Author: RiShawn Biddle

Gutting No Child — and Getting No Accountability in Return?

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last week that he would take the next step in offering waivers to states from the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions of the…

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last week that he would take the next step in offering waivers to states from the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, he declared that he would only do so if applying states met certain conditions. One of them was that they had to embrace “college and career-ready” curricula standards, opening the door to the 44 states that enacted Common Core State Standards in reading and math would have a chance. Or so one thought.

Yesterday, Duncan announced during an interview on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers that replacing current state standards with Common Core would not be a requirement of getting the No Child waivers. The underlying reason for the backtracking is clear: Conservative school reformers who back Common Core such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — fearful of the reaction from libertarian and other conservative reformers already miffed at the idea of a national curriculum — loudly opposed Duncan’s plans. Congressional Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, who already oppose Duncan’s waiver effort (and with backing from think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation) were also likely to oppose tying Common Core to receiving waivers.

So now, Duncan will give waivers to states that meet a vague set of “high standards” that the Department of Education hasn’t exactly defined (and, as some conservatives declare, has no business to set in the first place). Which means that the low bar that has likely been set for the waivers — along with the low bar the free pass granted this week to Montana — will be even lower. If Common Core was a condition for the waivers, then the states would have at least had to attempt to fully implement them by developing corresponding curricula. But now, there may not even be any real way for the federal government to hold states accountable in exchange for flexibility.

This state of affairs prove once again that Duncan’s waiver gambit, prompted by the Obama administration’s desire to force Congress to reauthorize No Child on its terms, was a major political and policymaking blunder.

The Obama administration has lost high ground on the education policy front, losing momentum in driving its school reform agenda. The plan to waive aspects of federal policy has allowed Congressional Republicans to accuse the administration of constitutional overreach and rally the movement conservatives on which they depend (even though Duncan’s move achieves their own goals). The administration’s allies are actively pushing to keep accountability in the law and could end up working with congressional Republicans to block the waiver effort. It hasn’t exactly placated the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers or suburban districts opposed to No Child, who want to cripple the law through congressional action. And the waiver gambit may end up being costly to school districts, who have already spent time and money meeting state standards set under the current accountability regime.

Duncan is wasting away the two years of admirable successes he’s had in spurring school reform. His move has also caused chaos, with states pushing for the very lowering of accountability he decries. More importantly, he’s also making it more difficult for President Obama to point to a domestic accomplishment. He needs to just admit the waiver effort was an error, and just get back to work with Congress on a bipartisan reauthorization of No Child that expands the accountability needed for reforming American public education.

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Rick Perry’s School Reform Problem

Earlier this year, Dropout Nation took time to examine Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s record on school reform and found that he couldn’t hold a candle to his predecessors, Anne…

Earlier this year, Dropout Nation took time to examine Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s record on school reform and found that he couldn’t hold a candle to his predecessors, Anne Richards and George W. Bush, in that arena. With slower declines in functional illiteracy than more-aggressive reform states such as Florida (including a mere six-point decline in the percentage of fourth graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, versus Florida’s 20-point drop), Perry had done little more during his tenure than mouth off against federal education policy, spar with the Obama administration over its Race to the Top initiative, and betray his movement conservative credentials by continually accepting federal education funding and complaining about being held accountable for the spend.

But this week’s release of college readiness data from ACT offers another example of how poorly Perry has fared in living up to Richards’ and Bush’s legacy in advancing school reform. Just 24 percent of Lone Star high schoolers taking the ACT had met all of the college readiness benchmarks, slightly lower than the one-in-four national average. Just 48 percent of Texas students had reading performance that was college-ready, four points below the national average; while the percentage of students ready for college-level science work was two points below the 30 percent national average. Thirty-two percent of Texas students failed to meet any of ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks, four points lower than the already-abysmal national average.

The good news is that there has been progress. The 24 percent of high schoolers in Texas meeting all college readiness benchmarks is five points higher than in 2007, a stronger level of growth than for the nation at large, and for Florida (where it barely budged from 16 percent to 17 percent of high schoolers were college-ready on all benchmarks). Texas has also done well with African-American students, with the percentage of black students meeting three or more of the benchmarks increasing from 10 percent to 14 percent over the past four years. But given that just 36 percent of Texans take the ACT versus 66 percent of their Floridian counterparts, those numbers may be skewed.

Given that the work Texas did during the Richards and Bush years is finally bearing fruit (while the efforts in Florida started in earnest later) — the progress also shouldn’t be surprising. In fact, Texas should be doing better. But not necessarily: Twenty-four percent of African-American Lone Star State students were college-ready in reading, a mere four points better than Florida; and the nine percent of black Texans ready for college-level science is merely four points higher than Florida’s equally abysmal number. And Florida is still doing better than Texas when it comes to Latino students; only 31 percent of Lone Star State Latino students were college-ready in reading, six points lower than Florida’s percentage.

These numbers could get worse in the next decade, largely because Texas hasn’t kept up with Florida in pushing hard on reform. As is, 73  percent of Texas’ black male fourth-graders read Below Basic in 2009, a mere 7-point decline from 1998; that is a slower rate of improvement in literacy than Florida’s 28 percent decline (from 81 percent to 53 percent) for the same population of students. The lagging performance seen now among the former fourth-graders in Texas will become clear in the coming two years on NAEP and a few years later on ACT.

Perry likes to complain about the more-expansive federal role in education. These complaints would stand scrutiny if he actually took on reform more-aggressively, especially in curricula. Given that Texas’ English and math standards are good-but-not great — with math standards considered “clearly inferior” compared to Common Core by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and not even world-class compared to those for the seven best-performing nations in math — Perry’s complaints about embracing Common Core seem like mere posturing on behalf of maintaining mediocrity. And while Texas has embraced Parent Trigger laws, this wasn’t Perry’s doing; the work was done by the state’s new parents union with the help of legislators willing to put their neck out for this law.

As Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney has shown, Perry has proven to be something of a crony capitalist wolf in movement conservative clothing. He’s also proven to be lackluster on education too — and it doesn’t take U.S, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan engaging in campaign rhetoric to make this clear. Foes of Common Core and conservative reformers in general should think twice before embracing Perry as a standard-bearer.

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Beyond Race to the Top: What John Kitzhaber Means for State Education Governance

When it comes to school reform-minded governors, once and future Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber would not come to mind. During the eight years he served in Salem from 1995 to…

When it comes to school reform-minded governors, once and future Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber would not come to mind. During the eight years he served in Salem from 1995 to 2003, he was far-less aggressive on education than contemporaries such as Roy Barnes in Georgia, future President George W. Bush (then in Texas), and Dubya’s brother, Jeb. Nor did he offer much more when he successfully ran for a return to office last year. Even the move last year by the NEA’s Beaver State affiliate to endorse his rival in the Democratic primary had more to do with his proposal to fund schools based on performance — a novel concept that has been used unsuccessfully at the higher-ed level because it never involves disturbing existing funds — than with any pioneering efforts. Declared Oregonian columnist Steve Duin last year after reading one of Kitzhaber’s policy statements: “education reform isn’t part of his learning curve or his agenda.”

But this year, Kitzhaber may have actually set in motion what could be one of the most-important reform efforts that states should undertake: Reforming how states govern their K-12 schools and universities. Whether or not the effort is successful in the long run is a different story. But it does show reform-minded governors, including Chris Christie in New Jersey and even Mitch Daniels (now serving out his last years in Indiana), what they can and should do in order to sustain their reforms.

As Dropout Nation noted earlier this week, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative has definitely set in motion a series of reforms that have helped weaken the influence of teachers unions, push states (including those that never won federal money) to require the use of student performance data (including test score growth) in teacher evaluations, put more teachers under private sector-style performance management, and fostered the expansion of school choice. The effort, along with the school accountability measures enacted as part of the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, have also signaled the long-running shift of control of education from school districts (who were always mere tools of state governments) to the state level.

Yet states have not taken the opportunities given to them by Race to the Top and No Child to overhaul the byzantine structures of governance crafted a century ago by progressive reformers fearful of centralized power. Only 12 states allow for the governor to appoint chief state school officers, and only 33 governors have the power to appoint the majority or all of the members of state boards of education. In states such as California and Indiana, K-12 schools and universities are governed by an unwieldy array of boards, superintendents, university presidents, and bureaucracies, each competing to justify their existence. In many states, the teacher licensing agencies are separated from state departments of education, even though the functions should be under one roof; policymaking over matters such as setting cut scores on standardized tests end up being handled by different boards. And the shamble of results, especially when it comes to school reform, can be seen in muddied policies, turf-battles over policymaking, and stalled efforts on any sort of reform (including anything involving developing school data systems).

Reform-minded governors could use school reform as opportunities to reshape how schools are governed. But most have not. During his first campaign for Indiana governor, Daniels proposed to make the state education superintendent an appointed office, but never followed through on that plan; given the legacy of legendary predecessor Paul McNutt, who ramrodded a series to consolidations during the Great Depression (and Daniels’ own efforts on that front), it may not have even been possible. Earlier this year, Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire offered up a ham-fisted plan to combine all state education agencies into one mega-operation; that plan didn’t go anywhere. Meanwhile governors such as Jerry Brown in California and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin have simply abdicated their responsibilities on the education front.

Until July, the most-successful move in that direction was by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who convinced the legislature to expand the powers of the state’s emergency financial managers taking over school districts such as Detroit; but that move is still just whittling around the edges of massive, often-incompetent bureaucracies. Still, too few governors have proven willing to use their political capital to battle for the needed overhauls of how schools are governed. And these are the kind of battles that must come — especially in states that won Race to the Top dollars — in order to sustain reform.

Turning symbolism into reality: Kitzhaber education adviser Ben Cannon. Photo courtesy of the Oregonian.

But now comes Kitzhaber, who managed to work with a Democrat-controlled senate and a house equally split between the two major parties to successfully pass a law creating a new board of education that will control all of the elementary, secondary and postsecondary system. Kitzhaber and his successors would be able to appoint every member of that agency. The new law also ends the election of state school superintendents, merging that role into the governor’s job. As a result, by 2014, Kitzhaber (or whoever succeeds him in the governor’s office) will also directly run the state’s public school and education finance systems.

Making the governor the chief state schools officer is certainly symbolic; the real work will be done by whoever Kitzhaber or his successor appoints as his second-in-command in charge of education. This is where the proverbial devil is in the details of policymaking and executing.

Kitzhaber will have to do more than just appoint teacher-turned-state legislator Ben Cannon (who has been a player in pushing through the governor’s reform agenda) as his education adviser. He will need to follow the step taken by Bill Haslam in Tennessee and appoint a strong, thoughtful, nationally-known school reformer to be the chief agitator for reform. This reformer, along with Cannon, will have to play good cop-bad cop in order to get things done. Kitzhaber will have to also keep his Spitzer-like reputation in check; he can’t afford to be an Oregon version of Adrian Fenty, behaving arrogantly when he should play nice; he should also continue to stare down the NEA in order to succeed. And Kitzhaber must address the state’s teacher quality issues. Two of the Beaver State’s ed schools have already been criticized by the National Council on Teacher Quality for their lackluster efforts in training aspiring teachers; the fact that NCTQ has had to filed open records requests just to get other ed schools in the state to cooperate with its national evaluation effort also doesn’t look good. Kitzhaber should put public pressure on the ed schools to cooperate fully, and shape up their offerings.

But the move in Oregon is symbolism with substance. It signals what should always be the case in every state: That governors should be responsible for the direction of education in their states. Given that the increasingly knowledge-based economy makes high-quality critical even for blue-collar jobs and long-term economic growth, governors should be actively working to overhaul schools. Every governor should look at Kitzhaber’s effort and launch their own campaigns to overhaul how their states govern schools. Given the waning influence of NEA and AFT affiliates in many states — and the budget-cutting tools states have at their disposal to reduce opposition from suburban districts — the time is now.

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More Ravitch Versus Brill

Apparently, Diane Ravitch is miffed at Steven Brill for estimating in the new book, Class Warfare, that she earned as much as $200,000 in speaking fees from appearances before the…

Apparently, Diane Ravitch is miffed at Steven Brill for estimating in the new book, Class Warfare, that she earned as much as $200,000 in speaking fees from appearances before the National Education Association and other forums for education traditionalists, Ravitch sicced her lawyers on Brill and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, claiming that Brill’s estimate was “defamatory”, “fictitious” and “highly damaging”. Ravitch is demanding the excise of that estimate from future printings of the book, and an “errata sheet” on existing versions. Simon & Schuster responded by basically noting that Brill’s estimate was, well, an estimate, and stated as such. The publisher also stated that Ravitch was given “the opportunity to comment on the issue”. (Andy Rotherham brought this to light today on Eduwonk.)

The most-damaging possible allegation made by Ravitch against the book is that she wasn’t represented by big-named speakers bureau Leading Authorities as Brill reported. A search of “Leading Authorities” and Diane Ravitch does lead to a page that shows a (now-dead) link ( to a page at the speaker bureau’s Web site. (Dropout Nation has sent out inquiries to executives at Leading Authorities asking if they ever had her as a client.)

Given the difficulty of proving defamation suits and that, unlike California, New York State doesn’t require any publisher to retract statements upon request by any accuser if they don’t immediately respond to them, Ravitch is basically wasting money on legal fees. Nor is Brill’s estimate actually all that damaging; no one in Philadelphia, Miss., is going to care anyway.  As Dropout Nation has also noted, there is nothing particularly wrong with Ravitch collecting speaking fees and not disclosing them. Getting paid by groups with which one has like-minded views does not make one a shill. So Ravitch would have been better off leaving this one alone.

Dropout Nation has already said more than it wants on the speaking fees matter. More importantly, given that it is still waiting on response from Leading Authorities, there isn’t much more to report.

As for Ravitch? She couldn’t even get education history right in her Wall Street Journal piece last year exhorting congressional Republicans to embrace a history of opposing an expansive federal role in education policy that was never reality. She conveniently failed to mention Dwight David Eisenhower’s role in fostering the first mass use of specialized testing (courtesy of the National Defense Education Act of 1958), and the efforts of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush in supporting the modern school reform movement.

Last year, in the New York Review of Books, she trashed Waiting for “Superman”, arguing that the film glossed over the fact that there are still too few high-quality charters. As anyone who watched the film could attest, if they are being honest, Waiting actually made clear that clear, in fact, citing the 2009 CREDO study, the same source for Ravitch’s own declaration in her piece. The fact that the CREDO study, a generally good and empirical report, is really a review of the strength and weaknesses of charter school laws in the states studied, and has been criticized for measuring the achievement of charter school students against the average results of groups of students in traditional schools, is conveniently not mentioned by Ravitch in her piece. And Stuart Buck, among others, has offered his own comprehensive review of Ravitch’s faulty thinking and data interpretation as displayed in stupendous fashion in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Considering the ridiculing Ravitch has done to her own storied career as of late, she should unleash the lawyers on herself.

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Steven Brill and the Value of Abandoning the NEA/AFT Model

  Certainly there are some things that hasn’t been said about Class Warfare author Steven Brill’s Wall Street Journal piece declaring what Dropout Nation has always said: That we need…


Certainly there are some things that hasn’t been said about Class Warfare author Steven Brill’s Wall Street Journal piece declaring what Dropout Nation has always said: That we need more than just good-to-great teachers to spur school reform. One can note that Brill’s fails to consider the effects of the abysmal quality of recruiting and training done by the nation’s university schools of education and how overhauling teacher recruiting and training could help bring in more good-to-great teachers such as those profiled in his piece. Nor does he think about the possibility that teaching may not (and should not) be a lifetime job; the same high-quality teachers are also going to be ambitious and want to do other things in education. So the long-term solution is to build a continuous pipeline of teachers willing to do this work for a time, reward and recognize them for their good-to-great performance, and then help them do great work in the rest of American public education (which suffers from an overall dearth of high-quality talent).

But the most-interesting of Brill’s arguments isn’t those about teaching, or even his ultimate Nixon goes to China” proposition of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hiring American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten for the already ably-filled chancellor spot. It’s his proclamation that the AFT and its sister (and rival) union, the National Education Association, can “help to create” reforms that allow for “ordinary teachers” to do good-to-great work if coaxed in the right direction. It is interesting in light of what has been happening over the past decade — and also the one most-likely to never happen until two unions lose enough members and influence to force that change.

Certainly there have been plenty of attempts to move the NEA and AFT in the school reform direction. Those working on this include centrist Democrat reformers (who have helped weaken NEA and AFT influence, even as they are nervous about efforts by Republicans such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to do the same), a younger generation of teachers within the union ranks agitating through groups such as Educators4Excellence and NewTLA, and even some NEA and AFT leaders who have pushed for relatively moderate versions of school reform. These efforts, along with the defeats the two unions have suffered in the past two years alone thanks in part to the federal Race to the Top initiative, have forced them to the belatedly modify some of their stances on a smattering of matters, notably using student test score data in evaluating teacher performance. But the fact that it took strong reform measures to make the NEA and AFT budge a little pretty much proves that simply coaxing the two unions alone won’t work.

One reason why is because the NEA and AFT are looking after the interests of their most-influential of their rank-and-file base: Baby Boomers each of whom average a salary of at least $54,400 a year (and more if they have advanced degrees), near-lifetime employment, defined-benefit pensions that can pay out as much as $2 million over a lifetime, and nearly-free healthcare both during working careers and into retirement. Efforts by reformers along with reform-minded (and, in many cases, budget-conscious) governors to make it harder to attain tenure or abolish near-lifetime employment altogether, along with moves to subject teachers to performance-based evaluations, means that they would lose the benefits for which they have long worked. While groups of younger teachers such as those represented by Educators4Excellence are winning some internal battles, the reality is that Baby Boomers are still in clear control of union activity — and will do what they can to preserve their interests.

The second reason lies with the fact that there are still few organizations that can match the NEA and AFT in generating campaign donations and bodies for campaigning. School reformers have succeeded largely because of their work with state and federal policymakers, as well as winning the hearts and minds of families in urban communities. But while some school reformers, notably Eva Moskowitz, Geoffrey Canada and Steve Barr, have done a fine job of working with the grassroots, most of their colleagues — especially those in the Beltway crowd — have blundered in the area of political mobilization.

The final reason? The NEA and AFT continue to cling to an old-school model of employee-management relations that was never really a fit for the kind of work teachers do in the first place, and definitely not workable in an age in which teacher performance can be measured, quantified and rewarded accordingly. The concept of unionism first embraced by the AFT (and later accepted, belatedly, by the NEA) was borrowed from the old industrial union model, which, like the old school assembly line, cotton mills and shirtwaist factories, was based on the idea that employees are little more than mules who can only perform singular tasks ad nauseam. Given that managers, who embraced that idea even before Frederick Taylor began elaborating on it with falsified time and motion studies, didn’t feel obligated to do more than simply work those employees like farm animals (and put them in sweatshop conditions that wouldn’t even be fit for horses), unions fought rightly and successfully to make lives easier. They secured near-lifetime employment and pay scales based on seniority, and defined-benefit pensions that made sense at a time when the average lifespan after retirement was short and generally miserable.

Teaching was never as bad as factory work. But the concerns faced by the mostly-female teaching corps at that time — that they were never paid accordingly for their performance, that their performance couldn’t be measured in any way, that they could be easily fired for just getting pregnant, and couldn’t count on a secure retirement — were definitely realities. This is why the AFT and the NEA fought successfully for near-lifetime employment through tenure, degree- and seniority-based pay scales, and seniority-based privileges that currently make up traditional teacher compensation. And it is why the two unions have worked so hard to make school districts servile to their demands.

Certainly, as Michael Barone noted earlier this year in his piece on public-sector unions, the industrial labor model of employee-manager relations no longer applies in the modern world. And it most-certainly doesn’t apply to education. Thanks to value-added assessment and standardized testing, the success of teachers in improving student achievement can be easily measured; two decades of studies have proven that value-added stands up to scrutiny. The overwhelming evidence that traditional teacher compensation is ineffective in spurring student achievement, and worthless in attracting aspiring teacher to — and keeping them in — the profession proves the uselessness of the NEA-AFT model. But the two unions continue to embrace this model because it is the source of their influence and financial sustenance.

Because of these three reasons, it will be difficult for reformers, especially younger teachers within the NEA and AFT ranks, to push the unions in the right direction. Even though Weingarten’s triangulation strategy has fallen apart, the effort — along with the AFT’s historical idiosyncrasies, means that it is more-likely to go further with reform than its sister union. The NEA’s origins as a professional association could mean that it will return to those roots if its members are willing to ditch old-school unionism. But again, this will be difficult. And this likely means that they must look outside of the unions for change.

Younger teachers may have to walk away from the NEA and AFT, and start new professional associations that embrace the skilled tradesman model of the pre-Industrial Revolution era at the heart of the medical and legal professions, and increasingly used today in the private sector. Such groups can serve as counterweights — and alternative voices — to the current model of teachers’ unions. They could even step in the place of school districts by offering professional development to its members, championing teachers to start their own schools and programs to address the education crisis, and launching alternative teacher training programs similar to those offered by Teach For America and Urban Teacher Residency United.

The emergence of Parent Power groups which, as Dropout Nation reported earlier this month, the AFT and NEA both consider to be threats, will also be key. Parents unions, in particular, may end up turning the teachers’ union model on its head, finally gathering families into organized groups who can go toe-to-toe with NEA and AFT affiliates in every arena. It will also end the penchant among NEA and AFT leaders to behave arrogantly and condescendingly towards families — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — acting as if they are to only be (barely) seen and never heard.

And finally, the expansion of school choice, along with the development of online and blended learning, can substantially force the NEA and AFT into the reform direction. The former will allow families to leave failure factories and mills of mediocrity, reducing the footprint of the traditional districts that teachers’ union affiliates have under their thumb. The latter will allow for even more students to choose alternative learning methods and new schools that are outside NEA and AFT influence.

Brill is right that the NEA and AFT need to embrace school reform in full. But coaxing won’t be enough. They may only fully back reform once they have suffered more losses.

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My Grandmother and Yours, Or Why We Must Take School Reform Personally

As your Dropout Nation editor, I often try to approach the debates over the reform of American public education with dispassionate analysis and furious, passionate writing. My insight comes from…

Photo courtesy of the Biddle Family.

As your Dropout Nation editor, I often try to approach the debates over the reform of American public education with dispassionate analysis and furious, passionate writing. My insight comes from my reporting, often guided by data over anecdotes, a set of first principles, my Christianity and my sense of justice. But for me, this is no academic exercise, no bloodless public policy discussion. And I am constantly reminded that we must reform education because there are real lives, real men and women, who deserve better than fifth-rate.

One of those reminders is this picture right here. It is of a happy young girl, running in around in 1927  just two years before she was to go to school. Take away the black-and-white, and the period clothes, and she looks like any young girl walking around the streets in any neighborhood in America today.

The young girl in that photo is my dear departed grandma. The first years of her life involved joining my great-grandmother along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad, gathering coal that dropped from the trains, so that they could heat their shack in Roslyn, N.Y., and cook food. My grandmother the first nine years of her life mired in the kind of bitter poverty unimaginable even now. Even with that, she was as happy as any young girl could be. But she could barely read.

By the time my great-grandparents managed to get out of poverty into a relatively comfortable life (or as nice as maids and low-skilled workers could do for the time), moving from Roslyn to a nicer home in nearby Mineola, grandma had been to school. But the quality of her education was, to be kind, abysmal and subpar. By the tine she attended fourth grade, she was far behind her peers. And while my great-grandparents did their best to give her a loving home, their level of educational attainment was barely above signing Xs on documents.

My grandma could have remained mired in that state, on the way to dropping out. For the times she lived in, this would have been okay because education wasn’t necessarily critical to earning a living — and this would remain that way until the end of the 1970s. But my grandmother got lucky: She had what we would now call a high-quality teacher, who cared for her well-being, who worked with her on reading and her studies and got her to grade level and beyond. By the time grandma graduated from Mineola High School in 1942, she had been accepted to Wilberforce University, the first person in our family to attend college.

It was education that helped her get out of being poor and into a comfortable middle class life. It was education that helped my grandma provide the knowledge and loving household my mother and I needed to succeed in life. It was education that helped my mother, a single mother of three, get into good-paying jobs that she needed to keep a roof over our head. It is education that, in short, has helped my family, only a generation removed from slavery on my mother’s side, stay out of housing projects, out of Bed-Stuy and the South Bronx, and achieve things that my grandma could only dream about.

I tell this story for three reasons. The first: To remind everyone, including education traditionalists, that the argument that education cannot help move young men and women out of poverty — and that good-to-great teachers cannot transform the lives of children and keep them on the path to success in life — is absolutely ridiculous. Given the evidence from William Sanders and others than high-quality teaching is a more-critical determinant of student achievement than socioeconomic background — and the 1966 Coleman Report’s conclusion that if teaching is of high-quality, schooling will be a bigger factor than socioeconomic background — it is time for the Dana Goldsteins and Diane Ravitches to stop arguing the Poverty Myth of Education that deserves to be tossed into the trashbin.

The second reason? Because the reality remains that for far too many children, it is as haphazard to get a high-quality education now as it was during grandma’s youth in the worst days of the Great Depression. It is more than a tragedy and a travesty when one-third of our fourth-graders are functionally illiterate. It is absolutely immoral and intolerable. If you don’t find this state of affairs in American public education to be intolerable — and its underlying causes to be abhorrent — then I’d like to check your pulse. Because you can’t possibly be human.

And finally, I tell this story because it explains why I approach this education crisis so personally. I know, public policy types, including Beltway reformers, sometimes hate getting personal, dislike naming names, and prefer academic sparring to strong conversations that include calling people on the carpet for faulty thinking. But remember this: For every child, their future is intensely personal. We only have one shot, every day, with every child, to help them get the education they need so they can have futures worthy of their aspirations. The fierce urgency of right now isn’t just some X-axis on a chart.

For me, this isn’t just some bloodless public policy discussion. The young men and women being condemned to poverty and prison look just like I did when I was a child. They look just like my grandmother in her youth. They look like my nephew, my niece and my young cousins — and the children my wife and I will have one day.  These are kids who are told every day, in word and deed, by teachers and principals who don’t belong in schools, that they can never amount to anything. And I am incensed every time I consider how hard it is even for middle-class black and Latino families such as mine to ensure that our children are taught by high-quality teachers and get rigorous, college preparatory curricula — and furious when I think about kids in the poorest communities who are forced to attend failure factories because many of us continue to defend a failed, amoral vision.

And it is personal because each day, I listen to men and women, who look just like my grandmother looked as a young parent, who struggle each and every day with principals who ignore them, laggard teachers who condescend them, and adults all around more concerned with preserving influence than with helping their children succeed. After listening to their stories — and listening to those of their children — there is no way to not take this personally.

This writer isn’t just pulling this out of the air. Martin Luther King was as willing to challenge segregationists publicly and by name as he was willing to play nice. The Founding Fathers were among the sharpest-tongued men that ever lived, challenging an actual monarch. As with every movement in the past, there will be a need to have harsh, hard, conversations in which we hold men and women accountable for defending ideas that are indefensible.

This doesn’t mean going after the personal lives of people or calling people nasty names. When it comes to discussions in Congressional hearings and in public policy meetings, the bloodless language is quite appropriate. One should choose words carefully, not carelessly, and sometimes, say or write nothing at all. And should all shake hands and say hello, and even, be able to socialize on occasion, without rancor; we are civil human beings, not savages, and besides, you can’t move people to your side if you call them out and behave like a boor all at the same time. But it does mean calling people on the carpet for the mismatch between their ideals and their practices, especially when they don’t want to acknowledge it.

Certainly we must be thoughtful about our rhetoric. But, as Arthur Koestler would say, one should advocate furiously, ruthlessly, or don’t bother. When 150 young men and women drop out each our into economic and social despair, the school reform movement has to take the waste of these lives personally — and offer rhetoric to match. Or, in short, think about your grandmother and about how every child looked like she once did.

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