nation’s education crisis by labeling illiterate but otherwise capable young men as “learning disabled” has never factored into Kline’s thinking. Nor does he take the time to look at the districts in his own backyard. Seven percent of all students in the South Washington County district, for example, are labeled special ed cases; this includes 15 percent of the black males attending the school. Most of those students have “specific learning disability” which can mean dyslexia or other issues that really don’t require special ed participation.

Kline could easily argue for reductions in special ed spending; doing so would actually do a lot of good for young men and for all students who are too easily labeled depending on the state or district in which they reside. Instead, Kline continues to spend his time offering a few press releases, some soundbites, and little substance.

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The Dropout Nation Podcast: Using Innovation to Advance Teacher Quality

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I discuss the two additional steps needed to help every child get the high-quality teachers they deserve. It isn’t enough to just address traditional…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I discuss the two additional steps needed to help every child get the high-quality teachers they deserve. It isn’t enough to just address traditional teacher compensation, overhaul evaluations, and improve support for teachers already in the classroom. Additional steps must be taken not only to help our kids, but even elevate the teaching profession itself and attract talented collegians into the ranks.

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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