Gov. Christie Favors Charter Schools, Ignores Waiver Agreement with U.S. Dept. of Ed.

New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie’s disdain for democracy is notorious.  The state of New Jersey has been running the public schools of Newark for 20 years, and referring to the citizens—parents and students—of Newark, Christie declared: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”  It would appear that Christie is equally cavalier about his promises to Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education.  New Jersey’s Department of Education has been ignoring the terms of the state’s No Child Left Behind Waiver—ignoring the program the New Jersey Department of Education’s own staff proposed as the way New Jersey would implement the waiver.

Here is how the National Education Association and the New Jersey Education Association describe the problem in a formal letter of complaint they sent to U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, earlier this week: “(T)he state made extensive commitments to support the turnaround of its lowest-performing Priority schools, primarily through seven new Regional Achievement Centers throughout the state, in exchange for the waiver of many statutory requirements under ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), including the requirements…  related to corrective action for schools failing to make adequate yearly progress, as well as sections… expanding the State’s flexibility in distributing federal funds.  The Education Law Center recently alerted the Department that the State has failed to fulfill these commitments in the Newark Public School system.  We are writing to inform the Department of even farther-reaching deficiencies in the Camden City School District…. Instead of working to turnaround Priority schools in Camden, the State is seeking to transfer five public schools to private parties to operate as ‘renaissance’ charter schools and to close an additional public school.”

The letter  describes a series of supports for struggling schools that were promised in the state’s application for a federal waiver.  Regional Achievement Centers were to be established to develop comprehensive individualized school improvement plans for each of New Jersey’s seriously struggling schools.  Improvements were to include model curriculum, new tests, professional development for teachers to improve instruction, new data management, and innovative programs for students with disabilities, English language learners, and low achievers.

In Camden instead, according to NEA and NJEA, “At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the State seized direct control of the Camden Public Schools.  Rather than reinvigorating State support for turning around Camden’s troubled schools, State support began to taper off.”  The director of the Regional Achievement Center (RAC) serving Camden resigned in 2013 and has not been replaced.  “Without leadership, the RAC’s activities tapered off.  Many Priority schools’ School Improvement Plans—the comprehensive individualized plans that were to guide turnaround efforts were either delayed or partially implemented.  By the 2014-2015 school year, the RAC ceased functioning altogether…  The RAC likewise no longer has an office.  The School Leader positions were abolished, and Priority schools in Camden had few or no School Leaders to drive change.”

This spring in Camden, Christie’s Department of Education has begun so-called “turnarounds”—privatizing and closing the schools it promised to improve in its application for the No Child Left Behind waiver.

NEA and NJEA ask Arne Duncan to intervene: “NEA and NJEA urge the Department to use its oversight authority to ensure full and effective implementation of the State’s approved ESEA statutory waiver and to deny the State’s recent request to renew its waiver unless and until the State is in full compliance with the terms set forth in its waiver application.  In particular, the Department should hold the State to its promises to the Priority Schools in Camden and prevent the State from reneging on those promises by transferring those public schools to private charter school management companies.”

Governor Christie’s Department of Education is, of course, pursuing its own set of priorities, represented not only in Camden and in Cami Anderson’s troubled One Newark Plan, but also in a state budget maneuver designed to reward charter schools and hurt traditional public schools.  The Education Law Center reports that Governor Christie has proposed to hold charter school funding harmless at the 2016 or 2014 per pupil level, whichever is highest, with added funding to support growth in student enrollment.  At the same time, Christie proposes to flat-fund public education for FY 16.  “The budgetary maneuver, if approved, will mean 83 school districts must send an extra $37.5 million to charter schools across the state.”

David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center comments: “The Governor’s charter hold harmless is a double whammy for students in district-run schools, especially those in Newark.  The Governor provides no funding increase to support the education of district students, but then instructs districts to transfer more of their limited funds to charters to make sure they don’t suffer the same cuts as districts are now implementing in their schools.  It is patently unfair to protect charter school budgets while hurting students in district schools.”

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Forgetting to Address the Cause of Educational Injustice

Teachers’ unions are criticized all the time for putting the needs of teachers first. Far-right astro-turf organizations like Students First and Stand for Children have made sharing this myth their raison-d’etre.  But in my long work as an advocate for justice in public education policy at the federal level, I discovered again and again and again that the myth isn’t true.  Teachers’ unions work assiduously for laws that help children; the teachers who belong to the teachers’ unions fund these organizations well enough that they hire expert policy analysts; and the teachers’ unions do more than almost any other organization to reach out to the broader community on behalf of public schools.  I have come to believe that far-right ideologues trash teachers’ unions because those same ideologues believe in cutting taxes, and they want cheap labor in the classroom because their persistent tax slashing makes it impossible to afford expert professionals.  This is all designed to destroy teachers’ unions as part of a race to the bottom.

Over the weekend the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union provided another piece of evidence that teachers’ unions are intent on keeping us focused on what matters for the children in our public schools.  On Saturday, the National Education Association pointed out that, while the new bipartisan bill proposed by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act may eliminate some of the most horrible aspects of test-and-punish school policy, its authors forgot about the federal government’s primary role for addressing vast educational inequality in school resources that exists across the states.

NEA is the only national organization, so far at least, to have noticed this egregious hole in the proposed law.  It is a very serious omission from Senator Alexander and Murray’s bill.  After all, the law being reauthorized has Title I as its centerpiece—the program designed in 1965 to address the needs of poor children and the schools that serve them with federal aid to education.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “The head of the country’s largest teachers union said that her organization does not support a bipartisan proposal in the Senate to replace the nation’s main federal education law because it does not go far enough to create equal educational opportunities for poor children.  ‘We keep asking ourselves, ‘Does this move the needle for kids?  Will a child see something better in his or her classroom?’ said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. ‘And this bill in the Senate doesn’t do it. We’re not at ‘better’ yet.'”

Layton explains that new data demonstrates persistent inequality of opportunity: across the states, less money—often far less—is spent on the education of children living in poverty than on children in wealthy communities.  And federal funding is so meager that it fails to come close to making up the difference.  Layton links to Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post article that describes new data from the National Center for Education Statistics: “Children who live in poverty come to school at a disadvantage, arriving at their classrooms with far more intensive needs than their middle-class and affluent counterparts.  Poor children also lag their peers, on average, on almost every measure of academic achievement.  But in 23 states, state and local governments are together spending less per pupil in the poorest school districts than they are in the most affluent school districts… In some states the differences are stark. In Pennsylvania, per-pupil spending in the poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest school districts.  In Vermont, the differential is 18 percent; in Missouri, 17 percent. Nationwide, states and localities are spending an average of 15 percent less per pupil in the poorest school districts… than they are in the most affluent… In general, wealthier towns and counties are able to raise more money through taxes to support their schools than poorer localities can.  Many states have developed school-finance systems that send extra dollars to poorer areas in an attempt to mitigate those inequities.  But state aid is often not enough to make up the difference.”  Title I helps, but it is not enough.

Layton explains NEA’s new advocacy effort for equalizing opportunity in the reauthorization of the federal education law: “No Child Left Behind has judged states and school districts based on student outcomes, largely by relying on test scores.  But they should also be evaluated based in inputs—whether they are evenly distributing resources from school to school.”  Eskelsen-Garcia explains: “We’ve been talking about this to every senator we can.  It is time for accountability to mean that all kids are getting what they need.”

NEA is asking Congress to make “any new federal law hold states responsible for reducing the resource gap between schools.”  NEA is also asking for more transparency to raise awareness about the size of opportunity gaps by asking that Congress require school districts to publish “opportunity dashboards” to “disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers and counselors they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators.”

When a national Equity and Excellence Commission appointed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the request of Representatives Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and Mike Honda (D-CA) reported on federal policy in public education, the members declared: “There is no constitutional barrier to a greater federal role in financing K-12 education.  It is, rather, a question of our nation’s civic and political will; the modest federal contribution that today amounts to approximately 10 percent of national K-12 spending is a matter of custom not a mandate.  The federal government must take bold action in specific areas… Direct states, with appropriate incentives, to adopt and implement school finance systems that will… provide a meaningful educational opportunity for all students… Enact ‘equity and excellence’ legislation that: targets significant new federal funding to schools with high concentrations of low-income students, particularly where achievement gaps exist…. Provide incentives for states to explore and pursue ways to reduce the number of schools with concentrated poverty…. Reassess its enforcement regime with respect to issues of school finance equity…. Ensure that its dollars are not used to perpetuate or exacerbate inequities.”

Fifty years ago, the federal education law that now faces Congressional reauthorization was created primarily to address the injustice of unequal opportunity for children. As Congress considers the reauthorization of this law, thank you, National Education Association, for reminding us that poor children most often live in school districts without small classes and without enough counselors and enough sports and debate teams and enough music programs—the very privileges middle and upper class children in the suburbs and in smaller cities and towns across America take for granted.

NCLB Reauthorization Debate Focuses on Role of Testing, Ignores Expanding Opportunity

Test-and-punish, the strategy of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, has not been working. The goal of the law, drafted right after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 and signed into law the following January, was to close academic achievement gaps by race and family income. Even though the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version of the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has been in operation for 13 years now and NCLB has utterly failed to close achievement gaps, Congress has never been able to agree on a reauthorization. Now our new Congress—both houses dominated by Republicans—has been talking about a reauthorization and has even been scheduling hearings.  In the past week advocacy groups have rushed to take sides on its central mandate: annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

However, because there is not another compelling educational vision to replace test-and-punish accountability, it looks as though a compromise reauthorization of ESEA may move forward, but that any new version will be unlikely to change the direction of federal policy in public education.

Last Sunday, in coordination with a speech planned by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to follow on Monday, a group of 19 civil rights and advocacy organizations issued a statement insisting that any new federal education law require annual standardized testing.  The statement demands that any ESEA reauthorization include, “Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting the state’s college and career-ready standards…” These organizations assert that annual test scores reported by demographic groups have shone a bright light on the persistent achievement gaps.  They advocate for the retention of annual testing as a way to continue to hold public schools accountable for addressing the needs of all children.

Then on Monday, in a major policy address, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also insisted on the retention of annual testing.  Duncan has not threatened a veto by President Barack Obama but he has pretty much made the retention of annual standardized testing non-negotiable, despite that in the past he has criticized “too many tests that take up too much time.”  Alyson Klein reports for Education Week that “Duncan…. wants any ESEA rewrite to continue teacher evaluations through student outcomes, the targeting of resources to the lowest-performing schools, and—most relevant to the current debate over updating the law—the law’s current regime of annual, statewide assessments.”

On Tuesday, Senator Lamar Alexander, the new Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a discussion draft of a new ESEA. Senator Alexander advocates reducing the federal role in education and substituting what is called “grade span” testing for annual testing.  Under Alexander’s grade-span proposal, schools would continue to be held accountable through testing, but students would be tested only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Lindsey Layton reports in the Washington Post that Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate HELP Committee, endorses Duncan’s insistence on annual testing:  “Murray said Monday she wants to keep the annual testing mandate but wants to eliminate the myriad other tests states and local school districts administer.”

The National Education Association has reiterated its support for grade-span testing (once in elementary, once in middle school, once in high school) and its reasons for rejecting No Child Left Behind’s mandate for annual standardized testing.  NEA’s president, Lily Eskelsen García, released a statement on Monday that explains: “We are pleased the Administration is calling for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… Our focus is on providing equal opportunity to every child so that they may be prepared for college and career… In order to do this, we must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas… We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”

In a surprise on Wednesday, the American Federation of Teachers, which has historically opposed annual testing, joined with the Center on American Progress, whose education priorities generally mirror the policies of the Obama/Duncan Department of Education, to propose a compromise: retain annual standardized testing for diagnostic purposes but use grade-span testing to hold schools accountable: “We propose that in order to inform instruction, to provide parents and communities information about whether students are working at grade level or are struggling, and to allow teachers to diagnose and help their students, the federal requirement for annual statewide testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school should be maintained… However, we also believe it is critical to relieve the unintended yet detrimental pressure of high-stakes tests by basing federal accountability on a robust system of multiple measures.  While these systems should include assessment results, states should only be required to include tests taken once per grade span… in their school accountability systems.”

The debate about the long-overdue reauthorization of ESEA seems to have been reduced to a conversation about annual versus grade-span standardized testing.  Some pretty basic things are missing from this conversation.  Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap that is even greater than the racial achievement gaps.  A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007 before the great recession.  Children who live in racially and economically marginalized communities where schools are poorly funded by state legislatures are the victims of enormous opportunity gaps.

These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states with a regime of standardized tests and accompanying punishments for schools and school districts whose test scores do not rise quickly.  The punishments—prescribed by No Child Left Behind and also embedded the competitive programs such as Race to the Top initiated by the Obama administration— include blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, closing so-called “failing” schools, and expanding charters and privatization.

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must instead be to invest in improving public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated.  The paucity of ideas being discussed in Congress and important advocacy groups about an alternative to No Child Left Behind’s “test-and-punish” strategy demonstrates that right now there is a lack of public will and a lack of political leadership to invest in addressing the opportunity gaps that cause achievement gaps.

Campbell Brown and Joe Nocera Trash Teachers; Education Experts Respond

Again in the past week, two prominent media personalities—neither one a school teacher by profession or training and both with an ax to grind—have attacked school teachers, the programs that train teachers, and the teachers unions and due process rights protected in union contracts.

Of course Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, has launched her new organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, whose mission is to bring lawsuits across the states to get rid of due process protections for teachers.  This week her organization filed a second Vergara-type lawsuit in New York state, and Campbell Brown went on The Colbert Report to promote her new cause.  (This blog has covered Campbell Brown here, and here.)  Earlier this week, Valerie Strauss published an analysis of Campbell Brown’s interview with Stephen Colbert.  Strauss’s guest columnist is Alyssa Hadley Dunn, a former high school teacher and now assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.  Hadley Dunn fact-checks what Campbell Brown had to say; I urge you to read her careful analysis.  She concludes: “Ms. Brown… I wholeheartedly concur that educational policies should be determined by what is best for children.  What I remain unconvinced about, however, is how eliminating teachers’ rights is what is best for children.  We know that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions…. What research actually shows is best for children is teachers with long-term and sustained preparation in content and pedagogy; an equitable education that is not segregated by race and socioeconomic status; and student-centered, hands-on pedagogy that sustains students’ cultures and challenges them to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens.  None of this has anything to do with teacher tenure laws.”

And Joe Nocera (on the op ed page of the NY Times) has once again been attacking college training programs for teachers.  Last December Nocera praised the almost universally discredited report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization established by the Thomas Fordham Foundation in 2000 to promote alternative certification paths outside the teachers colleges.  As the education writer and UCLA professor of education,  Mike Rose wrote in response to Nocera’s December column, “Much has been written about the problems with this report, particularly about the significant limitations of its analysis, built primarily of one kind of information: syllabi, course descriptions, and other program materials.  Because of NCTQ’s well-known animus toward teacher ed programs, only a small number of programs willfully complied with requests for this information, so the Center filed open records requests, litigated where it could, searched the Internet, queried students and districts, and so on—setting up a contentious dynamic that suffuses the Teacher Prep Review.  At several points, the authors appeal directly to readers to pressure their institutions to comply with NCTQ.  The gloves are off.”  Rose criticzes those, like Joe Nocera, who equate “good teaching with technique,” and who discount the value of  more theoretical coursework in philosophy and psychology of education, for example.

Nocera’s recent article repeats his bias for teacher training based on finite techniques and tricks. Nocera also attacks young teachers without backing up his accusations. He describes new teachers who “are basically left alone in the classroom to figure it out on their own.  In America, that’s how it’s always been done.  An inexperienced teacher stands in front of a class on the first day on the job and stumbles his or her way to eventual success.  Even in the best-case scenario, students are being shortchanged by rookie teachers who are learning on the job.”  He celebrates a professor at the University of Michigan who has broken down the practice of teaching into discrete practices, and writes, “Bell is pushing the idea that teachers should be prepared to teach—that they should have the tools and the skills—when they walk into that classroom on the first day on the job.  That is rarely the case right now.” How does Nocera know this is rarely the case?  He provides no evidence to back up this contention.  What about the  guided practicum experiences regularly provided and required by colleges of education including semester-long student teaching under master-teachers backed up by college professors?

You wouldn’t know it by reading Nocera or listening to Campbell Brown, but both of the nation’s large teachers unions endorse programs to support new teachers as they improve their practice.  The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers also explicitly support accountability through formal peer assistance and review programs, and are underwriting grants to help their locals strengthen such programs.  When school districts fail to provide strong programs to support new teachers through mentoring and time for collaborative planning among teachers across grade level teams, it is not because teachers unions oppose such programs.  In fact union locals regularly work to get planning time and mentoring included in their contracts.  When school districts balk, it is virtually always due to financial constraints in communities where state and local funding has continued to drop since 2008.  Programs to support teachers, to improve school climate, and to implement fair, high quality professional evaluation are uniformly endorsed by the national teachers unions and their locals.

For a more substantive approach to issues of education policy including issues around the training of teachers, I recommend a good book for end-of-summer reading.  Public Education Under Siege, edited by Mike Rose and the historian Michael B. Katz—a collection of wonderful essays on public education published by the University of Pennsylvania Press—was just re-released in paperback at an affordable price under $20.  Chapter 3, Targeting Teachers is one of my favorite essays.  Here David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University, describes exactly the kind of learning that teachers undergo in their first years in the classroom.  It isn’t as Nocera describes, that new teachers stumble along because they don’t know what they are doing.  Well trained teachers across the country do know how to teach and they know what to do, but they likely haven’t yet had an opportunity to fully develop the teaching persona that will enable them to function comfortably in the classroom day after day, year after year:

Teachers need to develop a teaching persona to manage the relationship with their students.  Teaching means finding a way to get students to want to learn the curriculum.  And this requires the teacher to develop a highly personalized and professionally essential teaching persona.  That persona needs to incorporate a judicious and delicately balanced mix of qualities.  You want students to like you, so they look forward to seeing you in class and want to please you.  You want them to fear you, so they studiously avoid getting on your bad side and can be stopped dead in their tracks with the dreaded ‘teacher look.’  You want them to find your enthusiasm for learning the subject matter so infections that they can’t help getting caught up in the process and lured into learning.  Constructing such a persona is a complex task that takes years of development.  It’s part of why the first years of teaching are so difficult, until the persona falls in place and becomes second nature.  The problem is that there is no standard way of doing this.  The persona has to be a combination of what the situation demands—grade level, subject matter, cultural and personal characteristics of the students—and what the teacher can pull together from the pieces of his or her own character, personality, and interests.” (p. 35)

So… to answer Joe Nocera, a professor of education describes the importance of technique and also much more.  And, to confront Campbell Brown… we learn why experience matters and developing strong committed professionals is far more central to building the profession than weeding out a handful of bad teachers. Professionals working in our schools along with the professors who prepared them agree that we  need to create a supportive learning climate  to enable teachers to continue to develop what they know how to do and to help children enjoy learning.

Departments of Education and Justice Endorse Restorative, not Punitive, School Discipline

On Wednesday, January 8, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued new guidance to reduce zero tolerance discipline policies in the nation’s public schools and to encourage schools to handle routine, non-criminal infractions inside schools instead of turning students over to police.  The goal is to make the climate at school safer and more welcoming and significantly to reduce what is known as the school to prison pipeline, as young people find themselves in the criminal justice system for what are often minor infractions.

Special thanks for years of advocacy leading to this change in policy must go to an active coalition of national education and civil rights organizations who have worked doggedly for changes in particular school districts and in federal policy.  They include Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed these changes.

This effort was made especially urgent when, after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, more schools began  hiring police guards, called “school resource officers” (SROs) on the assumption that police are needed to protect the well-being of children.  Advocates have continued to point out that increasing police presence at school criminalizes children by escalating the involvement of the police in matters that could be (and have in the past have been) handled by school personnel.

On January 12, the NY Times editorialized on the change in federal guidance: “The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities.  For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and  36 percent of those expelled.”  “The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

In a press release celebrating the change in federal guidance, the American Federation of Teachers noted that in addition to developing better training for school personnel, it will be essential to restore staff whose positions have been eliminated due to cuts in school funding.  In 34 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state expenditures for education have not recovered their 2008, pre-Recession levels.  AFT recommends widespread restoration of critical school personnel including counselors, psychologists, nurses, and school social workers.

Watch Keynote Address by Rev. William Barber, North Carolina NAACP

Here is a link to a video, just posted, of Rev. William Barber’s prophetic keynote address delivered at an  early October collaborative conference of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Education Association, Communities for Education Reform and many of their allies. The Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor and president of the North Carolina NAACP, has been leading Moral Mondays in Raleigh throughout this year to protest the regressive policies of the North Carolina legislature.

In the October keynote, Barber declares: “When we stand together, our diversity is our strength that can help this nation move closer to what our founding documents say on paper.” Noting that today’s political battle is one of “extremism vs. those who believe in the Constitution,” Barber challenges the crowd: “We are in a soul-changing moment as a nation.” “There’s been too much progress in America for us to go back now!”

At the October conference the two teachers unions and their community and civil rights allies launched a joint collaboration around a set of Principles That Unite Us.  Your organization can still endorse the the principles in solidarity with the sponsoring organizations by contacting Eric Zachary at the American Federation of Teachers: ezachary@aft.org