In New York A Tale of Two Democrats

As election week dawned on Monday morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the Coalition School for Social Change in East Harlem to announce an exciting and expensive public school improvement plan for 94 of New York City’s struggling schools.

Chalkbeat NY reported: “Mayor Bill deBlasio announced a $150 million plan on Monday to flood more than 90 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools with supports for students and staffers…  De Blasio made clear that these 94 schools will face consequences if they do not meet certain targets.  Even as he rebuked the previous administration for ‘casually shuttering’ schools that were never given adequate assistance, de Blasio said the city will  ‘close any schools that don’t measure up’ after three years of intensive support.  ‘We will move heaven and earth to help them succeed… but we will not wait forever.'”

According to the NY Times, the program’s primary reform is wraparound social services to address the needs presented by children in poverty. Such schools with social services provided right in the school building are known as Community Schools.  Some schools will begin offering health, mental health and dental services.  Students will receive an additional hour of instruction, teachers will receive extra training, and schools will be encouraged to provide summer school. The program, envisioned for three years, will add $150 million for school support and improvement—$39 million in the first year and $111 million in the second year.  Funding for the third year is still being negotiated.

Chalkbeat NY describes the plan: “Following the so-called community schools model, the city will bring physical and mental health practitioners, guidance counselors, adult literacy teachers, and a host of other service providers into these schools.  They will also add an extra hour of tutoring to the school day and receive money for new after-school seats, summer programs, and more additional teacher training.”  Carmen Farina, the chancellor, is currently evaluating principals.  Teachers are to get added training, and new guidance counselors will be assigned later in this school year.  Each of the 94 targeted schools must develop its own improvement plan to be submitted to the chancellor this spring.

Compare the Democratic NYC mayor’s public school improvement plan to the attitude of New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat who has been running for re-election. Sounding like a mouthpiece for the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, last week Governor Cuomo—in a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News—announced his plan for the public schools: “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.”  He said he plans to install “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”  Then he attacked teachers: “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations—I get it.  I feel exactly the opposite.”

Cuomo—who, according to the NY Times, in the past four years raised $45 million in campaign contributions (many from wealthy business interests and hedge fund managers associated with Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter PAC, and with Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter schools)—flooded the airwaves, led his Republican challenger throughout the campaign, and was in no danger of losing yesterday’s election.  We can expect to see a continuing battle between Cuomo—a believer in test-and-punish,  and de Blasio—a proponent of support-and-improve.  These two Democrats are diametrically opposed when it comes to public school policy.

Vergara Decision Blames Teachers, Ignores Injustices for Students in Poorest Communities

Earlier this week California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure and seniority protections for California’s K-12 school teachers.  This is the case of Vergara v. California.  The plaintiffs have said they will appeal.  According to Stephanie Simon, writing for Politico, “Judge Treu has tentatively decided to let the laws stay in effect pending that appeal… Judge Treu’s ruling is preliminary; he will take comments from both sides into account before issuing a final ruling within the next month.”

Nobody wants bad teachers in California’s classrooms or the classrooms in any other state.  On this particular issue Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, declared she agrees with Judge Treu: “He argues, as we do, that no one should tolerate bad teachers in the classroom.  He is right on that.”

Treu’s decision explains that tenure protects bad teachers, that bad teachers are more often assigned to the schools serving California’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged students, and that the assignment of bad teachers (protected by tenure and seniority rights) violates the students’ civil rights under the equal protection clause of the state constitution. “Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this Court that the challenged Statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students.”

In his decision, Judge Treu quotes expert witnesses whose numbers are stunning. In one case the judge seems to have extrapolated from what he heard—from expert David Berliner, who is described to have “testified that 1–3 % of teachers in California are grossly ineffective.”  Treu continues, “Given that the evidence showed roughly 275,000 active teachers in this state, the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.”  The exact number of ineffective teachers is, of course, speculative.  Treu also quotes Harvard economist, Raj Chetty, who has authored an econometric report on the impact of bad teachers on students’ lives.  Treu writes, “Based on a massive study, Dr. Chetty testified that a single year in a classroom with a grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom.”

Experts who did not testify in this court have warned against the use of such econometric studies as the sole basis for creating policy.  The American Statistical Association has warned, for example, about Value Added Model (VAM) econometric formulas for evaluating teachers: “The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data.  These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling.”  “…most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers.  This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores.”

Commenting on the danger of shaping day-to-day school policy on such statistical and econometric data, UCLA expert on teaching, Mike Rose has cautioned that such longitudinal extrapolating “requires that all other factors in the lives of the children and their schools remain the same: that the students maintain the same level of motivation, don’t get sick, don’t experience family disruption. That teachers are equally immune from life’s perturbations…. That the school-level leadership doesn’t change; that new policies aren’t enacted; that funding remains stable, that the community isn’t hit with economic hardship; and so on.”  Real life, of course, cannot be easily quantified.

The existence of massive inequality from school district to school district has been well documented, but was not questioned during the testimony in Vergara.  The American Federation of Teachers’ comment on the Vergara decision names many of the issues that were not raised in this case but that are known to violate the rights of children in the poorest schools across the states: “It is surprising that the court, which used its bully pulpit when it came to criticizing teacher protections, did not spend one second discussing funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that are proven to affect student achievement and our children.  We must lift up solutions that speak to these factors….”

The Vergara case was clearly part of an orchestrated attack on teachers unions.  After all, nobody in this trial mentioned the problems of the young, two-year Teach for America recruits, trained for five weeks over the summer and placed—with only meager experience—in classrooms.  Nobody in this trial discussed the long-term substitutes too often left in charge of classrooms in poor schools.  Nobody mentioned the issues around school climate and the deplorable facilities that discourage teachers from seeking positions in the poorest school districts.

The Vergara case was launched by Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur David Welch and the nonprofit he created to fund and publicize the case.  He hired as plaintiff attorneys former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a corporate attorney who represents Walmart and who represented George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000, when the Florida recount reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, described the case during the trial back in April: “The case, and the public relations effort accompanying it, is being bankrolled by a nonprofit called Students Matter, set up by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch.  Welch is seconded by groups such as Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, with funding help from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, all of which have battled teachers unions and supported charter schools and ‘transformational’ change in public education.”

Teachers deserve protection through due process to enable them to pursue stable careers. Teachers deserve ongoing support to help them improve their skills throughout their careers.  Children deserve expeditious processes by which struggling teachers can be moved out of the profession. Teachers and the children in our nation’s poorest school districts together deserve a change of political priorities around education.  Instead of federally-incentivized “turnaround” plans that emphasize firing teachers and principals, turning schools over to charter management organizations, and closing schools, our society must work to create the political will to improve and support the schools in our poorest big city neighborhoods. The census just demonstrated that total spending on education dropped for the first time in history in Fiscal Year 2012.  States persist in austerity budgeting.  The federal government cut education funding in 2012 by 19.2 percent from the previous year.

The Vergara attorneys sought to portray the needs of children as separate and very different from the needs of their teachers.  In fact, teachers and children in our poorest communities share the need for society to invest in improving their public schools.

Public Schools—the Mortar that Holds the Community Together (Garrison Keillor)

Jeff Bryant, who writes a weekly column for the Educational Opportunity Network, recently discussed the difference between conceptualizing education reform around inputs and outcomes.  Today our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and all the federal competitive grant programs like Race to the Top that prescribe punitive turnarounds for schools that can’t produce high test scores are designed to measure outcomes.  The very concept of achievement gaps is defined by test scores—outcomes.

Outcomes are important surely.  As parents we hope for successful outcomes for our children: a high school diploma—college graduation—a job.  Then there are the intangible outcomes we look for: mental health, contentment, ethical character, the capacity to stick with whatever one undertakes. Parents quickly realize there are too many variables; their children are human and invariably complex.  We do the best we can, but we cannot guarantee outcomes.

Neither can the community guarantee positive outcomes for all of its children, though in 1889, John Dewey, our premier education philosopher challenged us to do our best:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  Dewey’s idea is about inputs, however.  He challenges us to hold ourselves personally responsible for educating all children.  Today there is ample evidence that we are not even coming close to providing adequate educational inputs for our society’s poorest children.

Brand new census data demonstrate that, “Public elementary and secondary education revenue fell in fiscal year 2012 for the first time since 1977, when the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting public education finance data annually.  Public elementary and secondary school systems received $594.5 billion in total revenue in fiscal year 2012, down $4.9 billion, or 0.8 percent, from fiscal year 2011….”  “State governments were the leading source of revenue ($270.4 billion), closely followed by revenue from local sources ($264.6 billion).  Almost two-thirds, or 65.3 percent, of revenue from local sources came from property taxes.  Public school systems received $59.5 billion in revenue from the federal government, a decrease of $14.2 billion, 19.2 percent, from the previous year.”

While society cannot promise to close achievement gaps (outcomes), we are fully capable of addressing opportunity gaps—the differences in resources that society provides for children and schools from place to place.  Notice, for example in the census data, that over half of local funding derives from property taxes, among the most unequal forms of tax revenue. Heavy reliance on local property taxes only magnifies disparities in family resources in an America where some children live in pockets of concentrated poverty and others in pockets of concentrated affluence.

Here are some input-based reforms that ought to be our priority because we know they would support and improve the public schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods.  We could fully fund the Title I formula to assist all the schools serving very poor children.  The federal government could condition receipt of Race to the Top or School Improvement Grants on states’ making their school funding formulas more equitable.  We could seriously consider expanding pre-kindergarten in every state; the federal government could help make this significant reform affordable and could create incentives for states to consider it.  We could ensure that all children have well-qualified teachers with college-based certification; strengthen class offerings in all high schools to ensure that all students have access to physics, chemistry, and advanced math; reduce class size;  bring back an adequate number of counselors, school nurses,  libraries and librarians in the poorest schools; add challenging classes in the humanities and instrumental music in the schools that have lost such programs.  These are mere examples of ways to close opportunity gaps—all inputs-based improvements our society could easily guarantee.

Today policy makers argue about school reform abstractions defined via outcomes: the Common Core standards and tests, value-added-measures to rate teachers, third-grade reading scores as a mechanism for determining grade promotion, or awarding letter grades to schools based on their test-score rankings. Promoters of outcomes-based school reform claim test-based accountability is unbiased and objective.  Another way to describe such policy is “distant” and “calculating.”  The Rethinking Schools editorial board even recently pronounced that outcomes-based school reform “disguises class and race privilege as merit.” (Check out this blog’s reflection on that editorial here.)

Speaking about Newark, New Jersey, New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera decries today’s outcomes-based school reform because it is cold and impersonal while school improvement would pull together the efforts of educators and the entire community to support its children: “It’s often driven by these outsiders who have no ties, no history with a community, no long-term relationship.”  Garrison Keillor, like Noguera, reminds us that public schools are very human institutions: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together.  You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.” (Homegrown Democrat, p. 190)

NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina Brings Expertise and Good Sense to 1.1 Million Student District

Carmen Farina, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently appointed chancellor for the New York City Public Schools, has been on the job only since January.  She is, however, a lifetime educator, teacher, principal, and former district administrator who came out of retirement to serve.

This week we have begun to observe pivots from the school policies in place under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who regularly appointed non-educators to run the school district—most notoriously Cathleen Black, the publisher of Cosmopolitan Magazine.  Farina’s recent moves bode well for education and for children.

According to a press release from the New York City Schools (also covered by the NY Times), in a new policy announced this week, New York City will no longer use one standardized test score to determine whether a child is promoted to the next grade.  “We have listened and worked closely with families, teachers and principals to establish a new promotion policy that complies with State law and empowers educators, takes the temperature down around testing, and keeps rigorous standards in place.  This new way forward maintains accountability, but mitigates the unintended consequences of relying solely on a single test.  Through a comprehensive evaluation of student work using multiple measures, our new policy is a step forward for students, parents, and schools.”  The New York state legislature has recently passed legislation to support the use of multiple measures to determine promotion.

Students who lag will still be required to attend summer school, but they will not take another test (with enormously high stakes) in August to see whether they can move to the next grade.  Their summer school performance will be represented by work added to the “promotion portfolios” that will now be maintained for all children in danger of being held back.  School personnel who know a child will consider the test score as one piece of evidence as they decide on a plan to enable that student to thrive.  The NY Times quotes Genevieve Stanislaus, principle of Life Sciences Secondary School in Manhattan: “The decision should be based on if the child could really benefit from repeating the grade.  It shouldn’t be for any reason other than that.”

Earlier this week, Chancellor Farina also launched a new program to improve schools that struggle.  While the federal School Improvement Grant program has emphasized hiring often expensive outside consultants and threatening to close schools whose scores lag, Farina’s program pairs struggling schools with other NYC schools that model innovation and rigor.  This program is expected to be ongoing after its initial activities this spring.

Chalkbeat New York reports, “Officials said the new initiative—which Farina said was so important that she launched it faster than some confidantes advised—is meant to foster ‘collaboration, not competition’ among schools.” “Over the 12 weeks before the end of the school year, the host schools will send teams on ten school visits and host six visits of their own—in addition to carrying out their regular activities.”  Details and arrangements will be provided by the Department of Education.

“We have put this together in basically a month, and the degree of commitment and excitement is just palpable,” announced Farina.  Some of the host schools were once struggling schools that have since turned around.

“We don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.  We can replicate what works and just refine it.”  “We’re hoping that by June, we’ll bring them all together and say, how do you think your school got better?”

Notice that all this activity is built around encourage-and-improve.  What a refreshing departure from test-and-punish.