Tag: Steve Barr


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Three Questions: Steve Barr


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Steve Barr probably didn’t think he was taking a new, grassroots-centered approach to school reform when he started the Green Dot collection of charter schools back in 1999. A decade…

Photo courtesy of PopTech

Steve Barr probably didn’t think he was taking a new, grassroots-centered approach to school reform when he started the Green Dot collection of charter schools back in 1999. A decade later, before stepping down as chairman of the charter school operator, Barr managed to rally the city’s Latino parents to revolt against the systemic incompetence of the Los Angeles Unified School District, took control of one of the district’s dropout factories, and formed a charter school in New York City in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers that broke with traditional union work rules. He also proved that the poorest Latino children — many of whose parents are immigrants legal and otherwise — can achieve academic success, even if the Heather Mac Donalds of the world choose to think otherwise.

Barr took some time during a drive from L.A. to San Francisco to offer his thoughts on school reform, working in the grassroots on improving education, and the disconnect between Beltway-based reformers and those who work on the ground. Read, think and consider.

What is the one surprising thing you have learned during your work starting up Green Dot? How did that affect your own approach to school reform and civil rights?

The most surprising is a daily surprise. You have to challenge all preconceptions. People don’t like to talk about it, but [those preconceptions] come down to race and politics. I have yet to meet a group of people who don’t care about the conditions of education. What’s surprising to me is no matter where you from, who you are, is how intensively interested people who are about education because they love their own kids. But if you listen to people, they think that only certain people care about education. They say “you only succeed because you get only these kind of children or they have these kind of parents.

What people don’t realize is how bizarre that statement is. There are only one or two percent of people out there who don’t care about kids. But that’s not most people. Out of the 8,000 kids we have [at Green Dot], only a dozen of them are white.

When I started Green Dot, I didn’t have kids. I wasn’t married. I wasn’t even close to being married. Now that I have kids and I’m married, I get it more. I get why [Green Dot’s parents and others] are intensely interested in education. Every day, I find it reassuring that people care about improving education. It gives me hope.

Is there a disconnect between school reformers inside the Beltway and community activists – and why does it exist (if it does)?

I think it is hard to stay connected in Washington. This is why I’m loathe to go to Washington. It’s a company town. It is also an incredibly segregated town. Once you are there, it is hard to stay connected. It is also an elite class of folks. It doesn’t mean you can’t work with folks. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any good work done. It’s just that it is hard to make the connection between them and what is done out here.

How can school reformers and grassroots activists work together to improving education for poor Latino and black children?

If you truly want to improve education for the urban poor, you have to truly immerse themselves in their communities. You have to approach it with an open mind. When we open a school, we do a lot of outreach. When I go into an African-American church, I have to realize that they have been lied to by people for a lot of years. It means I have to come back there again and again and build trust. The first time, it may not go well. But that’s the work. You have to understand where people come from. Over time, you build trust with them. They will become reformers as well.

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Why School Reform Can Succeed


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As Ronald Reagan would say, optimism always beats pessimism. Or as Martin Luther King would put it, hopes always overcome fears. Simply stated, the school reform movement in all of…

Few truer words have ever been spoken.

As Ronald Reagan would say, optimism always beats pessimism. Or as Martin Luther King would put it, hopes always overcome fears. Simply stated, the school reform movement in all of its strains — alarmed by the crisis of systemic academic and bureaucratic failure in American public education — are driven by a zealously optimistic faith in the capacity of people to stem the nation’s high school dropout crisis and improve the lives of children.

This optimism is at the heart of every successful mass reform, from the American revolution that started this country, to the Civil Rights Movement that ended Jim Crow racism, to the conservative movement that, until recently, has driven the last three decades of American economic success. More importantly, this optimism always wins against the hopelessness and dourness of the established opposition.

What defenders of traditional public education offer isn’t exactly hope. They offer pessimism, hopelessness, sense of powerlessness over improving the lives of children. Behind their views (both left-leaning and conservative) is the faulty conceit that poverty cannot be overcome, the condescending argument that poor black, Latino, white and Asian families are disinterested in improving the quality of education for their children, and simmering anger against anyone who dares argue that concepts such as choice, quality, rigor and accountability are good things that should be embraced by all of education.

This is the underlying reason why the classrooms and halls of charter schools and reform-minded traditional public schools are often so cheery, syrupy even. It is why a Steve Barr can work unaffected by vicious rhetoric from opponents — and actually force a moribund school district to actually try something new and novel. It is why, despite outrage over the quality of public education, school reformers aren’t consumed by anger and desperation. Anger and desperation equals success isn’t a calculation that can be found in life’s textbook.

School reformers believe the effects of poverty and underclass behavior can be overcome by high-quality education and hard work. Defenders of traditional public education simply believe otherwise. Richard Lee Colvin noted the contrast in a recent piece on his time spent at the New Schools Venture Funds annual summit and a recent confab held by the American Educational Research Association. You can see this in the arguments on Twitter between reformers and teachers stuck in the status quo. It is evident in the stories told by Teach For America alumni and famed teachers such as the late Jaime Escalante, versus the tales of woe told in ed schools and teachers lounges across this country.

There is a reason why half of all aspiring teachers coming out of ed school never take classroom jobs. They spend so little energy apprenticing in classrooms and so much time around ed school professors offering little more than doom. This is exemplified by a story Katie Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, told me back in 2005 when I was still an editorial writer for the Indianapolis Star. Her daughter, Brooke, had performed for a class of teaching students about to graduate from LSU and she noticed the lack of hope and optimism in the air. Their professors had so little to offer them in terms of practical teaching advice and understanding how data can be used in improving student achievement. Those professors, however, offered much in the way of doom and gloom about the ability of these aspiring teachers to improve the quality of instruction the poorest children receive in school every day.

It is also why so many teachers and principals burn out long before they reach the earliest retirement age, walking the halls of their schools like the zombies out of Night of the Living Dead. In his darkest dreams, George Romero could never conjure the kind of dread that pervades some of the worst-performing schools. Their very existence proves that without optimism there is no positive, sustainable action.

This isn’t to say that school reformers don’t have work to do. As the site has chronicled over and over, the movement must reach beyond the Beltway and comfy quarters. It must get its hands dirty in politics and in grassroots change. They must do more to include the very blacks and Latinos their efforts serve and still win over (or browbeat into submission) suburban parents — and the Charlie Crists they elect to office. Those obstacles, difficult as they may be, are easier to overcome than the biggest hurdle facing each of us as individuals and as collectives: Choosing the mindset of confident, providential hope over desperate, implacable fear.

As an eternal optimist proven right more often than not, I can tell you that this old saw is so true: You can manifest your hopes – and you can also make your fears real. But only one will actually yield success over a problem. This is as true for movements as it is for individuals. It is why school reformers will likely succeed where their opposition will surely fail.

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Read: Shutdown Edition


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What’s happening today in the dropout nation: In Kansas City, Superintendent John Covington is taking a radical approach to dealing with the urban district’s declining fiscal profile: Shut down half…

Walking into trouble: Kansas City school superintendent John Covington.

What’s happening today in the dropout nation:

  1. In Kansas City, Superintendent John Covington is taking a radical approach to dealing with the urban district’s declining fiscal profile: Shut down half of the city’s 60 traditional public schools, according to the Star. Whether or not this will actually work is a different story. Such efforts have shown little result, either in improving revenues, cutting costs or improving the quality of learning for children. It may be time for Covington to give a call to my fellow A Byte At the Apple co-authors, Rick Hess and Jon Fullerton, about how to revamp the district’s back-office and transportation functions. Oh, and Dave Eggers’ brother, who specializes in revamping government operations.
  2. Covington, who just arrived in K.C. after serving in Pueblo City, Colo., is having a little trouble with the school board president too. Given the reported history of infighting within the district’s board, Covington may have just landed in dysfunction (and may find himself praying for mayoral control) for the next three years.
  3. K.C. isn’t the only district with budget problems.A.P. notes that other districts may need to cut budgets as they run out of federal stimulus funds. This may force many to adapt a Houston/N.Y.C/L.A. Unified solution and do a better job of weeding out laggard teachers before they achieve tenure. Or re-work the traditional system of near-free health benefits for their teachers(which will happen eventually anyway because of the high costs of such benefits). Unless Obama comes up with a second stimulus, as I have also predicted.
  4. Across the state line in Kansas, school districts and their lawyers were told by the state supreme court that their funding lawsuit would not re-opened, according to the Star. The lawsuit resulted in a judgment against the state to fund the suing school districts to the tune of $1 billion; the state has since retreated in order to handle its budget deficits.
  5. Speaking of school leadership, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants to spur reform of how superintendents and administrators are trained, reports eSchool News. As he pointed out, it’s a bit much to require a superintendent to take a course in, say special ed, before assuming his job. Especially if the superintendent has plenty of experience teaching in — and running  — such programs.  Of course, as seen in Indiana (where superintendents are often not recruited from outside the state borders), diversifying the field of potential administrators — including looking at executives with private-sector management experience — may do districts good, especially in addressing the important (but rarely well-managed) transportation, school lunch, human resources and capital maintenance functions.
  6. An example of leadership: New York City schools chieftain Joel Klein declares in the New York Post that laggard teachers must go.
  7. And, about Indiana: State officials there are unveiling a new value-added assessment system under which parents, teachers and school districts can see student progress over time, according to Andy Gammill. As you would expect, suburban districts aren’t too pleased, largely because the assessments show they aren’t doing as good a job improving student learning as most expect.
  8. Meanwhile in L.A. Unified, where the school reform effort has in some ways fizzled amid antics by both L.A. Unified and its AFT local, the state’s parent trigger is getting used, especially by parents in an enclave in the San Fernando Valley whose students attend Mount Gleason Middle School. L.A. Unified officials are afraid that there will parents at marginal schools such as this one who will just pull the proverbial trigger and the AFT local fears that the law will be used by charter school operators in order to gain market share. But, as far as they should be concerned, it’s not about their concerns. Their concerns shouldn’t matter. It’s those of the students and their parents that should matter most. Period. If this leads to the full devolution of L.A. Unified and other systemically failing bureaucracies, so be it. The children haven’t been well-served by them anyway.
  9. Speaking of more parent power and charters:The Washington Post editorial board backs Virginia Gov. bob McDonnell’s charter school expansion plan. And in New York City, the Daily News notes one consequence of the charter school movement’s growing power: Politicaly-connected charters get millions in state dollars, including one supported by state senate leader Malcolm Smith and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Charter advocates need to be as concerned about corruption within their ranks as they are about shenanigans by teachers unions and traditional school districts.
  10. The Mobile Learning Institute offers a video series on new approaches to instruction in this century. Some of the videos (particularly the one on portfolio-based instruction) argue for approaches that are actually tried (and failed). But others, such as the one featuring Green Dot founder Steve Barr discussing the reform efforts at Locke High School, are interesting.

Check out this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, this time on why school reformers should build ties to grassroots activists in order to sustain policy goals. Also read my Labor Watch report on how the collapse of an NEA affiliate may help spur overhauls of traditional teachers compensation.

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More on L.A. Unified: A special Flash gallery


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The Los Angeles Unified School District has long been renowned for its academic failure and bureaucratic intransigence. But, as I report today in National Review, the dysfunctional district is now…

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The Los Angeles Unified School District has long been renowned for its academic failure and bureaucratic intransigence. But, as I report today in National Review, the dysfunctional district is now looking to bring school choice of a sort to the district. Read more and check out the special gallery with statistics on the district’s academic and bureaucratic troubles.

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A Considerable Legacy: Steve Barr


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One man’s vision others couldn’t see or embrace becomes real.

Leading a parent revolution.

Leading a parent revolution.

Back in 2003, when I was a reporter in Los Angeles, I had begun work on a piece about Steve Barr, whose Green Dot Charter Schools was simply a handful of charter schools in Tinseltown’s gritty neighborhoods. What was fascinating at the time — which my editors could never fully grasp at that time — was the revolutionary (for L.A.) ideas he espoused: That city’s Latino students, often cast off as future gang-bangers, potential Chicano revolutionaries or likely cleaning staff, could actually achieve academic excellence, graduate from college and become contributors to the city’s — and nation’s — socioeconomic fabric; and that L.A. Unified and its sister school districts owed their taxpayers far better than substandard teaching and curricula.

These days, it seems difficult to realize how dispirited most were about the possibilities of achieving a high quality education in L.A. schools. The gamesmanship of maintaining a residence in Beverly Hills to attend the schools, as shown in the film Slums of Beverly Hills was no movie fantasy. For the poorest parents, many of whom were (and still are) undocumented immigrants, the struggle to achieve the American dream on behalf of their children and themselves made such activity the last thing on their minds. The simple idea that every neighborhood should have a great school, a concept that had already taken hold in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and New York through the charter school movement and school district overhauls, was not even considered in L.A. Unified, a district which managed to squash Jaime Escalantes and Richard Riordans alike. Especially odd given that California was the second state to legislate charters into existence.

Barr wanted to make this happen by gathering parents and focusing them on the basics. Back then, he had a few believers, notably boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya (the namesake of one of Green Dot’s schools) and the parents left behind by the region’s educational establishment. This was two years before Barr and his crew began staring down L.A. Unified, first in an unsuccessful attempt to convert Thomas Jefferson High into a charter school — and four years before he and parents at Locke High finally wrested control of that school from the district’s bureaucracy. And certainly long before national attention noted that in the City of Angels, another model for education reform — one both eschewed the inside-the-Beltway game and evolved independent of the Teach For America school — was coming to fore.

Now, with L.A. Unified talking and (mostly) walking school choice and accountability, one can now fully get what Steve Barr was doing. And as he leaves the board of the charter school organization he founded, it will be interesting to see what he does next.

By the way: More on L.A. Unified will appear in National Review Online this week.

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The Read


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All the news inside — and outside — the dropout nation. Updated throughout the day (new items and updates are marked with an *): Bad instruction + Bad parenting =…

At some point, Black America must say enough is enough when it comes to tolerating academic failure. The time must be now.

At some point, Black America must say enough is enough when it comes to tolerating academic failure. The time must be now.

All the news inside — and outside — the dropout nation. Updated throughout the day (new items and updates are marked with an *):

  • Bad instruction + Bad parenting = poor academic performance: How poorly did San Francisco’s black students in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade perform on the latest round of state tests? Reports the San Francisco Chronicle: “Special education students had slightly higher proficiency rates than black students in second-, third- and fourth-grade math as well as fourth-grade English.” No wonder why black middle class residents who can afford to move to Silicon Valley or to cities with better-performing school systems, do so. Educational genocide at work, dear folks. And this must stop.
  • Meet one of L.A. Unified’s worst dropout factories: Just north of Compton and near the famed Hancock Park, Jefferson High School has been blessed with a beautiful Art Deco building and an alumni list that includes diplomat extraordinaire Ralph Bunch, dance impresario Alvin Ailey and saxophonist Dexter Gordon. But the school has become more notorious for schoolyard brawls, being at the center of the battle between the district and charter school outfit Green Dot schools (which opened five charter schools surrounding Jefferson in response to parent complaints about the school) and pervasive academic failure. And during the 2006-07 school year, it has garnered the status of being one of the state’s worst dropout factories, according to the Associated Press. Six out of every ten freshmen leave school without a sheepskin, making it the worst-performing dropout factory among the academic roach motels run by L.A. Unified.
  • Public school choice? What public school choice*: Parents and students in Washington, D.C.’s woeful public schools just got notices that they qualify for the public school choice option under No Child, by which they can transfer from one failing school to a better one. But as the Washington Post reports, the parents already know that the choices they face in the school system are grim to none. And the notifications come out so late that the options aren’t available at all. As I’ve mentioned last week, public school choice doesn’t exist for most parents and students in any form.
  • Building for nothing: Back in 2001, Milwaukee Public Schools embarked on a $102 million building spree in order to create local schools and in order to eschew the more destructive elements of school busing. This despite the fact that the district, like so many urban systems, has seen three decades of declining enrollment. The results, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a three-part series, is, well, predictable: Students are still being bused to schools outside their respective neighborhoods; new additions and old buildings are sitting half-empty or — for the shame of the district — being rented out to private schools. And combo efforts such as building a church alongside another public school has gone awry, with both students and parishioners taking the hit.
  • The Milwaukee schools experience offers another reason for a new model: Over the past three years, I’ve floated something I call the Hollywood model for public education under which local school districts would move from becoming operators of schools and masters of academic instruction — a job which many people argue (and the evidence suggests), they don’t do so well — to becoming a dormitory authority similar to the state agency used in New York state to build colleges. Similar to the major motion picture studios (which rarely produce films, but focus on distribution and finance), school district would construct buildings, provide school lunch services and handle transportation services on behalf of public charter schools and private schools(none of which have the scale to do those jobs efficiently). The charter schools and private schools would become, essentially, become like small-shingle Hollywood studios, handling the instructional work that districts used to do. This embraces public education as being a system of financing the best options for every student, no matter their race or income, while maximizing the public dollars that are in place. The reality is that public school districts are actually pretty good in constructing buildings and moving people around, not so good at academic instruction or data systems. A Hollywood model of education may not be such a bad idea after all.
  • Speaking of building: Public school officials in New Orleans plans on building 28 new school buildings while selling off or otherwise jettisoning 50 others as part of a $685 million plan funded by FEMA funds, according to the Times-Picayune. The key part of the plan: A separate authority that would essentially build and manage the buildings on behalf of both the existing traditional public school system, the Recovery District of charters and traditional public schools run by the state and other entities. Essentially, this could be the Hollywood model at work — if the penchant of officials for corruption and sleaze  doesn’t trump the goal of efficient building.
  • Better middle schools, New York style: The Daily News offers some suggestions on middle schools that aren’t “middle of the pack.” Check it out.
  • A challenge*: Jay Greene asks the Broader, Bolder crowd to put their words to practice by coming up with a test model of their proposed community school concept. Save for Leo Casey’s response and a small missive from Lawrence Mishel, no response has been forthcoming from the group in response to other criticisms of their anti-accountability plan.
  • From my end*, Broader, Bolder is right to note that a better approach to the current public welfare system — one that offers some form of wrap-around help for families in need — is probably needed for the children coming out of poverty-minded homes. But schools cannot abdicate their responsibility for educating these children and preparing them for higher education and life. Good teachers can overcome other socioeconomic problems. But good instruction and rigorous curricula must first be provided by schools in order for this to happen.
  • And feel free* to check out my latest piece for The American Spectator, this time, on how Reason magazine’s rating of Chicago as the most nanny-statelike city in America doesn’t fully consider all the problems of the City of Broad Shoulders. For most people, the Second City’s status as first in the nation when it comes to corruption — along with its underperforming schools — is far more disconcerting than its anti-liberty coddling and toddling.

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