Fili-Bernie

Sunday, December 12, 2010
I've officially given this blog over to Bernie Sanders. Well, not really. But I can't think of an issue more fundamental in defining who we are as Americans and more important to our nation's economic and educational future than what Bernie discussed in his old-school, non-filibuster filibuster on Friday. Economic justice -- along with sensible tax policy -- is something too few on Capitol Hill and too few Americans care to consider. But it's centrally related to the future educational outcomes of our people -- research shows that socioeconomic factors are more important even than teacher quality, a frequent topic of my posts and a central feature of my professional work.

I note that former Labor Secretary and current Berkeley professor Robert Reich, in his Twitter feed (@RBReich) today, backs up a point I made about these proposed tax cuts being a precursor to Republican efforts to launch an assault on domestic spending and entitlements -- using the federal budget deficit made so much worse by these tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires as their rationale.

I said: "I recognize that this issue isn't specifically about education, but it is inexorably linked. Given President Obama's apparent unwillingness to go to the mat for Democratic principles (and his own campaign pledge!), Republicans have succeeded in extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires -- not just for the first $250,000 or $1,000,000 of their income, but all of it up to infinity. The total cost of all the proposal's tax cuts is $900 billion. Republicans' likely next step is too take off their "tax cutter" hat and don their "deficit hawk" cap, saying that the federal government is living beyond its means, and will fire away at domestic spending. You don't think education will avoid being in their crosshairs at that time, do you? You know that this is more than simply a ploy to line the pockets of rich Americans, right? It's part of a plan to bleed government dry and then argue that government programs need to be reduced, eliminated or privatized."

Reich wrote: "$900 b tax cut w/ lion's share for rich explodes deficit and makes future domestic discretionary spending sitting duck for R cuts."

Yes, folks. This isn't just about tax cuts for the richest Americans. This is but a front in the war to reduce the size of government regardless of its collateral damage to Americans who need government the most.

Economic inequality is already at an all-time high in this country -- even higher than prior to the start of the Great Depression. Our educational system only has a finite amount of power to overcome such overwhelming inequities. If these forces are left unchecked, it may become an impossible job, especially as education programs themselves may fall victim to all-too-easily-predictable budget cuts.

The rich, on the the other hand, will continue to party like it's 1929. Only the party's even better this time 'round. So much for the national economy being a collective good.

Bernie Sanders

Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Vermont's U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is a hero for speaking truth to power, something he has been doing his entire life, regardless of whether it's been politically popular. He's one of the few public officials who has entered the U.S. Senate chamber and not become co-opted by it. Now, I may be biased as a former Vermonter who watched his rise from third-party also-ran to mayor of Burlington to U.S. congressman to U.S. senator. Bernie is genuine, he is forthright, perhaps a bit holier than thou at times. He is the real deal.

Check out his 13-minute speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on November 30, 2010 providing a compelling and detailed analysis of historic economic inequality in America and the duplicity of Republicans talking woefully about the national debt and budget deficit one minute and pushing as their top priority tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires that would break the bank the next. Sanders is one of the few national leaders making any sense today and putting economic inequality and proposed tax breaks into historical context. It's probably because he is one of the few that actually cares.



On Saturday, we watched as Republicans voted in lockstep against two alternatives to extending the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans regardless of income. One proposal would have extended tax cuts to all families first $250,000; another to all families' first million. Even millionaires and billionaires would have continued to enjoy lower taxes on some of their income. Alas, why should the rich settle for half a loaf?

Who else thinks that the current policy debate over tax policy in Washington is absolutely insane? Not enough of us. One who does is Noble Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who in the New York Times on December 3, 2010, laid much of the blame on President Obama:
It’s hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama’s measure — that they’re calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it’s also hard to escape the impression that they’re right.
Sad, but true.

I recognize that this issue isn't specifically about education, but it is inexorably linked. Given President Obama's apparent unwillingness to go to the mat for Democratic principles (and his own campaign pledge!), Republicans have succeeded in extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires -- not just for the first $250,000 or $1,000,000 of their income, but all of it up to infinity. The total cost of all the proposal's tax cuts is $900 billion. Republicans' likely next step is too take off their "tax cutter" hat and don their "deficit hawk" cap, saying that the federal government is living beyond its means, and will fire away at domestic spending. You don't think education will avoid being in their crosshairs at that time, do you? You know that this is more than simply a ploy to line the pockets of rich Americans, right? It's part of a plan to bleed government dry and then argue that government programs need to be reduced, eliminated or privatized. [UPDATE: The deal is a "budget buster." (The Atlantic)]

Now, there are would-be Democrats who are in denial and are not considering this likely outcome at all. Rather than reserving their scorn for Republican tax policy, they are attacking progressive Democrats and the likes of Bernie Sanders. Shame on them.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, the President suffered a split lip in a pick-up basketball game. How I wish he were as willing to put his body on the line for economic fairness as he was for a rebound!

I am encouraged that Senator Sanders has expressed a willingness to use the filibuster to put the breaks on extending tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. God knows that Republicans have used the filibuster -- or the threat of one -- for dozens of nefarious purposes, including preventing extensions of unemployment insurance, regulation of Wall Street, and recently more rationale tax cut extension proposals. Imagine! A progressive willing to stand up for what's right and not "punt on third down," to use the words of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.

At this time, I couldn't be more disappointed in President Obama. I have always been a political realist, voting for the "least bad" candidate when necessary, and a life-long Democrat. I honestly don't know what I might do in 2012. I literally couldn't sleep the other night, I was so angry. Maybe it's time to follow Robert Reich's lead and form a "Peoples' Party."

Rhetorically, President Obama is making the same mistake over and over again, putting bipartisanship ahead of smart public policy. I am not criticizing the President because I wrongly fancied him a liberal. Rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was one of his chief campaign pledges for Chrissakes! I'm criticizing him on the substance of the issue, for walking away from a campaign promise (without fighting for it), and for making the same tactical mistake he made during the health care battle: working feverishly to assemble a bipartisan coalition for health care reform when there was no real willingness among Republicans to meet in the middle. In the current case, he horse-traded away a key campaign plank and agreed to an extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years plus deeper estate tax cuts, while only receiving a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits and one year of payroll tax cuts.

I'll give the New York Times the last word. In this morning's editorial, it writes:
President Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend all the Bush-era income tax cuts is a win for the Republicans and their strategy of obstructionism and a disappointing retreat by the White House....

The Republicans gave up very little except for their unconscionable stance of holding up all other Congressional action until they ensured that the richest Americans keep their tax cuts.

Silver Linings

Friday, December 3, 2010
It's probably no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I'm a Democrat. That said, in my professional life, I have worked for non-partisan and non-profit organizations committed to working with public officials of all political persuasions. And I think that both political parties -- as well as political independents -- are potential partners in improving pubic education. Nonetheless, I can't honestly say that November 2010 was an uplifting month from my (electoral) perspective.

But this is the Education OPTIMISTS blog, right? I guess I'm a little self-aware in that I recognize that a majority of my posts grouse about something or other and too few are offered in a truly optimistic vein. So here is my attempt at weaving a silk purse from an elephant's(?) ear.

Newly elected Republican governors and state legislators have opportunities to improve education in ways that some of their Democratic counterparts may not. They may be more politically willing and able to take on certain vestiges of the education status quo that may not be research-based, may not be working, and may be not be in service of student outcomes. I'm talking about things like the traditional steps-and-lanes teacher salary schedule, the length of the school day and year, and largely purposeless teacher evaluation systems. They may be able to construct new human capital systems and reform outdated school practices and processes. Certainly, these opportunities will vary depending upon numerous contextual factors, including state systems of educational governance, the intellectual and policy foundations for such work, the existence of non-governmental advocates and thought partners, existing vehicles for collaboration (such as p-16 councils), etc.

A number of past Republican governors emerged as leaders, or so-called "education governors." Some that immediately come to mind are former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, outgoing Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, and former Tennessee Gov. (and current U.S. Senator) Lamar Alexander (who also served as U.S Education Secretary under President George H.W. Bush).

That said, here's where my pessimism takes over. There are certainly members of the current Republican gubernatorial circle that are certainly not in the running for such an earned label, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. With less than a year in office, he has moved in a decidedly confrontational direction. His actions and rhetoric makes him better suited for talk radio than as a collaborative education governor who needs to work with a Democratic-controlled state legislature and, yes, with teachers. Christie is casting himself as a modern-day Archie Bunker and is relishing the attention and headlines he is getting. The sad fact is that such rhetoric is what garners attention in today's media rather than the dogged policy work that actually changes the equation for students and teachers.

Christie seems to think that leadership consists of rhetoric rather than results. And that's dangerous if our collective goal is the creation of meaningful reform as opposed to simply talk or threats of it. Christie has attacked his own state's relatively good educational performance in order to further his demonizing of the state teachers' union, which appears to be his primary priority. He fired his first education commissioner who dared to strike a compromise with teachers around New Jersey's aborted Race to the Top application. That former commissioner said that the Governor "placed fighting with the state teachers unions and his persona on talk radio above education reform." Good luck to those who seek to thrust him upon America as a 2012 candidate for President.

My fear is that there those within the ranks of new Republican governors that are more likely to fashion themselves in the style of Christie than as "old school" education governors. Texas Governor Rick Perry's ascension to head the RGA probably doesn't help either.

With the exception of the 12 Race to the Top winners, one challenge that these new office holders of both parties will face is the distinct lack of new resources to inject into the educational system, either from state or federal sources. They won't be able to buy reforms by increasing education funding or refashion teacher pay with a major infusion of cash.

My hope is that governors of both parties will seek to work with educators to accomplish their policy objectives rather than force their desires onto them. There is good evidence to suggest that collaboration leads to more resilient and relevant policies that are likely to trickle down to actually change practices and processes within classrooms and schools. That's where the real work gets done.

I am hopeful that some quiet leaders will emerge.

Building A Better Teacher

Thursday, December 2, 2010
If you haven't been reading the excellent "Building A Better Teacher" news series in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, you should be. It really doesn't matter whether you're from Wisconsin or not, or particularly interested in this state's policy context. The series is taking an expansive look at the various issues related to human capital development, teacher effectiveness and teaching quality. And it's not quoting the same overused Beltway prognosticators to drive its points home.

The fourth installment in the eight-part series, funded by Hechinger, ran this past Sunday and was entitled "Trying to steer strong teachers to weak schools."

My main quibble with this particular article was that it gave short shrift to one of the most effective answers to the question posed: How do we steer strong teachers to weak schools? The answer: Improve the teaching conditions at those schools.

Here's the extent of what the article offered on this issue:
So what else might be done, in hopes of having more impact? A few ideas in nutshells:

Make schools better places to work: This is both the simplest and most complex solution. The New Teacher Project report in 2007 said, "The best way to staff high need schools is to make them attractive to great teachers." But how do you achieve that?

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee teachers union, listed things that would attract teachers: "A competent and fair principal is key not only in getting teachers there but in keeping them.... We're also looking at schools that are safe."

My suggestion would have been a much more robust treatment and discussion of the issue of teaching conditions. I have extrapolated on its importance in a series of blog posts, and the New Teacher Center (my employer) has unique national expertise in administering statewide Teaching and Learning Conditions surveys. The NTC has a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to administer a Teaching & Learning Conditions Survey as part of the foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project. The Survey is being administered in select schools and districts participating in the MET project across the country.

Perhaps Wisconsin and Milwaukee, in particular, should consider administering such an anonymous full population survey to its educators -- teachers, administrators and support staff -- and see what they have to say. Why do they stay or leave a given school or district? What's working and what isn't? States and districts that have administered such surveys have used the data to improve principal preparation, rewrite professional standards for teachers and principals, and strengthen teacher mentoring and professional development. This is not data to be afraid of but data that can empower policymakers, school leaders and teachers alike.

Teaching and learning conditions are highly correlated with issues such as teacher retention and the presence of such conditions explain as much as 15 percent of the variance in student achievement between schools (Helen 'Sunny' Ladd, 2009). This stuff matters greatly in the current policy debates about teaching and student outcomes and it gets far too little attention as compared with value added, teacher evaluation and teacher pay.

The Bloom Is Off The Rose

Friday, November 12, 2010
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stewardship of his city's education system has taken a troubling turn. The resignation of New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein precipitated an incredibly secretive process to name his replacement -- Cathleen Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines (you know, Cosmo, Esquire, Oprah) and former publisher of that beacon of journalism, USA Today. Black has absolutely no education experience nor has she ever sent her children to public schools or herself attended public schools. In fact, Black is so unqualified for the job (she does not have three years teaching experience and did not complete graduate work in education) that a waiver from David Steiner, the state education commissioner, will be required in order for her to actually work as NYC Schools Chancellor. (A Wednesday New York Times editorial calls on Steiner to "thoroughly vet" Black "to determine if she is up to the job.") Of course, Klein himself needed such a waiver, although he came to the job having been educated in the city's schools and having been a teacher for a short period of time.

To me, the clear message that Bloomberg has sent to New York City educators and veterans of the New York City Department of Education -- and other potentially qualified candidates across the nation -- is that a complete outsider with no experience in education and no record of public service is preferable to any candidate with experience as a teacher or school administrator. The more galling fact is that no search was undertaken to fill the Chancellor vacancy. The New York Times reports that no one else was "seriously vetted or considered -- and few of the usual suspects ... were even consulted." It appears that Black was tapped to run New York City schools primarily because of her business experience and because she travels in the same social circles as the Mayor. As Black herself said, the job offer "came out of left field."

I'm not some corn-pone, but I'm just left shaking my head here. Is this really the best process to select the leader of the nation's largest school system? Would Black have risen to the top if a true search had been conducted? Is this the type of executive management that voters had in mind when they elected Bloomberg mayor?

Is the selection of someone like Black good or bad for education? Klein argued on NPR that it doesn't matter because she will be surrounded by "extraordinary lifetime career educators.... The problem with public education is it's not operated effectively. It's operated as a political organization." I imagine that it may be freeing in some sense to not be tied down by prevailing orthodoxies, but it is troubling to me to think of a leader of such a complicated system and enterprise lacking any frame of reference whatsoever, let alone any detailed knowledge.

Here are some other takes:

Foodie Finds

Last week we covered the blue. This week we cover the red.

This week's Foodie Finds features restaurants in Red States (although not necessarily red cities). Bon appetit. Wait a minute. That's French. Can't say that in Red States. Ahem. Good eatin'.

Buz and Ned's Real Barbecue - The real deal - Richmond, Virginia

Hansen's Sno-Bliz - A magical combo of shaved ice and homemade syrup - New Orleans, Louisiana

House of Tricks - Contemporary American cooking in a charming atmosphere - Tempe, Arizona

McCrady's - Sean Brock won 2010 James Beard Best Chef Southeast - Charleston, South Carolina

Salt Lick Bar-B-Que - Authentic Texas BBQ - Austin, Texas


Foodie Finds

Friday, November 5, 2010
This week's culinary offerings include some fabulous restaurants safely ensconced in Blue States and one in Canada (in case anyone is thinking of fleeing after Tuesday's results):

Delfina - Stellar neighborhood trattoria - San Francisco, California

Flour Bakery - Delicious sandwiches and to-die-for baked goods - Boston, Massachusetts

Passionfish - A focus on sustainable seafood and local ingredients - Pacific Grove, California

Saucebox - Pan-Asian dishes and cool cocktails since 1995 - Portland, Oregon

Soif Wine Bar - Surprisingly good food for a casual wine bar - Santa Cruz, California

Toro - Sorry, Jose Andres. The tapas here (not at DC's Jaleo) are transcendente - Boston, Massachusetts

Vij's - Best Indian in North America? - Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Vote

Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Sorry for the long hiatus. Life and work have taken over in the past several weeks and it's been hard to find time to put pen to paper put fingers to keypad.

Today is Election Day. And I am not hopeful for America.

I am fearful for our democracy and our unraveling social fabric. America's dark underbelly is exposed this election year. Fear, bigotry, and lack of empathy are rampant -- and constitute the entirety of some candidates' platforms and rationales for running for public office.

I think we should be represented by the best among our ranks, not the worst. I think we should look to leaders willing to offer solutions, not just cast aspersions and look for scapegoats ... whether the President who inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression, immigrants who are trying to do the best they can for the families, or those of Muslim faith who all are branded with the terrorist label.

Sadly, this will not be the outcome or result of this election. Some true leaders, statesmen and free thinkers such as Wisconsin U.S. Senator Russ Feingold will
likely fall to defeat ... to a plastics manufacturer whose main platform appears to be that the details of policy don't matter. (In its endorsement of Feingold, the right-leaning Madison paper, the Wisconsin State Journal, said "Though likeable and impressive on business issues, Johnson was sketchy on most everything else.") Apparently, obfuscation and distraction will win the day -- and then obstruction can prevail for another two years at which point the right will be aiming for full control of the reins of government by ousting President Obama.

There has been little discussion and no serious consideration of critical issues such as historic levels of income inequality or honest assessments of the expansion of access to and improved consumer protections achieved through the health care legislation. And many of the bomb throwers and Tea Partiers who will be elected don't know and don't care about any of these issues.

What does this election mean for education? At the federal level -- possibly no significant policy action at all in the upcoming Congress; unsuccessful calls for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education; almost no new money at all, including a third round of Race to the Top (unless it can be pushed through during the upcoming lame duck session), increases in Pell Grants, and other need-based and competitive programs. In the states -- more attacks on teachers and unions; the most thoughtless kind of performance pay proposals disconnected from instruction and teacher development; school vouchers as a wedge issue; growing religiosity in public schools; and more bowing to the altar of local control without an evidential basis and regardless of its effect on outcomes.

There will be a few political bright lights this Election Day, likely in governors races in states such as California, Massachusetts and Vermont. And the most comical, dangerous, embarassing and idiotic candidates for US Senate in states such as Delaware (Christine O'Donnell who isn't a witch don't ya know?) and Nevada (Sharron Angle who is apparently opposed to maternity leave, wants to eliminate the "unconstitutional" US Education Department, but is possibly in favor of "taking Harry Reid out" through an invocation of Second Amendment rights) will likely, hopefully fall short. But pay attention to races in bellwether states such as Colorado, Florida, Illinois and Ohio for signs of what is really going on. It's unlikely to be pretty. Optimistic? Nope. Not me. Not today.

Seeking a PostDoctoral Fellow!

Thursday, October 14, 2010
Hi folks-- sorry for the long absence-- I'm hoping to hire a postdoc (or doctoral student) in the next year and wondering if any of our readers might be interested? Here are details...

Sara

----------------------------

Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study

Position Announcement: Funding for Junior Researcher of Color

Graduate Project Assistantship or Postdoctoral Fellowship

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at UW-Madison, seeks a talented junior researcher of color to join the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study in 2011 as it prepares to enroll its second cohort of students.

The WSLS is the first-ever longitudinal randomized controlled trial of need-based financial aid. It is a mixed-methods study following two cohorts of Wisconsin Pell grant recipients through college and into the workforce. It is led by an interdisciplinary team of researchers, including co-director Douglas N. Harris, and includes collection of administrative, survey, and in-depth interview data. For more information, please see the WSLS website.

Dr. Goldrick-Rab holds a William T. Grant Scholars award for her work on the WSLS. Her project, “Rethinking College Choice in America,” applies ideas and methods from developmental psychology and behavioral economics to examine how college students' use of time, emotional experiences and amounts of sleep interact with financial aid and affect chances of earning degrees.

The Scholars award includes the opportunity to seek supplementary funding (also from the William T. Grant Foundation) to help Scholars build strong mentoring relationships with students of color. According to the Foundation, “these awards address two issues that receive insufficient attention and resources: how to be a good mentor and challenges facing people of color in research careers.” The Foundation estimates awarding three to four awards in the amount of $60,000 for mentoring doctoral students and $85,000 for mentoring postdoctoral fellows (inclusive of a maximum of 7.5 percent in indirect costs). Funding will begin on July 1, 2011, and end June 30, 2012. Mentors and mentees will come together during annual winter meetings designed to support the mentoring relationships, Scholars’ development as mentors, and Junior Researchers’ development as researchers.

If selected and funded, the Junior Researcher will work with Dr. Goldrick-Rab on her Scholars project and also on an independent inquiry related to the second cohort of students participating in the WSLS.

Eligible applicants must meet the following criteria, according to Foundation rules:
• Junior Researchers of Color may be African American, Asian or Pacific Islander American, Latino, and/or Native American.
• Junior Researchers may be full-time doctoral students or postdoctoral fellows.
• At minimum, students must be in their second year of doctoral studies at the onset of the award.
• The Junior Researcher must be housed at UW-Madison or a nearby college or university.

In addition, per the needs of the WSLS and Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s project, eligible applicants must also possess all of the following qualifications:
• A background in social science coursework, preferably in sociology or anthropology and/or training in a public policy or social work program.
• Prior experience conducting in-depth interviews .
• Statistics skills, include comfort with regression analysis and preferably familiarity with STATA.
• Ability to demonstrate attention to detail, strong writing skills, and the capacity to work independently.
In short, the highly qualified applicant will have already begun to emerge as a skilled mixed-method researcher, or researcher-in-training.

This position is currently in the planning stage. At this time, Dr. Goldrick-Rab seeks interested students who would like to collaborate on an application for either a project assistantship or a postdoctoral fellowship, to begin in July 1, 2011 and conclude June 30, 2012. The final application is due March 2, 2011 and the award decision will be made in June 2011. The applicant is required to jointly prepare the application with Dr. Goldrick-Rab (as the Foundation mandates). To the extent that the student goes beyond the application planning and participates in laying the groundwork for Cohort 2, that work may be compensated on an hourly basis (to be negotiated), regardless of whether the award is granted.

If interested, students should contact Dr. Goldrick-Rab by November 5, 2010. Please send an email that includes a cover letter explaining reasons for interest, along with a CV and contact information for at least two professors who can provide recommendations to srab@education.wisc.edu.

Thank you for your interest!

The Manifesto, Income Inequality & Credibility

Wednesday, October 13, 2010
On Friday, I wrote a blog item ('Misleading Manifesto') chiding a group of urban superintendents for misstating educational research in a 'manifesto' published in Sunday's Washington Post. Teacher quality *is* important -- but it does not matter MORE THAN family income and concentrated poverty.

I am convinced that too many educational reformers are happy to 'spin' the truth for rhetorical purposes. I think this is exactly what we saw in this manifesto. While this may help to simplify messaging, target solutions at a more narrowly construed problem, and focus in on what education leaders have direct control over, it carries an inherent policy danger along with it. That danger is two-fold: (1) teacher policy reforms may be set up for failure by overstating their potential impact; and (2) more comprehensive strategies desperately needed to combat rising income inequality and growing poverty in our nation may be discounted and ignored.

For me, this isn't an issue of setting low expectations for children from poverty. We must train and support our teachers to have high expectations and develop the potential in all children. But, from a policy perspective, which is the world in which I work, to not even discuss poverty and inequality -- even though the research evidence points to its preeminence -- is akin to taking it off the table as a policy priority.

Nor it is a lack of belief in the ameliorative benefits that sensible teacher reforms can have on student outcomes by expanding the recruitment pool of teacher candidates, improving initial training and on-going support of classroom teachers, improving teaching and learning conditions within schools, providing differential compensation to teachers for leadership roles, difficult assignments, shortage fields, and demonstrated effectiveness, and more....

For teacher quality specifically, as I argued in my previous post, playing fast and loose with the facts isn't necessary. There is a powerful argument to be made based on the fact that teachers are the most important school-based influence on student learning. That's exactly what my colleagues at the New Teacher Center have done. We've made careful and honest declarations about teacher quality being the most critical within-school variable, but haven't framed the issue in a way that would make us education-industry Pinocchios.

And this leads us directly to the question of credibility. While I am personally inclined to support elements of what the superintendents' manifesto calls for -- and inclined to support elements of broader education and teacher reform agendas -- I am disinclined to associate myself with a clarion call that is dishonest on its face and misserves the national need for a critical conversation and accompanying set of public policies to address issues of economic inequality. That need extends well beyond the education system and requires responses much broader than merely strengthening the teaching profession and overhauling human capital systems.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently has been banging the drums challenging policymakers -- and Democrats, in particular -- to address our nation's historic levels of income inequality and rising levels of poverty. As reported by the Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein, since 1976 "virtually all of the benefits of economic growth have gone to households that, in today's terms, earn more than $110,000 a year." Further, UNICEF reports that the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty among 24 OECD nations -- over 20% -- and the second-worst rate (barely ahead of bottom-dwelling Great Britain) of childhood well-being in the industralized world. Further, as Walt Gardner recently noted, a September 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report showed that the percentage of Americans below the poverty line in 2009 was the highest in 15 years. And the rise was steepest for children, with one in five affected. Think this has any bearing on U.S. students' relatively poor performance on international student assessments? Uh-huh.

So, let's talk about how to strengthen teaching and its central importance to student outcomes. But let's not fence ourselves in with self-serving rhetoric. Let's be honest in our communications and expansive in our thinking about policies needed to improve the lives of American children.

It's about education -- and a whole lot more.

Musical Elective of the Month: October 2010

This month's Musical Elective is Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

Now, it's not often that I get to trumpet a band that hails from my adopted hometown of Burlington, Vermont (I'm technically a flatlander, in Vermont idiom). Plus, in this case, I get to see them live in concert tonight in Madison, Wisconsin! (For DC-based readers of the blog, check them out at Night of The Living Zoo on October 29th!)

The band's music is a mix of blues and good old fashioned rock 'n' roll. Its web site describes the band this way: "Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are like a modern-day version of Tina Turner stroking the microphone in a spangled mini-dress while fronting the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers." Rolling Stone magazine called them one of the best new bands of 2010 saying, "The group’s third disc ... finds a sweet spot between rowdy, blues-driven live sound and tight, classic-rock songcraft.”

Highlights from the self-titled new album include "Paris (Ooh La La)," "Tiny Light" and "Only Love." The band's sound is undoubtedly buttressed by the entrance of bassist Catherine Popper, formerly with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals.

Check out the official web site at www.gracepotter.com.

Michelle Rhee: Greatest Hits

Tuesday, October 12, 2010
By now you've undoubtedly heard that Michelle Rhee will announce her resignation tomorrow, ending her three-year run as District of Columbia Schools Chancellor.

I thought I would share some of my past blog posts on Rhee, including "Live By The Sword, Die By The Sword?," "A Generational Divide Over Teacher Pay," and "Towards More Equitable Teacher Distribution."

Perhaps the best post mortem was offered last week - "(D)issing (C)ollaboration."

Misleading Manifesto

Friday, October 8, 2010
I'm sorry, but the "manifesto" published in today's Washington Post really pisses me off because it is built upon a false premise. It is authored by a number of urban school superintendents, including Chicago's Ron Huberman, New York City's Joel Klein, Washington DC's Michelle Rhee, and New Orleans' Paul Vallas. And it -- intentionally? -- misstates educational research.
"[T]he single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher."
No. That is patently false.

Now, listen here. I work for a teacher-focused, non-profit organization, the New Teacher Center (NTC). Wouldn't it be powerful to go out and say that teachers matter more than ANYTHING else? But they don't. In terms of school-based variables, they do. But in terms of all variables that impact students, they simply do not. No research says that. In our messaging at the NTC, we are always careful to say that teacher quality is the most important school-based variable for student achievement (examples here and here (on page 4)). That's accurate, honest and powerful in its own right.

So why not make the case for improving teaching in a honest fashion? There is an incredibly strong case to make that improving teaching quality is a critically important and policy amenable part of the solution to increasing student achievement and closing achievement gaps for disadvantaged students. But it's only part of the answer which requires solutions beyond the educational system. Let's not lose sight of that.

At the Shanker Blog, Matthew Di Carlo explored this same issue last month and took journalists to task for making similar claims. Back in July, he summarized existing teacher quality research.

September 16, 2010:
The same body of evidence that shows that teachers are the most important within-school factor influencing test score gains also demonstrates that non-school factors matter a great deal more. [emphasis added] The first wave of high-profile articles in our newly-energized education debate not only seem to be failing to provide this context, but are ignoring it completely. Deliberately or not, they are publishing incorrect information dressed up as empirical fact, spreading it throughout a mass audience new to the topic, to the detriment of us all.

Even though the 10-15 percent explained by teachers still represents a great deal of power (and is among the only factors “within the jurisdiction” of education policy), it is nevertheless important to bear in mind that poor educational outcomes are a result of a complicated web of social and economic forces. [emphasis added] People have to understand that, or they will maintain unrealistic expectations about the extent to which teacher-related policies alone can solve our problems, and how quickly they will work.
July 14, 2010:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). [emphasis added] Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Let's take Di Carlo's and Joe Friday's advice. Just the facts, please.

(D)issing (C)ollaboration

Thursday, October 7, 2010
Something's rotten in the District of Columbia. That appears to be the assessment made by the city's voters in last month's Democratic primary in which they ousted one-term Mayor Adrian Fenty in favor of City Council President Vincent Gray. This effectively makes Gray the next mayor in a city where Republicans are inconsequential in its political system.

Mayor Fenty, of course, hired Michelle Rhee to serve as Schools Chancellor in June 2007. Both have governed in a non-collaborative, take-no-prisoners style and numerous election post mortems have identified that style of leadership -- both his and hers -- as a primary reason for Fenty's defeat.

Here are the three best analyses I've read about how Mayor Adrian Fenty (and, by association, Chancellor Michelle Rhee) lost DC:

(1) Sam Chaltain, 9/15/2010: "Why Adrian Fenty Lost the City -- and How Vincent Gray Can Win It Back"
(2) Judith Warner, New York Times, 10/1/2010: "Is Michelle Rhee's Revolution Over?"
(3) Dana Goldstein, The Daily Beast, 9/15/2010: "Obama Loses a Mayor"

In his blog post, Sam Chaltain draws from his new book -- American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community -- to underscore how Fenty and Rhee went wrong.
[A]ny organizational leader ... needs to develop three foundational skills: self-awareness, systems thinking, and strategically-deployed collaborative decision-making.... When these three skills start to take root in individuals and the organizational culture of which they’re a part, a palpable shift takes place. Transformational change, and the collective will and clarity needed to achieve it, becomes possible.... To me, the most accurate (and damning) criticism of Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee was that they failed to understand, or even value, the importance of addressing the human elements of change.
Judith Warner, in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, diagnoses the self-destructive leadership style of Michelle Rhee.
[T]he night after the mayoral primary, Rhee appeared at the Washington premiere of Davis Guggenheim’s much-talked-about education documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” and told an assemblage of prominent Washingtonians that the election results “were devastating, devastating. Not for me, I’ll be fine . . . but devastating for the school children of Washington, D.C.”

In the local blogs that buzzed with outrage after Rhee’s comment, a theme became clear: people — even people who seemed destined to most benefit from the work of a committed reformer like Rhee — don’t like to get the message that their communities are on the wrong track. That their schools are no good, the teachers in them subpar; that their decision to back a politician who doesn’t share the reformer’s particular style of quasi-missionary zeal would consign their kids to disaster.

It became clear that people don’t much like stern-faced do-gooders telling them how to think and what to do; that they prefer “a reform agenda that’s being done with people, not to people,” as Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently put it. They don’t like collective slap-downs — like the one Rhee managed when she referred to the hundreds of fired teachers indiscriminately in an interview with a business magazine as people who “had hit children, who had had sex with children.” They don’t like to see respected members of their community seemingly compared to dirt, as Rhee unthinkingly did by agreeing to pose on the cover of Time wielding a big broom. They like policy makers who at least appear to be taking their concerns to heart, as Rhee pointedly did not, bluntly telling the magazine: “I’m not going to pretend to solicit your advice so you’ll feel involved, because that’s just fake.”

Dana Goldstein, a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University, writing in The Daily Beast, said:
The words used to describe Fenty by the 53 percent of District residents who opposed his reelection—brash, arrogant, condescending—are really descriptions of his schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a woman who has said, over and over again, “Collaboration and consensus building are quite frankly overrated in my mind.”

Indeed, the tragedy of Fenty’s loss is that the Michelle Rhee reform agenda may now be aborted before it has been fully implemented, giving education reformers one less data point in their search for strategies that work.

One hopes that if D.C.’s new mayor, Vincent Gray, asks Rhee to stay on, she will. (Gray has been unclear about his intentions on this question.) But one also hopes that, in Fenty’s defeat, Rhee has learned a lesson crucial to any effort at institutional reform: Collaboration and consensus building aren’t overrated, after all.
Undoubtedly, DC schools have made progress under Fenty/Rhee on numerous metrics. Test scores. Student enrollment. Supplies. Basic functioning. I have been both complimentary and critical of Michelle Rhee in past blog posts. But the lesson of the election perhaps is that substance and results should carry the day, but style is not inconsequential, especially when it gets in the way.

Leadership style matters in any enterprise, even in education, despite denials by prognosticators (such as The New Republic's Seyward Darby who said "the future of D.C. public education doesn't rest on personal style") and reformers (such as Andy Rotherham AKA Eduwonk who dismissed the style issue and said the "more serious problem is intense organized opposition to what she’s trying to do." I reject these notions that Rhee's longevity is irrelevant and that opposition to Rhee was purely substantive. Compare her to Ronald Reagan, a president who maintained strong personal support through much of his presidency even when the public disagreed with numerous of his public policy stances. He achieved that through a tremendous force of personality, an uncanny sense of people, and an upbeat vision of America -- and got more done as a result. A very different approach to leadership.

Leadership -- and personal -- style matters for urban school superintendents because it is directly related to their longevity and to the sustainability and breadth of their reforms. And they are closer to the ground, addressing issues related to people's children and to teachers' careers, where everything is more personal. They need to engage with stakeholders and connect with them. It gets to Larry Cuban's excellent point about sprinters versus marathoners. "A sprinter in D.C., however, may not last to change how nearly 4,000 teachers teach and 55,000 students learn. Or look at San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin who ran out of gas in 2005." In short, we need the latter, Cuban says.

A key part of leadership style is inclusiveness and collaboration. It is apparent that the absence of effective partnerships -- or even willing dialogue -- between the Fenty/Rhee team and teachers, parents and the school community (and DC's African-American community, in particular) may have been exactly what led to the dissolution of this political partnership between the mayor and his city. Rhee's rhetoric, including claiming falsely that unspecified numbers of teachers were dismissed because they had sexually assaulted students probably wasn't a good way to build community either -- and her public image, seared into public consciousness as the broom lady on the cover of TIME magazine, simply made things worse. None of that -- none of it -- was necessary to get the job done. In fact, it made it more difficult and has put the entire enterprise in jeopardy.

Now, there were those who were critical of Rhee since day one because of the content of her reform agenda. Perhaps those naysayers never could have been brought along. And there were others whose support was undoubtedly lost by the wave of changes advocated and unleashed by Rhee. That's an unavoidable consequence of leadership. But there were many others who could have been and should have been brought along. The problem was that there has appeared to be an overarching focus on doing reform TO people as opposed to adopting reforms WITH people. Substantively, the balance was off a bit as well. Rhee's decision to rhetorically highlight and prioritize teacher evaluation (and the resulting teacher firings) and to downplay efforts to build teacher capacity is telling. DC's winning Race to the Top proposal arguably has the least focus on teacher professional development, mentoring and induction of any of the 36 Phase Two proposals submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

Rhee has been unwilling to admit, at least publicly, that her style contributed to Fenty's downfall -- and potentially her early departure from the District. And that's not surprising given her past comments basically shitting on collaboration and consensus building. Rather, Rhee has chalked up the defeat to a failure to communicate "why we were making the decisions that we did." That's certainly a piece of it, as Matthew Yglesias recently argued, saying: "Michelle Rhee unquestionably ended up doing this city a disservice with her habit of spending more time courting a nationwide constituency than on painful block-by-block selling of her message in skeptical communities."

But there were some, like Robert Pondisico ('Michelle Rhee Is Scaring Me', 12/1/2008), who can rightly say that they saw this coming:
Here’s what worries me: accurate or inaccurate, fair or unfair, the increasingly confrontational, impatient, blunt, even rude public persona that’s affixing itself to the Washington, DC schools chancellor runs the risk of getting in the way of what Michelle Rhee wants to accomplish. I’ll put it bluntly: piss off enough people whose help is essential to your success, and your failure becomes inevitable, a consummation devoutly to be wished. Then for years to come, the answer to the reforms anyone proposes becomes, “Oh yes, we tried that in Washington under Michelle Rhee and you remember how that worked out.” If she fails, Michelle Rhee’s failure will not be hers alone. At worst, she runs the risk of damaging the ed reform “brand” for a generation.
Change never was going to come easy to DC Public Schools given its historic dysfunction. Rhee, as Schools Chancellor, has made major strides in three years on the job and set the system on a course for future improvement. But one has to wonder if she had included even an occasional spoonful of sugar to doses of her brand of medicine -- or at least thought about asking folks which flavor they might prefer -- whether things might have turned out just a bit differently.

10/7/2010 UPDATE: Check out Robert McCartney's highly relevant piece in the 10/7/2010 Washington Post -- and this recent Baltimore Sun story -- about the new teachers contract achieved by a collaborative approach between Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso and AFT head Randi Weingarten.

10/8/2010 UPDATE: "Fenty says education reform cost him re-election" (Mike DeBonis/Washington Post)

Witchy Woman

Wednesday, October 6, 2010
What an eerie coincidence. It turns out that 1969 gave birth both to the Monty Python comedy troupe as well as to Christine O'Donnell, Tea Party darling and Republican nominee for one of Delaware's two U.S. Senate seats.

What do Monty Python and O'Donnell have in common? Why, witches, of course!!!

One of the highlights from the Pythons' 1975 feature film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is a scene that employs a scientific method -- one that I can easily see some Tea Party candidates employing in public policy if given the chance -- to determine whether a woman is, in fact, a witch.



In one of the most bizarre beginnings to a political advertisement EVER, 2010 Senate candidate O'Donnell announces that "I am not a witch."



O'Donnell, as you may have heard, admitted in 1999 on Bill Maher's ABC show, "Politically Incorrect," that she had "dabbled in witchcraft" and had a date "on a satanic altar." Whether or not it's actually true, it is just downright bizarre, especially when considered alongside her other wacky quotes. In addition -- to bring it back to education -- O'Donnell has repeatedly lied about her education credentials, claiming falsely that she studied at Oxford, claiming that she was taking graduate classes at Princeton University, and claiming for years that she was a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Delaware Republicans must be so proud, having thrown a well-respected, long-serving congressman Mike Castle under the bus, for a woman, who even Karl Rove admits says "a lot of nutty things."

Is it just me or has this political year brought out some of the craziest -- and, in certain cases, dangerous -- assortment of public officials ever? The likes of Michele Bachmann, Ken Cuccinelli and Jim DeMint already represent some Americans. The likes of Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle and Carl Paladino would like to.

Happy Halloween!

Becoming Diane Ravitch

Monday, October 4, 2010
Even before Alexander Russo's tweet last week ("I read somewhat [sic] that you should wait at least 30 min between switching sides and diving back into the debate, just like eating & swimming"), I was drafting this blog item about Diane Ravitch and had landed in just about the same place.

I struggle in making a professional assessment of Diane Ravitch's conversion from a Lamar Alexander-era U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and a No Child Left Behind proponent to chief curmudgeon on all things draped in education reform. Her past explanations about "accumulating evidence" and getting "caught up in the rising tide of enthusiasm" for school choice don't seem to tell the whole story. I'm not suggesting she's insincere, but I just don't understand how she got from here to there.

Don't get me wrong. I find myself in agreement with many of Ravitch's recent statements, especially those about the one-sidedness and rhetorical hyperbole surrounding Waiting for Superman and other education reform PR vehicles, such as NBC's Education Nation. And I think she is right in her efforts to recast what education reform is or should be. So it's not that I think that people don't have the ability to change. It's more about trying to process and understand so fundamental a change that takes someone from being a ringleader for an accountability-driven education system to a few years later being the foremost national critic of educational accountability, charter schools, and business-style approaches to education reform. How could a highly educated person have gotten it so wrong and so immediately reversed herself? Perhaps I should just go and read her book and see if the answer lies within?

Ravitch doesn't make my job of processing her transformation any easier with her misleading tweets and blog posts. On 9/23/2010, Ravitch tweeted about the recent Vanderbilt University teacher merit pay study and its connection to the federally funded Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF):
Vanderbilt U study discredits merit pay so next day USDOE hands out hundreds of millions for...merit pay. Blind to evidence and research.
Really?!? Ravitch is too intelligent not to know that she is engaging in deliberate simplification in support of her apparent stance against differentiated compensation of teachers. With spin like that, she should go run a political campaign. 'Tis the season, after all. Ravitch is engaged in the same kind of hyperbole that she rightly criticizes in what Alexander Russo has taken to calling "reformy types".

The National Council on Teacher Quality provides a wise counterpoint to Ravitch on the merit pay study here:
Good teacher pay strategies are never written in a vacuum: they're part of a well-thought out system of incentives and professional supports designed to attract and keep the best teachers.... First off, it's no surprise that the findings showed no correlation between performance pay and increasing student achievement, meaning that the very premise of the study might be called into question. Performance pay is a reward system designed to send strong signals that the profession honors and rewards results but, perhaps even more critically, it should increase the profession's appeal to individuals who might not otherwise consider teaching, convinced that the profession disdains excellence. It's a silly notion to think that teachers leave their "A" game at home, absent the promise of a little extra pay.
Funded TIF proposals -- and the federal program itself -- are about much more than pay tied to student test scores. Proposals all have a compensation component, but also embed other critical elements such as classroom evaluation, professional development and collaboration. As examples, check out the CLASS Project led by the Chalkboard Project in Oregon, Chicago Public Schools District #299, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards proposal for the state of Maine and Richmond, Virginia, and several successful Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) proposals, including one in Knox County, Tennessee.

Absolute, steadfast consistency in the face of mounting or available evidence is not my suggested goal here. Blind faith and arrogance are found in too many education advocates and policymakers on all sides of the debate. So, at a certain level, I appreciate Ravitch's conversion. But the credibility of her current positions and statements are, in part, determined by a plausible explanation for that evolution.

As a final thought, I recognize that I've been especially critical of some education reformers and reform ideas as of late (here and here and on Twitter). Given that I place my personal views somewhere in the middle between the most aggressive reformers and the most steadfast defenders of the educational status quo, I only felt it appropriate to share some nagging questions I've had about someone on the opposing side of the debate.





Musical Elective of the Month: September-October 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The Musical Elective of the Month is Crowded House.

Those of you who know me well, you know that Crowded House is my all-time favorite band, going on almost 25 years dating back to my high school years. So you're probably asking, "What took you so long to feature them as a Musical Elective?" Well, patience isn't one of my virtues, but I do try to demonstrate it every once in a while. That said, I have featured founding member/lead singer/ songwriter Neil Finn as a solo Musical Elective as well as his son, Liam Finn, and Neil's 7 Worlds Collide collaboration with members of Wilco, Radiohead, Johnny Marr, KT Tunstall and other musical luminaries. So patience is overstated....

The Crowdies, as the band is affectionately known in Australia, just completed a tour of North America and are on their way to South Africa and Down Under. (Yours truly saw them in concert in Milwaukee on September 7.) Their new album, Intriguer, was released in July 2010. PopMatters offers a nice review, saying "Finn’s stability and contentment has informed the sound of Intriguer, a mature, thoughtful, and mostly mellow album.... It’s a great album in the classic mold, one that rewards you. It is fun to listen to, and though that fun is of the grown-up sort, it makes for one of the year’s best pop albums all the same."

As a bit of history, Neil Finn is one of the great, under-appreciated songsmiths of the last 30 years. A New Zealand native, as a teenager, he almost single-handedly lifted his older brother Tim's one-of-a-kind, art rock band Split Enz into New Wave prominence. Neil penned and sang the band's biggest #1 hit (in Canada, Australia and New Zealand), 1980's "I Got You."

Neil went on to form Crowded House in 1985 with drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour, fashioning it into an internationally renowned band. The current line-up of Crowded House also includes Mark Hart, who joined the band prior to its 1994 album, and Matt Sherrod who replaced Hester as the band's drummer and had previously supported Beck. Crowded House reformed in 2006, coming together following the suicide of Paul Hester the year prior. The original group of tenants iteration broke their lease in 1996 in a Farewell To The World concert before a quarter million fans at the steps of the Sydney Opera House.

Crowded House's eponymous debut album was released in 1986 and produced two top 10 U.S. hits, "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." They never reached such heights again in the states, lost amidst the grunge and rap of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Crowded House's second album, Temple of Low Men, was a critical success in 1988 but a commercial disappointment, but includes such stellar tracks as "Into Temptation," "When You Come," and "Better Be Home Soon." Woodface, the third album, was released in 1991 and made the band certifiable stars in Europe. For this album, Tim Finn--Neil's older brother--joined the band as an official member and co-penned a number of the tracks. It includes the singles, "Fall At Your Feet," "Weather With You," "Four Seasons In One Day," and "It's Only Natural." Crowded House's fourth album, Together Alone, was released in 1994. It includes "Locked Out" (featured in the film Reality Bites) and the international hits "Distant Sun" and "Private Universe."

If you don't know Crowded House, by all means check them out. If you know them from years ago, give them fresh listen. YouTube (for links to live and TV appearances) and the official Crowded House web site are good starting places.
But you know what it means to me, babe
In the course of a history, hey
It all makes sense to me somehow
It’s a course in philosophy, yeah
What is life is it just a dream, no
The perfect mystery but somehow I know
You will love this one
You will love this one
And if we create something magical, honey
There are times come
These are times that come
Only once if your life
Or twice if you’re lucky

-- "Twice If You're Lucky," Intriguer (2010)
Click here for past Musical Electives




The Education Buzz

The latest edition of the Education Buzz, hosted by the blog Bellringers (like us, another Washington Post best for 2010), is now available. Bellringers is the brainchild of Carol Richtsmeier, a high school teacher and former Dallas Morning News reporter.

The next edition is posted on October 13th -- submissions due on October 9. So if you're an education blogger who wants to share your posts with a wider audience, consider submitting to the Education Buzz.

Teacher Quality: What You Need To Know

Monday, September 27, 2010

Today the Joyce Foundation is releasing “Teacher Quality: What You Need to Know,” a first-of-its-kind guidebook that shows parents why we need to improve how we recruit, support, evaluate, and reward teachers in order to ensure all students get a great education. The short, easy-to-read guidebook tells the story of two teachers – one who gets the right support to help her kids succeed and the other who tries hard but doesn’t get the help she needs – and includes a pull-out “how to” guide with more information on policies, research, and a “Top 12” list of things parents can do to help.

The guidebook is geared toward parents but can be used with many audiences. Visit www.joycefdn.org/teacherquality to download the report, access other resources, and learn more about how you can advocate for change.



Alphabet Soup

Friday, September 24, 2010
A recent report raises a fundamental education policy question that requires more than simply refuting the report's premise.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) -- a self-proclaimed "free market, limited government" non-profit, which is really just a spout of Republican policy ideas -- recently released its 16th annual Report Card on American Education. First of all, the LAST thing education needs is another report card. But I have to give it to my friends at SmartALECk which has been nothing less than persistent (in the true conservative spirit), having apparently kept this up for 16 years. Second, I note that ALEC's Board of Directors is populated almost entirely by Republican office holders. Third, I note that the report's foreward was written by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican. It is no mystery for whom ALEC is shilling.

That said, the ALEC Report Card grades states based on two criteria: (1) Education Performance Rank and (2) Education Reform Grade. Specifically, a state's Education Performance Rank "measures the overall 2009 scores for low-income children (non-ELL and/or non-IEP) and their gains/losses on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics exams from 2003 to 2009." A state's "Education Reform Grade" is based on the following reform criteria (few of which are central to educational outcomes, but which are all weighted equally): state academic standards, change in state proficiency standards, private school choice, charter school laws, mandatory intra- and inter-district open enrollment, online learning policies and programs, homeschooling regulation levels, alternative teacher certification, identifying high-quality teachers, retaining effective teachers, and removing ineffective teachers.

The state of Vermont provides a case in point about what is flawed about ALEC's methodology and typifies a troubling dynamic in some of today's education policy and reform conversations. ALEC ranks the Green Mountain state #1 with respect to its educational performance, but gives it the lowest grade of any state - a 'D' - on education reform. I guess the question for me is what is the fundamental purpose of the American education system: To warm the cockles of would-be reformers' hearts by adopting their pet reforms? Or to achieve educational outcomes and accelerate student learning? Assuming you don't have trouble answering that question, what does this example say about broader education policies and reform conversations? Well, it reminds me that too often we seem more interested in the means rather than in the ends. And that's a big problem.

At the federal level, the Obama Administration is onto something with its "tight on ends, loose of means" mantra. Arne Duncan's Education Department has attempted to use that catchphrase to articulate a stronger federal role over education policy while reassuring educators and policymakers that it won't make policies too prescriptive if the desired results are achieved. In a sense, it is not entirely unlike No Child Left Behind's accountability system which more or less allowed schools to keep on keeping on as long as they didn't run afoul of adequate yearly progress requirements. As Fordham's Gadfly recently noted, the future of federal education policy is very much in doubt, dependent on the outcomes of November's elections, control of one or both houses of Congress, and whether the Know Nothing Tea Party forces seize control of the GOP agenda.

But prescriptive-ness is sometimes an invisible line. The Race to the Top program probably went too far down the path of requiring certain reforms that don't have much of an evidential basis, aren't ready to be fully implemented, or aren't scalable. In addition, as Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca (my high school principal at Essex High School in Vermont!) has noted, some of these faddish and sensible-in-certain-context reforms don't make sense or cannot be successfully implemented in a small, rural state such as Vermont. One also could ask whether RTTT scoring insufficiently weighted "improving student outcomes" -- which accounted for only 25 of the application's 500 total points (a mere 5 percent) -- in favor of promises of future reform. Again, is it about educational outcomes for students? Or it is about reform for reform's sake?

Back to the SmartALECk report: It would seem to me that ALEC is right in one sense. There *is* an argument for reducing federal regulation, and in education the answer is to leave well enough alone when a state such as Vermont is achieving great results. Now, we can argue over how those results should appropriately be measured, but that would be a more important conversation than talking about a metric such as 'reform' that is focused on pet approaches to privatizing education, firing teachers and enabling home schooling that likely have little bearing on student outcomes and that have little basis in research.

It is hypocritical of an organization like ALEC, committed to loosening regulations and limited government, to offer up such a prescriptive laundry list of reforms that states must enact to receive an 'A.' By ALEC's own outcome metric, Vermont is doing the best job of any state in the country in achieving equitable educational outcomes for low-income students. (Arguably, that is as much if not more due to Vermont's social safety net and universal health care as anything its schools are doing.) Accordingly, SmartALECk should let those results speak for themselves and save its ABCs and Ds to fill many bowls of alphabet soup during the coming winter.