Senate Will Consider Confirming John King, but He’s Unlikely to Repair Arne Duncan’s Damage

The word was that John King would remain an acting U.S. Secretary of Education for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s administration.  In January, Lyndsey Layton reported for the Washington Post, “King… will retain the ‘acting’ modifier for the rest of President Obama’s time in office.  He has not been nominated by the president, and he will not undergo the confirmation process required of Cabinet-level officers under the Constitution.”  But just over a week ago, another report in the Washington Post announced, “President Obama has nominated John B. King Jr. to officially lead the Department of Education, where he has served as acting secretary since the start of the year.  Officials at the White House had said before the announcement that the president was encouraged by the bipartisan support King has received in Congress, especially the commitment Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has made for a speedy consideration of his nomination.”

It will be surprising if John B. King, Jr.—whether confirmed as secretary or continuing to serve as a mere acting secretary— accomplishes earth-shaking policy while he serves for the next few months.  The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized late in 2015 while Arne Duncan remained the Secretary of Education, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act is significant for unbuckling—at the federal level—teachers’ evaluations from their students’ test scores.  This is a significant correction by Congress, whose members reached bipartisan agreement to reduce Duncan’s overt attack on school teachers, and John King has said he will try further to repair that breach that attacked the millions of professionals we count on to fill our nation’s classrooms.  It’s unlikely, however, that King will further reduce test-and-punish, and he won’t have the power to undo the teacher blaming across the statehouses that Arne Duncan set in motion when his Department of Education conditioned the receipt of federal waivers on states’ passing their own laws to tie teachers’ evaluations to students’ test scores.  Pushing back that wave of legislation will require months and years of effort by advocates across the states.

But John King’s confirmation hearing has now been scheduled in the Senate on this coming Thursday afternoon, February 25.  So who is John King?

Carol Burris was an award-winning New York high school principal when John King was New York state’s Commissioner of Education.  Burris, now a retired educator and currently serving as the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, summarizes some of the milestones of John King’s career: “John King was a teacher for a total of three years—first in a private school and then in a charter.  For a brief time, he served as a co-director of Roxbury Prep (he was never a principal as he claims) a Boston charter middle school that had about 200 students when King was there.  He left to become Managing Director of the Uncommon Schools charter chain, which is regularly criticized for its high rates of student suspension.  While a doctoral student at Teachers College, King met classmate and Board of Regents member, Merryl Tisch.  In April of 2009, Tisch became the Chancellor of the Board of Regents.  In September 2009, John King was appointed deputy commissioner.  Two years later he was appointed commissioner… King was appointed senior adviser to Arne Duncan in 2014, and Acting Secretary of Education when Duncan left in December of 2015.”

Burris recounts what has become the well-known story of King’s mishandling of the roll-out of much harder Common Core tests in New York at the same time King and Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed New York’s legislature to enact evaluation of teachers by their students’ test scores: “By October of 2013, opposition to the Common Core and testing had grown so strong that King was encouraged by the State PTA to hold forums, the first of which took place in Poughkeepsie, New York.  King lectured for an hour and a half.  By the last half hour of the evening, the audience was both boisterous and impassioned, angered because there was limited opportunity to speak.  King then cancelled the rest of the scheduled forums… After continued pressure, some forums were re-scheduled; however, there were restrictions placed on who could attend, and the format was tightly controlled.”  Burris shares an assessment from the Lower Hudson Journal News characterizing John King as “tone deaf.”

During King’s tenure as New York’s deputy commissioner and his time as New York’s education commissioner, New York spent over $28,000,000 to develop its Common Core curriculum—and used its federal Race to the Top grant for this purpose. Burris, a high school principal during the roll-out of the new curriculum, is scathing in her criticism: “(T)he curriculum was a ‘breakout flop.’  Teaching strategies, often presented as scripts, were confusing. The time allotted for each lesson was longer than the instructional time allotted by most districts, resulting in rushed pacing…  Romeo and Juliet, which has been a classic part of ninth-grade English curriculum in most high schools, was reduced to excerpted readings in the modules, crowded out by non-fiction, which included Wizard of Lies: the Life of Bernie Madoff.”

King launched Common Core testing across the state before the curriculum had been fully rolled out, and to make matters worse, cut scores were set too high. Predictably test scores plummeted everywhere. Burris adds: “Perhaps the most reckless error made by the NYSED (NY State Education Department) under King, however, was setting the graduation standard on the Common Core math and English tests so high that the graduation rate, based on historical data, would have plummeted to about 35% when it was imposed.  In response to growing public resistance to the Common Core and its tests, the Board of Regents put off the unrealistic graduation standard from 2017-2022.”

As he heads toward a confirmation hearing and the rest of this year leading the U.S. Department of Education, John King is reported by the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown to be “trying to repair the Obama administration’s frayed relationship with teachers.”  “In one of his first major speeches as acting U.S. secretary of education, John King apologized to teachers for the role that the federal government has played in creating a climate in which teachers feel ‘attacked and unfairly blamed.'”

Brown, however, also interviews Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, who declares that officials at the Department of Education need to listen to teachers as they develop rules that will implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act.  Whether the Department consults professional educators will matter more than the acting secretary’s words of apology: “If policymakers truly listen to teachers in classrooms… then they will craft policies to teach and nurture the whole child—not just lift test scores.”

Two NJ Cities Test Today’s School Reform: Disruption and Privatization Fail

I hope you read David Kirp’s fine commentary on school reform in yesterday’s NY Times.  As the author of one of two excellent recent books on school policy in New Jersey—the 2013, Improbable Scholars—Kirp, a Berkeley professor of public policy, is particularly well suited to evaluate school reform in New Jersey.  In yesterday’s commentary he compares the botched school reform effort in Newark, the subject of Dale Russakoff’s 2015, The Prize, with what has been accomplished in nearby Union City, the subject of his own book. Kirp believes the strategies employed in these two school districts have national implications, and he explains: How to Fix the Country’s Failing Schools. And How Not To.

Both Newark and Union City serve students living in concentrated poverty. In 2009 in Newark, Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie hatched a plan to expand charter schools, weaken the teachers union, and, in Booker’s words, “flip a whole city and create a national model.”  They convinced Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to underwrite the project with a grant of $100 million.

Kirp contrasts the hubris of Newark’s project to what happened in Union City: “No one expected a national model out of Union City.  Without the resources given to Newark, the school district there, led by a middle-level bureaucrat named Fred Carrigg, was confronted with two huge challenges:  How could English learners, three-quarters of the students, become fluent in English?  And how could youngsters, many of whom came from homes where books were rarities, be turned into adept readers?”

What happened?  “In 2014, Union City’s graduation rate was 81 percent, exceeding the national average; Newark’s was 69 percent.”

“What explains this difference?  The experience of Union City, as well as other districts, like Montgomery County, MD, and Long Beach, CA, that have beaten the demographic odds, show that there’s no miracle cure for what ails public education. What business gurus label ‘continuous improvement,’ and the rest of us call slow-and-steady, wins the race.”  The solution in Union City was already inside the schools; administrators empowered fine teachers and developed a much stronger curriculum by trusting them and helping them collaborate.

Here is how Kirp describes changes begun 17 years ago in Union City when the district was given a year to stave off a threatened takeover by the state: “In 1989, with one year to shape up Union City, Mr. Carrigg, with a cadre of teachers and administrators, devised a multipronged strategy: Focus on how kids learn best, how teachers teach most effectively and how parents can be engaged.  Non-English speakers had previously been expected to acquire the language through the sink-or-swim method.  So the district junked its old approach.  Instead, English learners are initially taught in their own language, mainly Spanish, and then are gradually shifted to English.”  The district also hired more teachers who spoke Spanish or had special training in working with English learners. And a new strategy emphasized reading and writing in every subject, not just in language arts classes. When the Abbott school funding remedy made New Jersey school districts eligible for state funded preschool, Union City developed a model program for all three- and four-year-olds.

Here is how Superintendent Carrigg describes school reform—Union City style :  “The real story of Union City is that it didn’t fall back.  It stabilized and has continued to improve.”  Kirp adds: “Recent changes include the introduction of Mandarin Chinese from preschool on, a STEM-focused elementary school and a nursery for young parents in high school.  Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders.  Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structures.”

Improbable Scholars, Kirp’s inspiring book about Union City’s schools, is very much worth reading.  For me it is most memorable for celebrating a grow-your-own strategy of teacher preparation.  Kirp, a professor at one of the nation’s elite universities, does not buy into the kind of academic snobbery epitomized by Teach for America, whose mission is to fill the nation’s classrooms with bright Ivy Leaguers who can brag about their SAT scores.  He celebrates the collaborative work of the teachers in Union City, teachers who came up through the city’s neighborhoods and who understand the challenges faced by their students: “It’s unlikely that these teachers would have been accepted by Teach for America. They all grew up within a half hour’s drive from Union City and never moved away… Only a higher education expert or someone who hails from northern New Jersey would have heard of the commuter schools—William Paterson, Jersey City, Stockton State, and the like—that they attended.  Their GPAs weren’t necessarily stellar, and while some of them are more naturally gifted teachers than others, they all had a hard time at the start of their teaching careers.  The best explanation for their effectiveness is what they have learned—and keep learning—from their colleagues.”  (Improbable Scholars,  p. 61)

Daniel Katz Wonders: Have We Wasted a Decade?

Daniel Katz is the director of Secondary Education and Secondary Special Education Teacher Preparation at Seton Hall University.  In a thoughtful piece he asks the question we all ought to find ourselves wondering when we think about the huge battle around policy to address inequality in public schools: Have We Wasted Over a Decade?  I think I know the answer.  How about you?

Katz examines the history of the education wars, dating back to 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s committee published A Nation at Risk that “alleged persistent failures of our education system,” particularly compared to other nations whose students were scoring higher on standardized tests.  Katz suggests that “the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated than the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983.”

Katz points out that international comparisons show that public schools in the United States score far higher than worriers about America’s loss of competitive edge admit—as long as we evaluate those schools in the United States that serve few poor children.  In a study of results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) test, in the United States: “Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore…. At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students and ‘tied’ with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.

Katz also examines a report released last winter by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League, The Iceberg  Effect: An International Look at Often Overlooked Education Indicators.  Katz writes, “The report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes.  Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes. In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers… These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support.”  This blog examined the report here.

Katz would agree with the authors of the report that we need to look beneath the tip of the iceberg: “United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested.” “‘Test—Label—Punish’ we have crafted a ‘reform’ environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing—except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators….”

Katz continues: “This calls for a fundamental rebalancing—which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children.  As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.”

What can be done?  Katz lists some choices Congress might have made that would have been superior policies to those prescribed by No Child Left Behind: “What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education at at 40% of average cost which has never been done?  What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ and pledged to invest in school capital improvement…? What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?  What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title I schools? What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?”

Katz knows that even these investments would not have entirely equalized educational opportunity.  But we should join him now in advocating for such reforms as these—instead of test-and-punish.

Detroit Community Alliance Releases Scathing Report on Detroit Public Schools Disaster

Detroit has been under state takeover for fifteen years, and at the same time Detroit has been a test case for unregulated portfolio school reform with a large for-profit charter sector. School achievement hovers at the lowest level in the nation as measured by test scores.  On Monday night a new Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren released a scathing report on the condition of the city’s schools including a set of urgent recommendations the coalition believes will help Detroit get the situation under control.

Although the Coalition’s report does not suggest how the community can negotiate a path through the politics of a powerful and very conservative philanthropic and advocacy sector including the extreme-right Dick and Betsy DeVos (Americans for Prosperity) and the ultra-conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative Republican governor and Michigan legislature, and a politically influential for-profit charter sector, community leaders in Detroit—including philanthropies, civic organizations, religious leaders, state legislators, teachers and school principals, charter school leaders, and the business community—must be commended for putting together an incisive analysis of what has gone wrong.  The report’s authors seem to have few illusions about the difficulties they will face to get their recommendations implemented: “The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has laid out a comprehensive plan to make quality schools the new norm for Detroit families. Completed in a little over three months, it’s a first step on the long road back to excellence.”

Here is how the report’s authors describe Detroit’s realities: “Fifteen years after the state took over our school system, three years after the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) took control of the city’s lowest-performing schools, academic achievement remains tragically low, by far the worst of any big city in the country.”  Detroit is part of a network of Portfolio School Districts that combine traditional public and charter schools, and the authors do not propose to eliminate the city’s charter sector, while they do insist that it be regulated and that services be coordinated across the district’s traditional public and charter schools.

As the report declares: “No other city in the country has a system of schools quite like that of Detroit.  It is hardly a system but instead an uncoordinated hodgepodge of schools that are not educating Detroit’s schoolchildren well.”  “Detroit’s 119,658 students attend hundreds of different schools, which are run by 14 different entities (authorizers and districts).  These numbers don’t even take into account the many suburban schools that enroll mostly Detroit students.”   According to the report, 25,816 Detroit students attend suburban schools through an inter-district choice plan by which students carry their $7,246 in state aid with them from Detroit to surrounding school districts.  Such an arrangement advantages suburban districts which are also hemorrhaging enrollment in a region that is losing overall population.  In Detroit’s schools services are fragmented, and as the report declares: “There is no coherence or stability… no efficiency… no local responsibility or accountability.”

The report devotes a section to the devastating financial challenges for the Detroit Public Schools (DPS).  “DPS pays $53 million a year on debt service for its operating budget. That’s $1,120 per student before any instruction occurs.”  Since 2002, the number of school-aged children in Detroit has declined from 196,638 to 119,658 in 2013, a drop of 40 percent.  At the same time a publicly funded charter sector has grown explosively, the district has been struggling to downsize its operations including the need to accommodate children across the residential neighborhoods of a geographically large school district. Family poverty has increased:  “Overwhelmingly the population loss came from the middle-and higher-income segments of the city, leaving the schools with a higher percentage of students in poverty, many of whom are identified to have special needs.”  Transportation to and from school is overwhelming for many families: “Currently there is no mechanism for all schools (DPA, EAA, and public charters) to financially support an equitable and practical transportation system.”  “Given the amount of choice occurring and the absence of high-quality neighborhood schools, transportation is a major barrier.  The average Detroit student commutes 3.4 miles each way to and from school.  Ten percent travel more than 6.7 miles each way.  More than 75 percent of students rely on walking, city buses, or cars to get to school.  But the bus system is sometimes unreliable, 25 percent of Detroit families do not have cars, and walking is not an option when schools are so far from home.”

The report emphasizes that school choice must be brought under control and the public schools stabilized and improved to staunch the rapid loss of students to suburban school choice and unregulated charters.  The mechanisms of an unregulated education marketplace have turned Detroit Public Schools into a school district of last resort for the children with the greatest needs and the least capacity to escape through school choice: “DPS is educating a disproportionate share of special education students, partly because individual public charter schools do not have the capacity to accommodate these students’ needs. Going forward, a task force should determine whether Wayne RESA or another entity should provide citywide coordination and consolidation of special education and bilingual services across all schools in Detroit (DPS and public charter schools).  Services must give equal access, offer an equitable funding model, and be provided at the neighborhood level when possible.”

The report recommends substantial and far-reaching overall reforms:

  • Return governance of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) to an elected school board.  DPS should transition from emergency management….
  • “Charter authorizers and charter school boards should improve transparency, focus more on quality, and better coordinate all charter schools.  We also believe that changes to state law or local practice must be made to ensure that charters schools adopt best practices for charter authorizing….
  • “The state should assume the DPS debt…  Create a new nonpartisan entity, the Detroit Education Commission (DEC), to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions in partnership with Regional Councils to incorporate neighborhood-level input
  • “Establish advisory School Leadership Teams that include parents, staff, and students so that all schools create a culture of shared responsibility.
  • “Empower and fund the State School Reform Office (SSRO) and State School Reform District (SSRD).  The SSRO/SSRD should inherit the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) (the state’s takeover agency for struggling schools) central administration and execute its responsibilities.  The inter-local agreement between the DPS Emergency Manager and Eastern Michigan University should be terminated.  The SSRO should audit and assess EAA schools in Detroit and create a plan to responsibly transition those schools back to DPS….
  • “Create shared systems of data, enrollment, and neighborhood transportation.  These improvements will help solidify school choice in Detroit by making it easier for parents to learn about the quality of their options when enrolling their children.” (emphasis in the original)

Each section of the report includes its own more specific prescriptions to remedy particular problems.  The report’s authors seek to return the school district to local governance including, “local decision-making so that those elected by the people of Detroit set the policies that drive what happens in our schools and are held accountable for results.”  The goal is to ensure, “that those closest to the kids—teachers, staff, principals, and parents—are empowered to make key educational decisions at the school level.” The report seeks, “a coherent system of neighborhood schools with a consistent and transparent set of rules.”  In the section on governance, after advocating rapid transitioning out of state emergency management, the authors recommend  holding charter school authorizers more accountable and creating “a new nonpartisan board/legislative body… to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions.  Members will be appointed by the mayor of Detroit.”

The report demands, “fair student funding that does not penalize current and future generations of schoolchildren for the past mistakes of the state.”  The authors recommend that the state pay for a study of what it costs in Michigan today to provide adequate services for children in public schools, a costing-out study to be completed by the end of 2015.

Teachers are the heart of the schools, and the report suggests the creation of, “a citywide strategy to recruit, develop, compensate, and retain high-quality teachers, school leaders, and other staff for all schools in Detroit.”  This does not mean destroying the teachers union: “Our coalition recognizes that in fact, unions have been advocates for meaningful, research-based education reform.  Therefore, collective bargaining agreements must be honored… and the right of employees to unionize should not be undercut.”

A community facing desperate conditions in the schools that serve its children has come together to demand that the state phase out top down control, provide adequate funding, and help to establish regulation of an out-of-control charter sector.  The question will be whether Detroit’s leaders can wield enough political power on behalf of  a very poor and disenfranchised population in a state dominated by far right philanthropists and think tanks and influential for-profit charter operators.

Another Key Figure Changes His Mind: Challenges the Test-and-Punish Conventional Wisdom

Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”  “Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least so seem… within a considerable range (the individual)…. may hold whatever view of this world he finds most agreeable…” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”  In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.

The idea that school achievement can be fixed in our poorest communities by testing students and punishing so-called “failing” schools where test scores are low, by holding teachers accountable, by privatizing what are described—even by Democrats like Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, in the words of conservative Milton Friedman—as  “government monopoly schools,” has come to be widely accepted since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2002.  No Child Left Behind celebrated the philosophy of test-and-punish, and test-and-punish has been the conventional wisdom now for almost fifteen years, more than enough time for many students to go all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade.  Galbraith was right: support for this philosophy became bipartisan.  The George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration have implemented the test-and-punish conventional wisdom with a vengeance.

The conventional wisdom, however, does seem to be influenced by people who we think are expert enough to know, particularly if they have supported the conventional wisdom and then changed their minds. It seems that the knowledgeable people who never accepted the conventional wisdom have a lot less influence even though they may have been wise enough never to have gone along in the first place.  Hence we have all the experts in the field of education whom we ignore, because, as Arne Duncan has repeatedly pointed out, they just support that weak educational status quo.  The list of these people is endless, but I’ll name some of the stars to whom we ought to have been listening: Linda Darling-Hammond and James Comer and Jean Anyon and Pedro Noguera and Rudy Crew and Pauline Lipman and Deborah Meier and Richard Rothstein and Gary Orfield and Mike Rose and David Kirp and Gene Glass and David Berliner and Susan Eaton and George Wood and Helen Ladd, and John Kuhn and and Sonya Nieto and Lisa Delpit and Gregory Michie and Paulo Freire and John Dewey and John Jackson and David Sciarra and Michael Rebell.  There are dozens of others I am forgetting in this quick catalog. These are the experts who have defined and defended good teaching and the role of out-of-school factors on school achievement and the importance of the whole child and the urgent need for well funded public schools and access to education as a civil right for every child. Because these people base their opinions on academic expertise or a lifetime of work, we consider them ringers and we pretty much ignore their arguments.

We pay more attention if someone who originally got sidetracked into the conventional wisdom or who strongly believes in the principles behind the conventional wisdom recants and changes sides.  This has, after all, become a battle with two sides.  If enough of these unlikely folks change their minds and keep on changing their minds, just maybe the conventional wisdom will shift a bit.

Today this blog will quickly review five years’ of mind-changing and then add another defector from the conventional wisdom to the catalog of mind changers.  First there was Diane Ravitch who, as a former member of the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institution, wrote The Death and Life of the Great American School System in 2010 to announce her change of heart and mind and basically to apologize for her long, intense support for test-and-punish school accountability.  In 2013, Diane published another book, Reign of Error, to establish her new views more strongly.  Her about face, as a former assistant secretary of education, launched a significant challenge to the conventional wisdom.

Then last fall there was Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the inventor of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform is a school choice scheme that imagines a big city school district like a business portfolio filled with public and private schools.  The district is imagined to promote the successful schools and shed the failures as a businessman would build a successful investment portfolio.  But last summer Robin Lake went to Detroit, became dismayed by what she observed, and wrote a  scathing condemnation in Education Next of the situation she found there:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not Detroit Public Schools, which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.” Lake did not entirely recant the conventional wisdom, but she raised some serious questions that let people know she was very disturbed about the implementation of the idea she had been promoting.

Then Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution came to the Cleveland City Club to talk about the functioning of the charter sector in Ohio.  She was asked a question about the future of charter schools in the state, and here is what she said: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  Later Raymond tried to backtrack a little and blame the lack of information being provided to the parents choosing schools, but even so, she strongly challenged the conventional wisdom.

Then last month the Education Trust-Midwest condemned lack of regulation of the charter sector in Michigan.  Education Trust-Midwest declares itself pro-accountability, pro-test-and-punish, but its new report worries about out-of-control expansion of charter schools in Michigan: “Charter school authorizers, in particular, are arguably accountable to no one—not even our state’s governor—though almost one billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are spent on charter schools each year.  Charter authorizers are getting a free pass, despite being responsible for nearly 380 charter schools (and counting) and being the only entities in the state with the power to approve new charters and expand existing charter operators. While the state superintendent has recently threatened to use his limited authority to suspend authorizers, he cannot revoke an authorizer’s authority entirely for chronic low performance.”

Now there is another defection, and this is one of another kind altogether.  David Hornbeck was Maryland’s state superintendent of public instruction from 1976 to 1988, and then superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia from 1994-2000.  Hornbeck is a retired public school educator who—as the test-and-punish, pro-charter school “reform” began to take off leading up to the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002—believed it would be possible to maintain a strong system of public schools and at the same time try out the new reforms and have them enrich each other.  Hornbeck believed at that time that you could improve things by having it both ways.  This week in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, Hornbeck declares he was mistaken: “As Philadelphia’s Superintendent of Schools, I recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools because I thought it would improve educational opportunity for our 215,000 students.  The last 20 years make it clear I was wrong… New policy should not build on current inequities and flawed assumptions….”

Hornbeck’s defection is very strong.  He resides in Maryland and he writes in response to a new proposal in that state that regulation of charter schools be strengthened.  But Hornbeck rejects privatization through charter schools; he is not merely recommending stronger laws to regulate charter schools: “States with ‘stronger’ charter laws are not doing better: Advocates say we need a ‘stronger’ charter law, noting that Maryland ranks near the bottom. Pennsylvania’s law is ranked much higher, yet its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia.”  Hornbeck points out that, “Charters, on the whole, do not result in significant improvement in student performance.”  “Charter funding is also negatively affecting regular public schools.” “Charters do not serve students with the greatest challenges. Charters will be quick to point out they enroll high percentages of low-income students.  Some do.  However, the citywide charter lottery inherently skims.  Every student chosen has someone (parent, pastor, friend) who encouraged and is advocating for him/her to apply and succeed.”

Hornbeck concludes: “Charters are not substitutes for broader proven reforms.  In fact, chartering is not an education reform.  It’s merely a change in governance.  A charter law doesn’t deal with the hard and often costly slog of real reform.” He then lists what makes the difference in education:  high standards, quality teachers, prekindergarten for 3 year olds, lower class size, and “attacking concentrated poverty through community schools; after school programs; more instruction time… and high quality child care.”

In his recent op-ed, Hornbeck also wades into one of the hottest issues in the debate about education reform: teachers unions:

“We need the best and brightest teachers: The proposed ‘stronger’ law undermines collective bargaining that protects teachers from politics and favoritism and has been crucial to improvement in compensation and benefits… Unionization is not the problem.  There are no unions in many of the nation’s worst educational performing states.  All schools, charter or traditional, must pay competitive salaries and benefits to attract experienced, skilled teachers who can succeed with children.”

Congratulations David Hornbeck for your courageous challenge to the conventional wisdom and your support for a just system of public schools as the best way to meet the needs and secure the rights of our nation’s children.

In NYC, Farina Replaces “Test-and-Punish” with “Support-and-Improve.” Wow!

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign slogan last fall described New York as a tale of two cities.  He was referring to alarming income inequality exacerbated by the policies of former mayor Michael Bloomberg.  The metaphor of two cities also captures the contrast in philosophy between the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, a contrast that has never been exposed more plainly than it was this week.

On Wednesday, New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, went to  P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to deliver her second major policy address.  She announced a new philosophy of school improvement and the abandonment of letter grade ratings for public schools.

Then on Thursday, charter school diva Eva Moskowitz closed her Success Academy charter schools and led students, parents, and teachers at a rally in support of charter schools, a rally that was coordinated with a huge TV ad buy that cost nearly half a million dollars.  The ads—that ran most of the week—malign the public schools and promote school choice.

Farina’s policy address, filled with the kind of intangibles that must be the heart of any real school improvement, was described by the press primarily for its promise that the New York Public Schools will abandon a rating system that assigns public schools grades of A-F and instead publish School Quality Snapshots.  The Chancellor says the new Snapshots will, “provide the first balanced picture of a school’s quality—and reflect our promise to stop judging students and schools based on a single, summative grade…  The Snapshot will provide rich details about the life of the school by capturing successes, challenges, and strategies for improvement.  This is a totally new approach.  We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

It is important to stop for a second and think about what we are really reading here.  The New York City School District is abandoning a philosophy of test-and-punish and adopting a philosophy of support-and-improve.

Anyone who has been reading the literature about turning around the schools maligned by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind as “failing” or “in need of improvement” knows that New York City under Mayor Bloomberg was a leader in experiments that closed so-called “failing” schools and emphasized school choice by expanding privatized charters.  And anyone who has been following this conversation over the past dozen years knows that one of the best alternatives to the wave of punitive school reform is described in a book from the University of Chicago: Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Sadly Rahm Emanuel has not followed the advice of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.  Carmen Farina just announced that New York City will adopt this plan.

Bryk is a sociologist, and Organizing Schools for Improvement is about shaping the cultural dynamics of a public school to support professional educators—thus enabling them to nurture children.  Farina describes what she calls “six essential elements that have driven continual school improvement and moved students to the next level… rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family-community ties, and a culture of continuous learning and trust.”  She explains, “We are looking beyond test scores and focusing on making sure that each school has what it needs for sustained and continuous growth.  And we have developed a framework that mirrors the essential elements we see in schools that continually improve… We built our framework around an established body of research conducted by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues from the University of Chicago.”

According to Bryk and his colleagues—and to Farina—the building of relational trust among the professionals in a public school is key.  Bryk and his colleagues describe school improvement as akin to baking a cake:  “Taking this analogy further, four of the organizational supports—parent-community ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, and the instructional guidance system—can be conceived as a list of essential ingredients. Should a core ingredient be absent, it is just not a cake….   We can think of relational trust as the oven heat that transforms the blended ingredients into a full, rich cake. Finally, standing behind all of this is the head chef, in our case, this is the school principal, who orchestrates the collaborative processes of school transformation.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 203)

In her address, Farina lists major changes instituted or launched since she took over the schools last winter:  pre-kindergarten for more than 50,000 students, major expansion of after school programming for students in middle school, the addition of 40 minutes each week (right in the union contract) for teachers to involve families in creative ways, the development of more than 40 new full-service community schools with wrap-around services that may include health clinics and parent support services, new staff development for counselors and school social workers, enhanced programs and support for English language learners, expansion of arts education, enhancement of career and technical education, enhanced professional learning opportunities for teachers and time (again set aside in the contract) for such activities, and collaboration among public schools for support and improvement.  Farina succinctly summarizes what’s changing in New York’s public schools: “We are no longer forcing change on people, we’re creating change with people.”

Of course, there has already been complaining that this is all intangible.  How can anyone measure it?  How can parents digest the information that will be released, when the letter grades were so simple and clear?  And of course the first person to leap in with criticism is Eva Moskowitz, the $500,000-per-year CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools whose supporters raised what Capital New York reports is $479,200 for a TV ad buy.  Many board members of Moskowitz’s  Success Academy charter schools also serve as the leaders of the ads’ sponsor, Families for Excellent Schools.  The spots, Don’t Steal Possible, malign the public schools, which are depicted as stealing opportunity from children.  According to Capital New York, Eva Moskowitz declared, “Our school system is stealing possibilities from New York’s children.”  We are reminded that Families for Excellent Schools also “sponsored a multimillion dollar ad buy earlier this year attacking de Blasio after he initially blocked three of Moskowitz’s charters from moving into existing public schools and sharing the space. He lost that political battle, in part because of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s strong and public support of Moskowitz… Cuomo also denied de Blasio his plan to charge wealthier charters rent.”

If they are given time, Farina’s policies to strengthen school organizations to support teachers and to connect schools with the children’s families are likely to expand what’s possible for children in New York City.  Farina explains: “One size does not fit all… Likewise, schools have unique qualities that cannot be captured in a letter grade.  They are not restaurants…  One way we will support schools is to evaluate their performance based on multiple measures….  This is no longer a competition.”

The question is whether New York’s citizens and the rest of our culture—that worships competition and invests hope in numerical ranking and rating—will risk trying something new.  Do we any longer even understand the importance of supporting human relationship and building community? Will we give New York City’s new learning philosophy a chance to improve the educational experience of over a million children in the public schools?

NEA Repudiates Arne Duncan, Demands America Pay Closer Attention

It shouldn’t really be surprising that the delegates at the National Education Association’s recent convention passed a resolution calling on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign.

  • Arne Duncan, through regulations of the U.S. Department of Education, has made the granting of federal waivers from the most onerous penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act contingent on states’ evaluating school teachers based on econometric formulas derived from students’ scores on the state standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind.  This despite a warning from the American Statistical Association that such formulas are likely to be unreliable.
  • Arne Duncan called what happened in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of the city and paved the way for the firing of all of the city’s public school teachers and the subsequent charterization of the entire school district a great opportunity.  Duncan said:  “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster.”
  • Back in 2010, Arne Duncan lauded the so-called “turnaround” of the high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a restructure based on firing the principal and all the teachers.
  • Arne Duncan once announced at a meeting I attended: “Good charters are part of the solution; bad charters are part of the problem.”  Yet, despite that his Race to the Top program created huge incentives for states to eliminate any caps their legislatures had imposed on the number of new charters, and despite that the Department of Education makes grants to support the expansion of charter schools, Arne Duncan has never suggested any regulations to prevent academic failure or financial fraud in the bad charter schools he has himself named as “part of the problem.”  What is almost always left unsaid in the conversation about charter schools that are so heavily supported by the Department of Education is that the vast majority of teachers in charter schools are non-unionized; their lower salaries undermine the teaching profession.

This week Jeff Bryant, in his column for the Educational Opportunity Network, points out: “For quite some time, close observers of the nation’s education policy have been calling attention to the fault lines between education progressives in the Democratic Party and Third Way-style centrists, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Democrats for Education Reform, who lean toward a market-based, econometric philosophy for public education governance.  As Furman University education professor Paul Thomas recently wrote for Alternet, ‘While the Obama administration has cultivated the appearance of hope and change, its education policies are essentially slightly revised or greatly intensified versions of accountability reform begun under Ronald Reagan.'”

Duncan’s Department of Education has been unwilling to invest in well-researched strategies to address the deep issues of poverty and the accompanying challenges for teachers in the schools that serve children in communities where poverty is concentrated.  As an example of the policies Duncan has ignored, Bryant points to a resource from the Opportunity to Learn Campaign that names strategies to improve the recruitment and ongoing support for teachers in impoverished communities and to fund the reforms necessary to compensate for the disparities in taxing capacity across school districts.

There is also a significant body of academic literature about reforms that would support teachers in struggling schools, while Duncan has emphasized punitive policies.  A well-known book about what will be required to address the needs in schools overwhelmed by the conditions of their students’ lives, Organizing Schools for Improvement, a project of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, concludes: “Community social capital is a critical resource for advancing school improvement… We have documented that the density of children living under extraordinary circumstances within a school community can create a significant barrier for improvement…  Taken together, a weakness in community social capital combined with a high density of student needs marks the social context of truly disadvantaged schools.” Not surprisingly the Consortium describes budgetary investments that improved learning in one such school by supporting the teachers and their students: “On the academic front, (the school) sustained its focus on aligning curriculum with standards schoolwide, building common instructionally-embedded assessments… and coupling this with extensive supports for professional development and attention to recruiting and nurturing capable new staff who were committed to teaching in this school community.  Complementing this and equally important was an unrelenting focus on garnering community resources to respond to the extraordinary needs present in this school.  Establishing a sense of safety and organizational order was an essential first concern to address.  Assembling a first rate social services support team and accessing external program services that extended well beyond the meager ones offered by the school system was a key sustaining piece in the school’s reform agenda…  Reconnecting to families and supporting them in the education of their children was another interrelated element.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 194-195)

It is an important development that the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has by its recent action demanded that the public scrutinize Arne Duncan’s education policies. Conor P. Williams, of the New America Foundation, notes: “education is rarely a determinative political issue at the federal level — and it’s only marginally more so at the state level.  It’s rare that voters will allow a candidate’s education platform to sway their vote if they disagree on other, more provocative issues.  Politicians know this, which leaves them relatively free to govern education—and set its budgets—without attending too carefully to public opinion.”

Duncan’s Department of Education has sought to blame and scapegoat school teachers for test score achievement gaps at the same time the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the federal government, with leadership by Duncan, has cut spending since 2010 for Title I by 12 percent and for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by 11 percent, at the same time 35 states are spending less on public education than they did prior to the 2008 recession.  According to Five Thirty-Eight, overall federal per-pupil spending for public education fell by more than 20 percent between 2010 and 2012.  The real question is how to make the schools that serve our poorest children places where the learning climate and the salary schedule attract our very best teachers. Arne Duncan’s education policies have condoned our mass denial of what ought to be obvious: raising school achievement will require an investment of money and political capital; it cannot be accomplished by punishing teachers.

What Is Teaching All About and Why Does Experience Matter?

From our national testing law, No Child Left Behind, through programs like School Improvement Grants coming from Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, federal policy is designed these days to blame and scapegoat school teachers.  The assumption under today’s policies is that if we rate and rank teachers by students’ scores, they will work harder and smarter and do more with less to make up for the fact that across many states we are spending less on public education than we did five or six years ago.  And we are spending not nearly enough in the communities where children are segregated in poverty.

Our national obsession with blaming teachers is likely also wound up with the fact that we have all watched a lot of teachers work.  As we sat in their classrooms, it all looked pretty easy.  When one listens to Emanuel Ax play the piano, it is also easy to imagine being a concert pianist  because he makes it look pretty easy.  This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss features a commentary from one of today’s best writers about teaching, Mike Rose, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and author of some of my favorite books on education, Lives on the BoundaryPossible Lives (stories of great teachers), Why School?, and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.

Rose shows us why being a teacher is not so easy.  This morning he assigns himself the task of defining teaching.  Is it a profession “like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before an individual can become a practitioner” or a craft that is learned principally on the job?  Rose concludes that it is both: “Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development.  But it’s not just that teachers know things.  Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others.”  “Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity.  You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly….”  “So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces in our culture.”  I urge you to read Rose’s engaging, thoughtful article and then think about some of the teachers you know who do this difficult work every day.

Then I suggest you follow up by reading a short commentary by Helen Ladd, Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.  Appreciating the complex work Rose describes, Ladd worries about the diminishing number of experienced teachers in classrooms across the United States: “In the late 1980s, most of the nation’s teachers had considerable experience—only 17 percent had taught for five or fewer years.  By 2008, however, about 28 percent had less than five years of experience.  The proportions of novices in the classroom are particularly high in schools in underprivileged areas.  Some observers applaud the rapid ‘greening’ of the teaching force because they think that experienced teachers are not needed.  But this view is short-sighted…” “Wonderful as it it is for bright, college graduates to bring new energy and skills to the classroom,” writes Ladd, “schools pay a high price for too much teacher turnover.”

Common Core Debate Is Really Just Another Chapter of Test-and-Punish

The debate about the Common Core Standards and the Common Core tests is not really about whether our public school curriculum ought to be more uniform and perhaps more challenging from place to place. That would be a debate worth having.  But really instead the Common Core is the latest chapter in a long story being circulated by our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and others who share his philosophy that teachers and students alike can best be motivated by behaviorist rewards and punishments—competition, pressure and fear.

The driver here is testing—competition for high scores and punishments for low scores—along with the collection of data.  (It is essential to remember that data-driven school reform has arrived at just the moment we have the computer-driven capacity to collect and process data, and this school reform philosophy is being promoted in many cases by the same business entrepreneurs who developed the computers.)  We are told that if we threaten school districts and schools and teachers where students are struggling, everybody will work harder and our children will do better in a world dominated by global competitiveness.  Standards-and-accountability school reform has become so embedded into our national consciousness that it’s hard to remember there might be another way.

If you are looking for an up-to-date review of the issues about the Common Core, read this article by Carol Burris (posted over the weekend on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog).  Burris is an award winning elementary school principal who understands child development and respects the teachers in her school as they try to cope with the pressures of our educational culture dominated by punitive testing imposed from above.

But this morning I want to examine the implications of an educational philosophy based on accountability, testing, and fear.  Two weeks ago, by a lucky chance, I spent a morning visiting three classes at our local public high school.  I describe the work of the teachers whose classes I visited here.  All three teachers demonstrated not only exceptional mastery of their academic content, but also deep commitment to the formation of their students, intellectually, linguistically, socially, ethically, and personally.  These teachers enjoy working with adolescents, engage their students in thinking critically, and create a culture of mutual respect.  My blog post about that high school visit has been read widely here in our community, followed by some comments I’ve heard at the grocery store: “Those teachers are at our high school?”  “I had no idea we had classes like that at Heights!” “Were you scared when you were there?”

All three teachers shared with me their worries about all the testing they believe is undermining their work.  They want desperately to find a way to oppose the time taken by testing and preparing for testing, but they know that in a system designed around competition and punishment, it is difficult for those trapped inside the system to protest.  In our state that keeps cutting funding we have to keep our scores high just to pass our levies.  And in a district with 63 percent of students qualifying for free lunch, and significant mobility into the district from poorer districts, we have lots of catch up to accomplish just to keep scores moving upwards.  In a system dominated by fear, teachers must work doubly hard to keep their classes flexible, nurturing and enjoyable.

Ten years ago, Parker Palmer, who has written extensively about teaching as a vocation, described the same dilemma the teachers at our local high school shared with me last week.  Palmer’s forward to Stories of the Courage to Teach (p. xviii) urges us all to visit a school, watch what teachers do, and listen to what they say:

“If you are not a teacher and are skeptical about their plight or their dedication, I have a suggestion to make: visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers…. Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.”

In the decade since Palmer wrote these words, our society has only intensified our blaming of school teachers. As I read about the debate around the Common Core—and the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant competitions, I have begun to create a discipline for myself.  I force myself to think about how each of these conversations is being shaped by an educational philosophy of behaviorist rewards and punishments and a process of measuring, and competition.  Then I try to think about what it would be like if we just trusted and supported the teachers who have chosen to help our society raise our children.  I would prefer to reinvest all the money now being spent on developing and administering tests in peer-driven staff development programs where teachers like the ones I observed could share their techniques with their colleagues.

Philadelphia Teacher Explains Concessions Teachers Have Already Had To Make

Earlier this week I tried to tease out the issues in what has become such an urgent financial crisis that may delay the opening of the school year for students in the School District of Philadelphia. The Superintendent of Schools, William Hite has said he will refuse to open school without enough adults adequately to supervise children and ensure their safety.  Hite set a deadline: unless an additional $50 million can be guaranteed from the state and city by tomorrow, August 16, the opening of school must be delayed.

The School Reform Commission, an agency of the state of Pennsylvania that retains ultimate control of the district, closed 23 schools last March and forced Superintendent Hite to lay off thousands of teachers and other school personnel.  These actions were intended to close a $304 million projected deficit that has been growing for years as the state has failed to design a funding system that adequately addresses equity.

I’ll reprint this pithy summary by Rutgers school finance expert Bruce Baker of some of the causes of the Philadelphia school finance crisis :

“1) Pennsylvania has among the least equitable state school finance systems in the country, and Philly bears the brunt of that system.

2) Pennsylvania’s school finance system is actually designed in ways that divert needed funding away from higher need districts like Philadelphia.

3) And Pennsylvania’s school finance system has created numerous perverse incentives regarding charter school funding also to Philly’s disadvantage.”

What is clear as Superintendent Hite’s Friday deadline draws near is that Governor Tom Corbett is using the crisis as leverage to demand concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Is it really up to Philadelphia’s school teachers to make further concessions to alleviate a crisis created by the state’s legislature and Governor Corbett?  This morning, thanks to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, we have the point of view of a Philadelphia teacher.  Daniel Ueda is a physics teacher and volunteer coach of the winning robotics team at Central High School. He recently published this letter on the website of the robotics team.  Ueda’s letter explains the facts of his life as a teacher today.

What he is being asked to give up in the school district’s financial climate is the heart of the professional contribution he can make to his students.  He is being asked to switch from teaching physics to teaching math and to sacrifice all preparation periods all while taking on “at least three different kinds of classes, all in violation of the current contract and all due to layoffs and budget constraints.”  He describes his work with the prize-winning robotics team, and notes that he was neither paid for robotics coaching last year nor will he be in the coming school year.

Ueda’s plea is emotional, but it also paints a picture of what teachers are being asked to sacrifice in this crisis: the time, energy, and peace of mind that make it possible for them to help students surmount the barriers presented by concentrated poverty in an urban school system.  As he notes, 90 percent of the students in his robotics team last year went on to college undergraduate engineering programs.