Friday, July 24, 2009

California excluded from school reform funds?

A $4 Billion Push for Better Schools
Obama Hopes Funding Will Be Powerful Incentive in 'Race to the Top'
By Michael D. Shear and Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 24, 2009

President Obama is leaning hard on the nation's schools, using the promise of more than $4 billion in federal aid -- and the threat of withholding it -- to strong-arm the education establishment to accept more charter schools and performance pay for teachers.

The pressure campaign has been underway for months as Education Secretary Arne Duncan travels the country delivering a blunt message to state officials who have resisted change for decades: Embrace reform or risk being shut out.

"What we're saying here is, if you can't decide to change these practices, we're not going to use precious dollars that we want to see creating better results; we're not going to send those dollars there," Obama said in an Oval Office interview Wednesday. "And we're counting on the fact that, ultimately, this is an incentive, this is a challenge for people who do want to change."

On Friday, Obama will officially announce the "Race to the Top," a competition for $4.35 billion in grants. He wants states to use funds to ease limits on charter schools, tie teacher pay to student achievement and move for the first time toward common academic standards. It is part of a broader effort to improve school achievement with a $100 billion increase in education funding, more money for community colleges and an increase in Pell Grants for college students.

Duncan has used the Race to the Top fund, created through the economic stimulus law, as leverage to drive the president's education agenda in Rhode Island, Tennessee, Colorado and elsewhere. Never has an education secretary been given so much money by Congress with such open-ended authority, according to current and former federal education officials. Margaret Spellings, Duncan's predecessor under George W. Bush, had a tiny fraction of that amount at her disposal.

Obama says stagnating student achievement is part of a "slow-rolling crisis" and represents a threat to the country's economic future. Stark achievement gaps remain for minority and low-income students. In some big cities, fewer than half of high school students graduate on time. The United States trails international competitors in math and science.

In trying to reverse those trends, he faces the same decentralized educational system and resistance to change that hampered Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which required annual testing to hold schools accountable for closing achievement gaps. Like his predecessor, Obama is using the federal treasury to power through the obstacles.

Unlike Bush, Obama must try to carefully bring along the teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency that so far has praised the president's goals but remains wary of the threat to members' paychecks and the promise of tenure.

"There are going to be elements within the teachers union where they're just resistant to change, because people inherently are resistant to change," Obama said during the 20-minute interview. "Teachers aren't any different from any politicians or corporate CEOs. There are going to be certain habits that have been built up that they don't want to change."

Already, some legislatures, eager for a share of the massive federal money pot, have begun clearing the way for more charter schools and taking other steps to show they are pro-reform.

The effort has helped Obama enlarge the federal role in an arena dominated by state and local governments, but there is deep skepticism about his approach. Congressional Republicans say the initiative, coupled with another $650 million for school reform under Duncan's control, is wasteful.

"We just took a big old checkbook with a $5 billion total behind it and handed it to the secretary and said, 'Write a whole bunch of checks,' " said Rep. John Kline (Minn.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. "I'm uncomfortable that we're doing that."

Obama says the money will be distributed to states that can demonstrate results backed by data that show student scores and teacher performance are improving.

"It's not based on politics, it's not based on who's got more clout, it's not based on what certain constituency groups are looking for, but it's based on what works," he said. "Now, what we're also doing, though, is we're saying this is voluntary. If there are states that just don't want to go in this direction, that's their prerogative."

Leaders of the two largest teachers unions praise Obama's intentions to lift standards, raise teacher quality and turn around low-performing schools. But they acknowledge concerns about specifics.

"We're absolutely in sync with where they're going," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. Van Roekel said performance pay, charter schools and links between student and teacher data raise difficult issues for his union. On the data issue, Van Roekel said he told Duncan: "This is going to be a tough one for us."

"The devil really is in the details," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said. Many teachers fear they will be fired if they are judged unfairly on student test scores, Weingarten said. "You want to be respectful of an administration that believes in public education. And on the issues where you have differences, you try to work those out."

For Duncan, the stimulus law has provided an opportunity to steer billions of dollars to school reform on his own terms. Duncan has broad control over the Race to the Top fund and the $650 million to spur innovation through local school systems and nonprofit groups.

Since the law's enactment in February, states have inundated the department with queries about how to share in the bonanza. Duncan has dispensed plenty of tips: Lift restrictions on the growth of charter schools; build data systems that show individual student progress under specific teachers and principals; seek out new ways to turn around perennially struggling schools; and sign on to efforts to develop common academic standards that are tough enough to withstand international scrutiny.

Today, the department will formally unveil its criteria for the competition. Applications will be accepted starting late this year for states that want to be first in line, or next spring, for those needing more time. (The District is also eligible.) Money will be awarded in two waves next year. Up to $350 million from the fund will be carved out to support a recently announced effort by 46 states to develop common academic standards.

But even before applications begin, Duncan has scored several policy victories around the country by making carefully worded statements designed to send signals to lawmakers and school officials.

As the Rhode Island legislature debated $1.5 million in spending for two charter schools, Duncan said June 22 at a charter school conference in Washington: "We are fighting this on a state-by-state battle, that's the battleground. And places like Rhode Island that are thinking of underfunding charters are obviously going to put themselves at a huge competitive disadvantage going forward. So we don't think that's a smart thing for them to do, and we're going to make that very, very clear."

The money was restored.

In similar ways, Duncan has stepped into legislative debates in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee and Massachusetts to advance or defend charter schools, though he points out that he wants to shut failing charter schools as much as he wants to open new ones.

In Tennessee, a law was enacted in June to expand the pool of students eligible to attend charter schools. Tennessee Education Commissioner Tim Webb said Duncan's advocacy helped move the bill through a divided legislature. Without the intervention, Webb said, "I don't think it would have passed."

Some are wary of the long arm from Washington. A Tennessee newspaper editorial railed against an "inappropriate threat" from federal officials. California officials are pushing back against suggestions that a state law on teacher evaluations could disqualify them from receiving funds.

"Don't count California out," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said in a telephone interview. "We plan on vigorously attempting to secure this funding."

Other states are maneuvering for advantage, too. The Colorado legislature passed three laws this year aimed at aligning state and federal goals on turning around low-performing schools, linking teacher and student data and helping students at risk of dropping out, according to Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien (D). One of the state laws "lifted language" verbatim from a federal education document, she said.

"I have read every speech that Arne Duncan and President Obama have given on education like a literary critic," she said. O'Brien has noted it all on a spreadsheet, and she is aggressively reviewing policies and developing coalitions to maximize the state's chances.

"We all know Colorado needs this money," she said. "Nobody wanted to be the group that threw up the roadblock that would kick us out of the competition."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Arne Duncan and Chicago Schools

Crain's Chicago Business -- June 30, 2009
By Gregory Hinz

Chicago Public School reform largely has failed, with the vast bulk
of students either dropping out or unprepared for college and apparent
gains at the grade-school level more perceived than real.
That's the bottom line of a blockbuster report released Tuesday by
the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, a report that directly
challenges the legitimacy of one of Mayor Richard M. Daley's major
claimed accomplishments.
Titled "Still Left Behind," the report freely uses terms like
"abysmal" to describe the true state of public education in Chicato. The
report was prepared by committee President R. Eden Martin, a lawyer,
with analytical support from Paul Zavitkovsky of the College of
Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Half of the students drop out by high school, and of those who remain
until 11th grade, 70% fail to meet state standards, the report says. In
fact, "In the regular (non-magnet) neighborhood high schools, which
serve the vast preponderance of students, almost no students are
prepared to succeed in college."
The report directly challenges widespread claims by current and former
CPS officials that local students have shown substantial progress over
the last decade on standardized tests.
For instance, it notes a 2006 letter from then schools CEO Arne
Duncan, now U.S. secretary of education, stating that the share of CPS
students meeting or exceeding state standards had leapt 15 points in one
In fact, it says, the change occurred because of a change in the test,
not because of real educational gains. As a result, it points out, while
a test cited by local officials showed that 71% of 8th graders met or
exceeded state standards in 2007, a national test taken here the same
year showed just 13% were up to par.
Similarly, while the test employed locally reported that the share of
8th graders meeting math standards grew from 32% to 71% from 2005 to
2007, the national test, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education,
showed scores effectively flat, moving from 11% to only 13%.
The report does note that the changes in the test were ordered by the
state, not by CPS
CPS officials and Mayor Richard M. Daley had no immediate response to
the report, but Ron Gidwitz, former chairman of the State Board of
Education, said he believes its results are on point.
"It hard to refute their conclusions when you look at the evidence,"
including how CPS students do on college-enrollment tests, Mr. Gidwitz
said. "We haven't made nearly as much progress as people thought."
A spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union said she hopes the report
spurs more cooperation between school management and teachers. "We know
what's needed," she said.
Mr. Duncan's office did push back some.
While the data in cited in the report may be accurate, "We disagree
with their conclusions," a spokesman for the secretary said. "There's
been tremendous progress in Chicago schools" in recent years.
The spokesman noted that, even using test data as adjusted by the
committee, the share of 8th graders performing at or above the statewide
average incrased a third beween 2001 and 2008, from 24.3% to 32.1%. In
addition, the average ACT college score increased a point, to 17.9%, and
the number of students taking advanced-placement courses sharply
increased, the spokesman said.
The committee's Mr. Martin said he would not call the entire
school-reform process a failure largely because it also has sparked the
formation of more charter and other innovative schools, schools that
according to the report perform better than CPS schools.
Mr. Martin denied that his groups advocacy for charter schools at all
affected its data or analysis. The committee, which represents Chicago's
largest firms, has helped raise $70 million to open new, small schools,
Mr. Martin said.
Mr. Martin did praise new schools CEO Ron Huberman. "He's doing
everything right," Mr. Martin said. "They're going to squeeze everything
possible out of the operation and put it into charters."

- "Still Left Behind: Student Learning in Chicago Public Schools" is
online at

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Scapegoating of teachers

Jonathan Alter Joins the Teacher-Scapegoating Chorus: I'm Calling BS
Dan Brown. The Huffington Post
It is convenient to blame teachers for America's education woes because it lets everyone else off the hook. Tragically, this has become the vogue opinion in the mainstream media, and I'm calling bullshit. Jonathan Alter's latest column in Newsweek pushed me over the edge. (See post below) Here's the implicit argument:

Why do kids drop out? Not the stultifying test prep, overcrowded rooms, chronic absenteeism, or lack of personal connection to a counselor. It's bad teachers.

Why are America's test scores lagging compared to other countries around the world? Not deep-seated cycles of drugs/violence/ignorance in many neighborhoods or an antiquated school calendar with a ridiculous summer vacuum. It's complacent, unionized teachers.

What's the solution? Scrap the unions, clean house, and let the market sort it out.

Alter writes with certainty, "the key to fixing education is better teaching, and the key to better teaching is figuring out who can teach and who can't."

This spirit of exceptionalism is dangerous. According to Alter, you're either born with the teaching gene or not. You may have spent years earning a teaching degree, but that's worthless because, as Alter bizarrely claims, "most teachers' colleges teach the wrong stuff."

So who are among the special, birthrighted good teachers, benighted with secret understandings unavailable in higher ed institutions whose sole job is to prepare teachers?

Wendy Kopp, influential founder and leader of Teach For America, offered living examples of her vision for what teachers need to do in her recent commencement speech at Washington University. She cited Colleen Dunn, a rookie teacher working with struggling first-graders in St. Louis:
At the end of the school year, after nine months of days that began for Colleen at 4:30 in the morning and ended with her falling asleep over grading papers, lesson planning, writing parent newsletters, her students had made two years of progress in reading and math. The students who had started out so far behind were ready to enter second grade ahead of average second graders.

Judging from Colleen's example, the achievement gap doesn't need to exist...

Kopp's speech advances the argument for a paradigm of superteacher messiahs, one Alter appears to embrace. Surely, every example of an individual superteacher is above reproach and deserving of great praise.

But if Colleen is the model, working from 4:30 a.m. until a daily collapse, who's out? Forget single parents, who know more about facing challenges than just about anyone. Forget most that don't have the access to accrue the eye-catching resumes of Teach For America applicants. Forget people who choose balance over being a workaholic. The hero-martyr superteacher, cast in the mold of Hollywood friendly Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds, is not replicable or realistic.

I agree with Alter that there are some complacent, ineffective teachers out there who should be fired. I also agree with Kopp that Colleen sounds like a superb teacher. However, this obsessive focus on cleaning house and demanding superhuman performance misses a larger point. (Time Magazine drew similarly raised blood pressure when they featured DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee on their cover in December 2008, scowling and holding a broom. The headline spotlighted her gutsy "battle against bad teachers.")

Most teachers in America are smart and dedicated enough to help their students achieve. They're not the unaccountable fiends holding kids back, as Alter portrays them with his broad brush. Poverty, deficiency of support services, disjointed curricula, overemphasis on testing, and overcrowded classes do far more to impede student achievement.

If you are reading this with the slightest inclination to agree with anything I've written, Alter has already prepared for and discounted us. He'd refer to you and me as parts of

"the Blob, the collection of educrats and politicians who claim to support reform but remain fiercely committed to the status quo."
BS. I want kids to learn and I want bad teachers to go. I welcome reform and genuine accountability in my classroom, but to do that right it needs to come from more than a single, reductive standardized test.

We need those with the biggest microphones to stop scapegoating teachers and their right to have a collective voice, and to start stepping into living classrooms to see what's really happening on the ground. Then they can tell the real story.

Dan Brown is a teacher in Southeast Washington, DC and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle. From the Huffington Post.

Education funding is the issue

Education Funding is the issue:
Jonathan Alter: Newsweek.
"Education is the dullest of subjects," Jacques Barzun wrote in the very first sentence of his astonishingly fresh 1945 classic, Teacher in America. Barzun despised the idea of "professional educators" who focus on "methods" instead of subject matter. He loved teachers, but knew they "are born, not made," and that most teachers' colleges teach the wrong stuff.
Cut to 2009, when Barack Obama thinks education is the most exciting of subjects. Even so, Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, get Barzun. They understand that the key to fixing education is better teaching, and the key to better teaching is figuring out who can teach and who can't.
Just as Obama has leverage over the auto industry to impose tough fuel--economy standards, he now has at least some leverage over the education industry to impose teacher-effectiveness standards. The question is whether he will be able to use it, or will he get swallowed by what's known as the Blob, the collection of educrats and politicians who claim to support reform but remain fiercely committed to the status quo.

Teacher effectiveness–say it three times. Last week a group called the New Teacher Project released a report titled "The Widget Effect" that argues that teachers are viewed as indistinguishable widgets–states and districts are "indifferent to variations in teacher performance"–and notes that more than 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory. The whole country is like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, except all the teachers are above average, too.
Why? The short answer is teachers' unions. Duncan complained recently that the California school system has a harmful "firewall" between student evaluation and teacher evaluation. In other words, teachers can't be evaluated on whether their students actually learned anything between September and June. The head of the San Francisco union says it's nuts to judge teachers on whether there's evidence that shows improvement in their classrooms. An A for accountability, eh?
Fortunately, Duncan has a huge new club in his hands–billions in stimulus money and Title I aid for poor schools. A chunk of it (about $10 billion total) is reserved for innovative "Race to the Top" funds. Duncan's idea (with backing from Obama) is that a few states that are moving fast on turning around failing schools and improving measurable teacher effectiveness should get most of that money.
This is spot-on substantively, but treacherous politically. Congress likes to see money spread like peanut butter across the country. It makes members look like they're "doing something for education." Recall how Duncan's predecessor, Margaret Spellings, saw her "Innovation Fund" used for such cutting-edge projects as a whaling museum.
Like Obama and Duncan, Rep. George Miller, the leading reformer in Congress, wants the money to be targeted on just a few programs with track records in turning around poorly performing schools and training teachers better. He rightly figures we know what works now and should just go ahead and fund it. But his colleagues have their own whaling-museum ideas, so the peanut-butter politics continue.
On Capitol Hill last week, members of Congress insisted that the administration stick to the "formulas"–Washington-speak for the same old, same old. And they want to make sure the $48 billion (real money, even by Geithnerian standards) in education stimulus funds continue to be spent exclusively on preventing teacher layoffs, not on reform. Too many members apparently didn't get the word from their old colleague Rahm Emanuel that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
The big question now is how to tighten the weak strings that were attached to the stimulus. Those strings merely ask states to show they are "making progress" and "making improvements" in critical areas like standards, data systems to measure success and incentives for teachers to work in at-risk schools.
With some bureaucratic cojones, Obama can enforce those requirements before the last $16 billion in "state stabilization" stimulus funds get disbursed this fall. This is easier said than done. The incentive to peanut-butter (sorry, Teacher, I turned it into a verb) the money is powerful not just on Capitol Hill but inside the Department of Education, where making nice to Congress is the path of least resistance. It takes a tough man to say, in the middle of a recession, "no improvement, no check." But if not now, when?
Barzun wrote that almost everyone has an attention span "as short as the mating of a fly." Obama has the attention, for now, of the educrats. In fact, he's got his foot on their necks. It's a teachable moment about how to use political power for real change.
© 2009