Tag: Alexander Russo


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What Education Reporters and School Reformers Should Do: The Los Angeles Times Paves the Way


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The Los Angeles Times isn’t exactly one of my favorite newspapers. Although the editorial page is much-improved, its news coverage of California and L.A. issues often pales in comparison to…

The Los Angeles Times isn’t exactly one of my favorite newspapers. Although the editorial page is much-improved, its news coverage of California and L.A. issues often pales in comparison to that of the rival Daily News and the Orange County Register. Occasionally (and especially on coverage of the hometown industry, entertainment), it even gets outclassed by the other Times and by the local business news weekly.

But this week, the Times managed to put together a report on teacher quality — and the lack of it — in L.A. Unified schools that deserves both a Pulitzer and an award for great advocacy. While teachers union bosses, defenders of the status quo and others debate the piece and its analysis of student test score data, here are two reasons why education reporters and school reform advocates should look to the Times report as their guide for their future work:

Data Shows the Reality: As Dropout Nation readers know so well, a major point of this site is to use data in order to fully dissect the problems within American public education. This is for good reason: Information reveals what the eyes often cannot see.

All high schools seem alike until one looks at such numbers as test score growth data and Promoting Power rates; that’s when you can tell the difference between a great school and a dropout factory. And as much as one may think you can tell a high-quality teacher just by watching them in a classroom, the reality is that you can’t. Not even the otherwise esteemable Jay Mathews is that perceptive.

Yet education reporters such as Mathews seem stuck in the belief that the best way to report on education and its impacts on society is in the classrooms. This isn’t so. The real causes and consequences of academic failure — and reasons behind the fruits of academic success — are seen not in schools, but in teacher education sessions at ed schools, during state legislative sessions, on unemployment lines and in prisons. It is also seen in data — from graduation rates to employment statistics. Without the data being the guide, reporting¬†will often be¬†a shallow collection of talking heads shooting off their mouths.

The Denver Post offered a fantastic example of using data in education coverage some years ago when it analyzed Denver’s graduation and promoting power rates. The Indianapolis Star has done the same — including my own string of series late in the decade and the work of Andy Gammill and Mark Nichols on suspension and expulsion. Although there have been some wonderful reporting done by education reporters in the past couple of years, few of them have risen to the level of those reports. Until¬†the L.A. Times took it up a notch.

The Times did a great job in using data. Not only were Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith unafraid to approach the student test score data, they sought out expertise (in the form of Rand Corp. economist Richard Buddin) to help them make sense of it. They let the data serve as the guide to finding their subjects instead of just approaching teachers, smiling faces and classrooms of chaos. As someone who has done his share of data-driven reporting and opinion, I say they deserve two rounds of beers (and a few awards) for their great work. And I am more than happy to buy them the brew.

Education reporting has to get away from observing classrooms. Its reporters must no longer be afraid of wading into data analysis. The Times report is a sterling example of what should be done. We need more of this. Pronto.

Afflicting the comfortable: Folks such as Rick Hess and Alexander Russo take issue with the Times piece because it dares to actually name those teachers who are performing poorly and doing great work. At first, one can certainly understand the discomfort; after all, the teachers being shamed (including fifth-grade teacher John Smith, who took the brunt of the scrutiny) are folks who have thought they were doing great work and were never told by their district that this wasn’t so.

But let’s face facts: For one, the Times didn’t name every teacher evaluated in its study; just those it interviewed for the piece. The public can’t access the data unless they happen to be the L.A. Unified teachers evaluated for the project (although as¬†commenter Tom Hoffman notes,¬†the Times will¬†make this a reality in its follow-up which will come tomorrow.¬†And it should).

¬†Then we must remember that many of these teachers have likely been backers of the AFT’s longstanding opposition to the use of student test data in evaluating the teachers, the very reason why they never were told in the first place. More importantly, let’s not forget that teaching is a comfortable, well-compensated profession: They gain near-lifetime employment (through tenure) just after three years on the job; in L.A., a 20-year veteran makes more than $70,000 a year (more than the $63,859 earned by the average L.A. county family); their defined-benefit pensions are one of the reasons why California state government is essentially insolvent; their unions are the single most-influential force in education policy.

Journalism and advocacy are both about afflicting the comfortable on behalf of the afflicted. These poor-performing teachers are the comfortable. Worse, they are comfortable at the expense of the futures of young boys and girls, many of whom will never enjoy the kind of middle-class salaries and strong job protections their teachers receive. Meanwhile the high-quality teachers who are actually doing well — who deserve comfort — never get the full recognition (or the wide range of compensation and career opportunities) they so richly deserve.

Those who declare that the Times’ analysis was akin to a job evaluation are full of it. It isn’t. L.A. Unified doesn’t even use the data in its official evaluations (and until recently, couldn’t do so under state law). In any case, it isn’t any different than revealing salary data; as the soon-to-be husband of a former state government worker whose salary was exposed by the paper for which he had worked, I had to balance my own discomfort with the reality that government employees work for taxpayers — and thus, deserve to know what they are being paid.

Given that parents need to know about the quality of the teachers instructing their children (and should be able to choose high-quality teachers or reject those who are of low quality), revealing this information is not dangerous; as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would say, it’s the right thing to do. For far too long, poor-performing teachers have lurked in the shadows, aided and abetted by teachers unions, administrators and colleagues who instinctively (if not quantitatively) knew better and did nothing. On the other side, we have good-to-great teachers who are forced by their colleagues to remain quiet about their achievements (or in the case of the John Taylor Gattos and Jaime Escalantes, forced out of the¬†profession because of¬†jealousy within the ranks).¬†The Times did what every news outlet is supposed to do. Hess and others shouldn’t be afraid to do it either.

[By the way: Gven that value-added analysis has stood up to three decades of scrutiny, it is appropriate to use it for analysis of the kind the Times has conducted (and for use in actually evaluating teachers). The arguments made by Hess and¬†opponents of¬†teacher quality reform¬†against such uses are mere hogwash; for the latter, it’s the pursuit of perfection at the expense of the good of improving education for children, largely because that goal is of secondary importance to them.]

The Times report isn’t exactly advocacy in either the inside-the-Beltway or grassroots sense. The best of journalism — including editorials and opinions — never does that anyway because reporters (and to a lesser extent, editorialists) must steer an objective, even-handed course. What the Times does do through its reporting is advocate strongly for an open, honest discussion about how we evaluate teachers, why we must move toward a system that uses value-added assessment and student test data (the best, most-objective data available), and what we must do to achieve an important component of the overall goal of improving education for all children. Only those who oppose any reform of American public education — or lack the stomach for such honest conversations — disagree with this.

School reformers, unlike reporters, don’t have any obligations to be even-handed. Judicious and thoughtful? Definitely. Sticking to the debate instead of name-calling? Definitely. But far too often, especially among Beltway reformers, the tendency is to couch conclusions and defenses of their views in starchy, academic, far-too-careful language; it is an important reason why the Beltway types struggle to converse with the very parents and community members who they need to help sustain their reforms (grassroots activists lack such¬†timidity).¬†¬†Those who proclaim they want to overhaul American public education should be as bold in their work — even embracing the steps the Times took — instead of shying timidly into the night.

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Dropout Nation on Twitter for March 19th


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Check out the Dropout Nation Twitter feed for instant news and updates on the reform of American public education. Here are some select tweets from March 19th: RT @EdEquality: CS…

You seen the bird. Do what he says.

Check out the Dropout Nation Twitter feed for instant news and updates on the reform of American public education. Here are some select tweets from March 19th:

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Read: Snowbound Edition


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What’s happening today in the dropout nation: When the National Education Association took control of the Indiana State Teachers Association last year, Association after the collapse of its insurance trust…

What’s happening today in the dropout nation:

  1. When the National Education Association took control of the Indiana State Teachers Association last year, Association after the collapse of its insurance trust fund, it was more than just a colossal embarrassment of alleged financial mismanagement – and a loss of coverage for its 50,000 rank-and-file members. After decades of winning expensive compensation packages that have made teaching one of the best-paid professions in the public sector, the collapse of ISTA — along with $600 billion in pension deficits and underfunded retirement liabilities — exposes teachers unions to increased scrutiny — especially as taxpayers may end up on the hook for the unions’ failings. Read more about the collapse — and how it could help spur teacher compensation and quality reforms — in my latest Labor Watch report.
  2. Tom Vander Ark sums up the problem with the Obama Administration’s decision to essentially gut the No Child Left Behind Act by eliminating its Adequate Yearly Progress provisions: Doing so will abandon the promise of assuring that every child no matter their race or economic status, can attend a great school staffed by high-performing teachers. Of course, as I hinted last week in The American Spectator, the administration may be doing this (along with boosting education spending for FY 2011) in order to placate the NEA and AFT, whose help they will need in order to keep control of Congress.
  3. The folks behind The Lottery are rallying folks around an “Education Constitution” demanding teacher quality reforms, expansion of school choice and other reforms. Check it out and sign it.
  4. The U.S. Department of Education releases a timely report on an important — if rarely-considered — use of school data: Improving teaching, staffing, student diagnostics and other matters at the district, school and even classroom levels. As I wrote last year in A Byte at the Apple, school data will only be the most useful once the information is delivered and made accessible in ways teachers, administrators and parents find appealing and useful. Right now, however, this is still a problem.
  5. Speaking of useful data, the Consortium on Chicago School Research has a series of papers examining the on-time graduation progress of the Windy City’s high school students. Each of Chicago’s high schools are examined in depth. Read them. I am.
  6. EducationNews is re-running another one of teaching guru Martin Haberman’s fine essays, this on whether the right people are entering teaching. Given the efforts to reform ed schools and weed out laggards before they even apprentice, the piece is as timely as ever.
  7. And, with Gary Orfield’s study of charter school segregation gaining attention from newspapers and school reformers alike, Sonya Sharp of Mother Jones points out the one thing everyone forgets: Traditional school districts are just as segregated (and often, even more segregated) no matter where we go. Joanne Jacobs also offers a compendium of the arguments (including those by your friendly neighborhood editor). And, by the way, here is a piece I wrote a few years ago about diversity and public schools.
  8. Intramural Sparring Watch: Big Edreform Andy #1 (also known as Andrew Rotherham) This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo (and his employer, Scholastic) for for allegedly running “hearsay” claims against Massachusetts’ education secretary, Paul Reveille, for his supposed intervention in the authorizing of a local charter school. Russo, by the way, has taken potshots against Rotherham and his folks at the Education Sector (which Rotherham, by the way, is leaving by the end of March) for years. Most recently, he accused EdSector of allegedly mucking around with a report authored by EdSector’s now-departed cofounder. Yeah, I’m exhausted from just writing about this.

Meanwhile, check out this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on the reauthorization of No Child, along with my pieces this week on charter schools and segregation. The next podcast, on civil rights activists and education reform, will be available on Sunday before the Super Bowl. And since you are all stuck inside, get your debate on.

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The Read


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All there is to know in the dropout nation. Updated throughout the day (updates and new stories are *): No standard left behind: As large a role poor instruction plays…

These kids need to be back in school, not in truancy court. So let's help keep them there.

These kids need to be back in school, not in truancy court. So let's help keep them there.

All there is to know in the dropout nation. Updated throughout the day (updates and new stories are *):

  • No standard left behind: As large a role poor instruction plays in fueling the dropout crisis and the nation’s overall crisis of low academic achievement, another can be found in efforts by many school districts to essentially water down academic standards set at the state and federal levels. From social promotion of laggard students (when they should be left back and given different teachers and instructional settings that fit their learning styles) to grade inflation, school districts engage in the kind of, well, let’s call it fraud that would lead to prison sentences if it were consider criminal offenses. Essentially, the districts are arguing that they are improving academic performance when all they are really doing is providing children with a slipshod education. So the report by the Dallas Morning News that teachers are annoyed at such an attempt by officials in the city’s Independent School District is both wonderful and disheartening to hear. The former, because teachers are being serious about their job. The latter? Because the district is up to the old nasty tricks again.
  • When math teachers aren’t being well-instructed to teach math: The National Council on Teacher Quality released a study earlier this year on the woefully inadequate math instruction training by almost all of the 77 schools of education it surveyed. Now George Leef of the Pope Center offers some pointers on how math instruction must be reformed in order to improve the poor math performance of America’s students.
  • Speaking of math (and immigration and teachers and H-1B): At Free Trade Nation, your editor analyzes one immigration skeptic’s criticism of the “H-1B Education” piece that ran earlier this week in The American Spectator.
  • Teacher pay reform on sight: Kevin Carey gives a full report on the battle between new D.C. schools chief, Michelle Rhee, and the lackluster district’s teachers union over a teacher pay reform plan. Rhee may actually be winning over the younger (and more performance-oriented) teachers. But, while Carey is more optimistic about the results, I would argue that being the head of a school district within the nation’s capital — with a bevy of Democrat congressmen and senators who collect donations from the two major teachers unions – is no easy task; succeeding in winning salary reform may lead to a Congressional edict that will end the plan altogether.
  • Speaking of Carey: Alexander Russo takes a shot at him for arguing with the Broader, Bolder gang. Although I understand Russo’s complaint that so many ed policy types aren’t as willing to engage in the dirty work of reforming schools in order to improve the education of poor kids, I would argue that the fact that Broader, Bolder includes the ones who do doesn’t mean that they are on the right side.¬† The latter, after all, is arguing for letting schools off the hook for their rather sizeable role in perpetuating the nation’s dropout crisis.

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The Read


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All that is happening inside — and outside — the dropout nation. Updated throughout the day: No Child debate? What No Child debate?: Cato’s Neil McCluskey wonders why folks such…

Starting early to prevent dropouts. Courtesy of mindoh.files.wordpress.com

Starting early to prevent dropouts. Courtesy of mindoh.files.wordpress.com

All that is happening inside — and outside — the dropout nation. Updated throughout the day:

    1. No Child debate? What No Child debate?: Cato’s Neil McCluskey wonders why folks such as himself — who oppose a federal role in education — weren’t invited to the Newtalk.org debate on what to do with the federal education law? The host, John Merrow gives him an answer McCluskey considers “a very narrow exchange.” He is right.
    2. Expanding school choice, California stye: Some $100 million may be spent on building new charter schools under SB 658, which would also fund year-round schools, according to George B. Sanchez of the L.A. Daily News. The latter part of the bill — and the far larger section, at least fiscally — is why the state teachers union is willing to buck its traditional resistance to expanding charters. Who knew a little wheel-greasing would help in expanding school choice? Anyway, this move is far more positive than the effort attempted by the state House leadership in Indiana last year to essentially vut off funding to charters.
    3. A benefit of immigration — Good teachers (thanks to Alexander Russo): Importing Filipino natives to the United States in order to teach English and Math once seemed to be confined to the Clark County school district in Las Vegas and other West Coast districts. Now, notes the Washington Post Magazine, they are even helping suburban D.C. school districts fill their shortages. Students get the instruction they need to keep from dropping out. And the teachers? They get to help their families back home.
    4. More state gaming of No Child (Subscription required): As if Mississippi — whose graduation rate for black males is just under 50 percent for the Class of 2006 — actually needed to lower its curriculum standards. All the state board of education did was merely move above bare minimum. And that’s just following other states in fostering what the folks at Fordham would call the proficiency illusion.

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