2010, the year poverty became nothing but an excuse

By Mike Klonsky.Educator, Author of “Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society

“We don’t use poverty as an excuse for low achievement.” — Springfield, Ill. School District 186 Superintendent Walter Milton, Jr.

2010 wasn’t a very good year for public education — or public anything, for that matter.

A so-far jobless economic recovery has seen a sharp rise in child poverty and with it, new barriers for schools, teachers and learners. It’s a matter of fact that hungry and often homeless children aren’t as successful in the classroom as those who are well fed, clad and housed.

The past year has seen a drying up of stimulus funds along with further erosion and selling off and privatization of public space, more public school closings and consolidations. Schools and classrooms are growing in size. Massive tuition increases at both private and public colleges and universities render a college education less accessible to working class families, cutting off one of the few remaining pathways to class mobility.

To make matters worse, the past year was marked by a sharp political swing to the right, with big victories for anti-tax Republicans in the mid-term elections. This swing was accompanied by new calls to stop “throwing money at” public education and for the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Sadly, education leaders within the Obama administration are echoing many of these calls and bending to right-wing pressures.

It was just about a year ago for example, that Education Secretary Arne Duncan began his “no excuses” campaign, announcing in the press that he had “no patience for teachers and schools” that tick off all the reasons why their poor or minority students can’t score as high on standardized tests.

Duncan has chosen to ignore poverty’s downward effect on test scores and focus entirely on what he calls “bad teachers” and “failing schools.” Recently confronted by educators teaching in some of the nation’s highest-poverty areas about the need to do something about the living conditions of their students, Duncan cynically responded, “poverty is not destiny.”

His “no excuses” mantra, essentially blaming poor students and their teachers for low test results, is now being echoed by many governors, urban mayors and school administrators like Springfield’s Milton, all hoping their compliance will somehow be rewarded with federal dollars from Duncan to fill the holes in their shrinking school budgets.

Child poverty has been on the climb in Milton’s district and surrounding counties in central Illinois. “It’s a sign of the times the past decade in rural American and rural Illinois,” said Les Huddle, superintendent of the Jacksonville School District.

In nearby Morgan County, the growing poverty rate and personal financial hardships create a “less-than-stable learning environment for students at home,” said Huddle, noting that the Jacksonville district’s enrollment dropped by more than 350 students as job losses drove many families away.

Duncan’s “lack of patience” has also been taken as a call for tax breaks for the rich, coupled with deep and widespread cuts in social services, public housing, and other anti-poverty measures. The entire burden of his Race To The Top reform has been placed on teachers and their unions, and narrowly focused on schools and on the classroom. In some urban districts, teachers’ names are now being posted in the media next to their students’ test scores, as if individual teachers are solely responsible for those scores. Inadequate accountability measures, such as value-added, are being pushed as alternatives to collective-bargaining agreements to determine which teachers are to be fired and how much those remaining are to be paid.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that for the first time since the Education Department started counting, there are nearly a million homeless students in the United States. The Post reports that most drift with their families among motels, shelters and relatives’ homes with a growing fraction living completely on their own, unparented, uninsured, ill-fed and surviving by their own devices.

Fairfax (VA) one of only two counties in the nation with median household incomes above $100,000, counts nearly 2,000 homeless students in its school division – about 200 of whom are…”unaccompanied.” The latter figure is twice what the comparable figure was two years ago, a surge reflected nationally as the faltering economy has undermined many families. (WaPo)
With a surge in family poverty and a growing homeless student population, public school systems are under even more stress and are being turned into beggars. Schools have increasingly been forced to take on the role a welfare provider, both on and off campus, with few of the necessary resources, personnel, or skill sets.

The notion that rising unemployment, declining real wages, and a shocking increase in family poverty are mere “excuses,” with little or no impact on student learning, is unworthy of our nation’s top school leaders. It tells me that current school reform policies have little to do with sound social or educational research, but instead are ideologically or politically (in the worst sense) driven. In this political environment, Duncan’s chants of “poverty is not destiny” sound downright pollyannish and even cruel in light of current conditions and his own policies.


Who does Teach for America have nude pictures of

John Affeldt.Managing Attorney at Public Advocates, a non-profit civil rights law firm; twice recognized as California Attorney of the Year

As I reported in the Huffington Post last Thursday and updated since, Congress seems ready to lower the standard of teacher owed every child in the country — particularly impacting children in poor and minority communities — and to hide that fact while they’re at it.

Slipped in at the 11th hour into the Continuing Resolution to fund the government, the provision at issue proposes to call novice teachers still learning how to teach in alternative preparation programs on nights and weekends “highly qualified” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That designation relieves districts of having to tell parents of the teachers’ sub-par preparation and allows their continued concentration in poor and minority schools.

Pushed by Teach for America so that they can continue to operate business as usual, it appears more important to Congress to change the law to accommodate TFA than to ensure the equity provisions of NCLB operate as intended. Alternate route trainees (only a few percent of which are actually from TFA) are disproportionately concentrated in low-income, high minority schools despite NCLB’s requirement that teachers lacking full credentials be equitably distributed across schools.

The problem is that actual parents and students in schools where these alternative route trainees teach don’t want their classrooms to be the exclusive training grounds. They also want the disclosures that NCLB promises as to which teachers have been fully prepared to teach their children and which haven’t.

Secondly, serious concerns have been raised by researchers about exposing children to a churn of these novice teacher-trainees in low-income schools–both because these teachers on average do not seem to produce the same achievement gains that fully-trained teachers do (i.e., those who have graduated from traditional or alternative preparation programs like TFA) and because the interns are churning through and not staying around for the long haul.

And that will be the biggest loss under NCLB if amended: states and districts will be relieved of having to develop policies that attract and retain fully-prepared teachers to the neediest schools. Instead, they can continue to maintain the status quo of having so-called “highly qualified” alternative route trainees learn on poor peoples’ children–and then move on.

Of course, these same parents and students want Congress to enact new laws requiring states and districts to evaluate teachers for effectiveness and to equitably distribute effective teachers too. But it’s not an either or proposition, especially since effectiveness cannot meaningfully be measured for two to three years in. Parents want their child’s new teacher to be adjudged fully-prepared and ready to teach on day one.

Responding to some of these concerns which were noted by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post blog today, Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Committee that covers education, issued the following statement:

“There is broad, bipartisan agreement among members of Congress and the Obama administration that it is the intent of Congress for alternative-route teachers to be considered highly qualified, consistent with the regulation that has been in place for several years. Chairman Harkin strongly believes that teacher quality is essential to student success, and intends to address this issue as part of a comprehensive ESEA reauthorization. While that process is underway, the 9th Circuit’s decision – which reverses a previous court ruling in favor of the regulation – could cause significant disruptions in schools across the country and have a negative impact on students. Maintaining current practice is a temporary solution, and underscores the need to act quickly and reauthorize ESEA early in the next Congress.”
Senator Harkin’s statement fails to acknowledge that what the courts have called an illegal expansion of the “highly qualified” teacher definition has never been part of the law, and was rejected by Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller early on. To write what was an illegally expansive regulation into law will be a major change from the past. To permit a teacher who may have only just enrolled in preparation to be called “highly qualified” before they have met any training standards defies common sense. To visit those underprepared teachers disproportionately on low-income students and students of color — and on special education students who are among those most often taught by underprepared teachers — and then hide that fact from parents and the public under a “highly qualified” moniker flies in the face of the equity, transparency and accountability that NCLB and our leaders apparently stand for.

The fear of “significant disruptions” in the teaching force has no basis, as the court case is currently being appealed and no classroom assignments will be upset mid-year. Furthermore, where there are needs, schools will continue to hire less-than-highly-qualified teachers, as is the case in several hundred thousand classrooms today. NCLB permits such teachers to continue to be employed as long as they fill shortage areas, are publicly disclosed and equitably distributed.

If this were just about enacting a “temporary solution” to avoid short-term disruptions, the language would not seek to modify the highly qualified teacher definition for the next 2½ years. Instead, it has now become more important to maintain the status quo of using poor and minority schools as the proving grounds for these trainee teachers than enforcing teacher equity as NCLB called for and as parents are demanding.

There is a real disruption here — and it’s been to the democratic process. Significantly modifying the standard of teacher quality owed every child in the nation is not something that should happen at the close of session, in the dead of night, behind closed doors in an appropriations bill, but where it is supposed to — in the light of day during the ESEA reauthorization, with time for deliberation and public input.

[Update: 12/21/10: As expected, the Senate and House enacted the Continuing Resolution today. Congressman George Miller issued a statement explaining his vote in favor of watering the down the highly qualified teacher standard he played a significant role in writing. Miller maintained the vote was necessistated by the possible “major and unpredictable disruptions to schools across the country” if the 9th Circuit’s decision were to be implemented. Both Harkin and Miller have now referred to disruptions without articulating just what these disruptions are. As I explained to Congressman Miller’s staff on Monday, no disruptions are anywhere on the horizon given the status of the case on appeal and the desire of all parties to avoid any “disruptions.” Certainly no imminent disruptions have been identified that warrant enacting this significant amendment to the ESEA without proper public processes and deliberation.]

[Disclosure: I am the lead plaintiffs’ counsel in Renee v. Duncan, the case that produced the recent 9th Circuit decision striking down the Department of Education’s regulation awarding highly qualified status to teacher trainees.]


Education needs more accountability, from parents

By Mark Goulston, M.D.. Vice Chairman at Steele Partners

In today’s world of blame and finger-pointing, we’re teaching our kids that accountability and responsibility are slippery slopes that don’t mean what they used to. For example, have you witnessed a parent-teen conversation that went anything like this:

Teenager: “Please, Mom and Dad, just let me do this, and I promise that I will take full responsibility for it.”

Parent: “Do you realize that taking full responsibility means that if it backfires and goes wrong, you will own up to it, pay back whatever it takes to make up for it going wrong and learn from it so that it doesn’t happen again?”

Teenager: “I didn’t agree to that.”

Parent: “Well, then what do you think taking full responsibility means?”

Teenager: “That if it goes wrong, I will say, ‘I’m sorry.'”

If you have witnessed such a conversation, do you agree with the following?

Among our main roles and responsibility as parents is to teach, coach, guide and pass on to our children the character (and I do mean character) traits of self-reliance, resourcefulness, initiative, taking responsibility for one’s actions and learning from one’s mistakes (see “How to Raise a Self-Confident Child”).

If at age 18 they are lacking these, they are going to find success, happiness and life in general a challenge and even overwhelming.

To bring it into sharper focus, consider that at the exact moment that you as a parent bail out your child from facing the consequences of their screw-ups and taking full responsibility for them, literally millions of children in this world the same age as your child are taking full responsibility for their actions and becoming smarter, stronger and wiser. Within the next 10 to 20 years, those children (from China, India and elsewhere) will become your child’s boss, and they won’t bail out or accept your child’s excuses. Instead, they will fire your children.

How Did America Mess Up Its Kids?

One explanation might be what preceding generations had to endure and what they wanted for their children.

For instance, Americans born between 1900 and 1924, referred to as the G.I. Generation, were born to parents who endured coming to the United States, then heard and watched how the countries that they came from became embroiled in World War I, then enlisted to fight in the Great War and then lived through the Great Depression. It’s understandable how these parents who lived through such difficult times would want their children to have it better. Having it better was about having a life where they didn’t need to fear for their lives or livelihoods. It wasn’t about sexual freedom or accumulating disposable income to conspicuously consume with.

The G.I. Generation grew up during the Great Depression, went to fight in World War II and then gave birth to the Baby Boomer Generation, born between 1946 and 1964. It’s understandable that wanting their Baby Boomer children to have it better, especially during the prosperity and relatively peaceful years in the 1950s, would go beyond mere economic survival. Instead, it crossed over into giving their children more of what they had less of, from more sexual freedom to more drugs to more rock and roll to hot cars and especially more mobility as Baby Boomers left home to settle down across the country.

Next, early Baby Boomers gave birth to Generation X, and later Baby Boomers gave birth to Generation Y/Millennials. Although Baby Boomers experienced much more freedom than their parents, as a generation they still largely took responsibility for their actions and did not expect to be bailed out. Baby Boomers may have been tolerated and moderately indulged by their parents, but they didn’t take it to the level of entitlement. That required another generational turn.

As the G.I. Generation gave their Baby Boomer children more freedom from oppression and repression, the Baby Boomers have given their Generation Y/Millennials freedom from responsibility and accountability for their actions. They have moved past indulging them directly to spoiling them. And rather than letting their children face the consequences of their actions, Baby Boomers have more often bailed out their Gen Y/Millennial children. And when children feel no responsibility or accountability for their actions, the next step is for them to feel and act entitled — entitled to act according to how they feel and to what will immediately gratify them, and entitled to not do whatever they don’t want to do. It is this attitude that would give rise to the Parent-Teenager dialogue that opened this blog.

What We Can and Need to Do About It

An initial step that might be helpful is to reach a consensus between parents and their children as to what terms related to personal responsibility mean. Here are ten terms that come to mind for me:

1.Commitment: the level of dedicated action(s) you continue to take after your enthusiasm for an enterprise stops.
2.Accountability: taking full responsibility for your actions by owning up to the negative or failed results, taking action to make up for it to the person(s) you let down, and learning what you did wrong so that it doesn’t occur again.
3.Maturity: how well you are able to resist an irresistible impulse and instead have and exercise judgment and do the reasonable thing. In the brain we refer to this as exercising one’s executive function.
4.Honesty: this is simply telling the truth according to the facts as you understand them. You know honesty best, when you tell a lie. Pathological liars lie whenever they are trying to get their way and take advantage of a situation. Compulsive liars lie both when the are trying to get their way and when they are trying to get out of facing the consequences of their actions.
5.Forthrightness: this is coming forward and telling the truth and revealing untruths that you become aware of. It’s believing and following Justice Louis Brandeis words: “Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant.”
6.Character: what you do when you are frustrated, angry, annoyed, afraid and/or bored and nobody is watching and your chance of getting caught is close to nil.
7.Sacrifice: what you do unto others who will not (immediately) be able to pay you back by doing unto you.
8.Compassion: what you feel unto others who will not be able to do more than say, “Thank you.”
9.Thinking ahead and planning: overcoming the aversion to anything that causes you to forego immediate gratification.
10.Listening: and then pausing to consider what you’ve heard before rejecting it, tuning out or competing with it (a skill every generation needs to learn).
What additions or corrections would you make to this list? What terms come to your mind regarding personal responsibility and being accountable and what would be your definitions?

Next step…

As soon as it’s possible, parents, teachers and children need to begin having an ongoing discussion of these terms at the beginning of every school year from the third grade forward. That is because these concepts will take on different meanings as children grow. Include as much interactive and experiential exercises as possible. And finally, make a central part of those discussions: a) why children should care about these ideas and values (one reason being that if they don’t, they will be unhirable at age 22 when they finish college); and b) how to implement these values into curriculums and schoolwork.

Here is the challenge: People don’t do what’s important, they do what they care about. So children will only take personal responsibility and be accountable for their actions when parents care enough to start saying “no” instead of “yes” and then stick to it.

It’s also helpful for parents to keep in mind the advice I provide managers and leaders: “If you sacrifice being respected for being liked, you won’t be either.”

Additional Resources:

•Character Counts at the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics
•The Blessings of a Skinned Knee (Scribner,15.00) by Wendy Mogel
•Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior (Perigee,13.95)
•”Potential is a Terrible Thing to Waste: How to Get Out of Your Own Way and Help Others Do the Same” (Worldwide Association of Business Coaches)
•”Just Listen” Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (Amacom,24.95)
•Change Your Thinking Forever in 8 Minutes


Teacher pay: Of kryptonite and silver bullets


“SB 6 being revised; no sponsor yet,” is a headline that speaks volumes.
It seems that the only people who are truly interested in re-mixing this highly controversial teacher pay legislation are people who haven’t been elected to anything, at least not lately.

But unlike last session, this year former Gov. Jeb Bush has come out of the closet by advertising his foundation’s role in backing the ultimately vetoed bill.

Our elected representatives are wise to proceed cautiously. If they were smart, they’d go ahead and proclaim victory in achieving progress on pay-for-performance.

Whether you love or hate state Sen. John Thrasher, whether you were for or against his strong-arm push on SB 6, Thrasher should get credit for waking up Florida’s parents and teaching professionals.

His efforts on this front helped generate unprecedented headlines, public discussion and citizen activism on public education.

Thrasher – with help from his opponents – set the stage for stakeholders across the state to collaborate on Florida’s successful Race to the Top 2 application, which they did, after the bill was vetoed.

Among the architects of the statewide Race to the Top blueprint was Duval County School Board Chairman W.C. Gentry.

This should address most of the elements included in SB 6.
The Legislature should step back and allow the vital local collective bargaining processes to work to bring home critical Race to the Top dollars, and to benefit students.

Teachers across Florida are now examining their contracts with an eye toward a pay-for-performance plan that turns on student performance. Now is the time for them to hash out the details with their elected school boards, beginning with the Race to the Top blueprint

Now is not the time for any presidential wannabes to push their purely political agendas.

Education reform should be about consensus building – not political posturing. Superman is not real, and the unions are not kryptonite.

It’s time to stop vilifying public education and public school teachers, and to stop exalting charter schools and private schools as silver bullet solutions. Studies clearly show that, for our most vulnerable students, they’re not.

All schools – traditional public, private and charter – simply must do better.

KIPP executive director Tom Majdanics hits the nail on the head when he says, “There are no 100 percent solutions; there are 100 1 percent solutions.”

With all due respect to mythical superheroes, the real work happens here on the ground.

Bloomberg’s double standard

Where are the calls to privitize the fire and police departments. -cpg

By Lynne Winderbaum, retired teacher

Is the mayor guilty of a double standard, as he defends the performance of the sanitation workers and fire department, whose ability to fulfill their duties were hampered by the blizzard, and yet he continues to blame teachers for conditions out of their control, and is pushing to release the unreliable teacher data reports? Lynne Winderbaum makes the case.
No one should say that our mayor is not understanding of how unique challenges can affect the statistical measurement of one’s job performance. And so it was that I listened to Mayor Bloomberg explain with a bit of impatience and annoyance that the city’s performance in the wake of the snowstorm was not up to par because of a series of unique challenges.

He begged for understanding because, you see, there were a large number of city agencies and personnel involved, there were near white-out conditions, and hundreds of city buses and dozens of ambulances were stuck in the snow.

But the mayor should be aware that all that matters is the outcome, not the difficulties inherent to the job. The data shows that the average response time to structural fires in 2008 was four minutes 33 seconds. The average response time for medical emergencies in 2008 was four minutes 30 seconds. However, in this case, data released today show that the Fire Department had a 3-hour delay in response to critical cases, like heart attacks, and 12-hour delays for non-critical calls. A five alarm fire in Elmhurst raged for 3 hours when firefighters were delayed by the blizzard conditions.

Surely, firemen and EMT’s are to be judged “ineffective” when it comes to a response time so far below the city standard.

Extraordinary challenges notwithstanding, emergency responses to all calls should be within five minutes. It is incumbent on the news organizations, for the sake of our citizens, to FOIL a list of all firemen and EMT’s that were on duty during this time period and to identify them by name in the newspapers. The mere fact that response time data was influenced by so many factors beyond their control, as detailed by the mayor above, is no excuse to fail to reach or exceed the standard of response time expected by the city. It is also unfounded to excuse the longer response times from any engine companies who were impacted by the increased demands created by the closure of firehouses in their neighborhoods.

It is commendable that the FDNY receives the gratitude of the citizenry and the satisfaction of knowing they have saved lives and property. But these things are not measurable as are response times.

Perhaps there should be merit bonuses for the fastest responders to ensure that firefighters show more dedication to their work and our citizens’ welfare. Those who take on the most challenging conditions are no exception. Data is king and the statistics are the only objective way to measure the value of the workers.

It is incomprehensible that in the face of this disappointing data the mayor would excuse FDNY performance by saying, ““And I want them to know that we do appreciate the severity of these conditions they face, and that the bottom line is we are doing everything we possibly can, and pulling every resource from every possible place to meet the unique challenges…”

Oh wait. Nobody wants to privatize the Fire Department or find reason for it to be run by corporate interests who have scant experience improving performance in fire and medical emergencies. Never mind. —


Mayor Peyton calls Duval County school district colossal failure

In a Times Union editorial Mayor John Peyton referred to the Duval County Public School District as a colossal failure. Wow right, not just a failure but a colossal failure. Why didn’t he just say a failure of biblical proportions?

The Times Union said they wouldn’t go that far, after all the district has received a B grade from the state. Sorry to disappoint the Times Union but it is a gentlemen’s B as the district has become an expert at massaging certain numbers like more kids taking A.P. classes, giving fewer suspensions and making it nearly impossible to withdraw kids to inflate our grade. Though to be honest I wouldn’t go as far as “colossal failure” either.

The truth is there are incredible things going on at all our schools; even our supposed worse schools and for the most part they are the interactions between our teachers and our students. The thing is the district cannot continue to put our students and teachers in no win situations and then scratch their heads when they don’t succeed to the level that they wanted. It’s a wonder and a credit to our fine teachers dedication and professionalism that we are doing as well as we are.

We can’t continue to push kids through with out the skills they need, ignore discipline and over load and dump on teachers. We must try to address our most struggling kids problems most of which aren’t school related and also have more than the one size fits all, everybody is going to go to college curriculum which serves fewer and fewer children that we have now. If we want to be successful that is. If we don’t do those things then it probably won’t be long before the Times Union as most of the city already does, agrees with the mayor.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

NBER Report: Great Teachers Are Worth $400,000 A Year

From the Huffington Post

How much is a good teacher worth? Some would say they’re priceless, but recent findings in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s The Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality, is a bit more exact. The report, written by Eric A. Hanushek, suggests that quality teachers with 20 students are worth $400,000 more in the future earnings of their students than an average teacher, annually.

Hanushek examines how the quality and effectiveness of a good teacher can impact a student’s future success and how this achievement can effect future economic outcomes for the country as a whole.

According to his calculations, it isn’t just that good teachers are worth a lot when considering our economic future as a country; alternatively, bad teachers are costing us trillions. Hanushek says that by exchanging the bottom 5-8 percent of crummy teachers with average teachers, the United States, as a country, could jump up the ranks to top in math and science, generating an astounding $100 trillion in present-day value. Hanushek writes:

The policy of eliminating the least effective teachers is very consistent with the McKinsey analysis of the policies found in high-performing school systems around the world (Barber and Mourshed 2007). Their analysis suggests that the best school systems do not allow ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom for long.

His research brings up a huge concern, no matter your take on educational policy and reform; emphasizing the necessity for good teachers means much for the country’s economic future.

However, education policy reformers aren’t left with a simple solution. These numbers leave much up for debate. The writer suggests that we fire the lower percentile of bad teachers, which opens a pandora’s box of battles with teachers unions committed to teacher tenure.

Further, the ultimate measurement for teacher effectiveness remains unclear. Standardized testing appears to be the most obvious solution. But if teachers begin to fear being fired by being in the bottom percentage, they could refocus their efforts on standardized tests again or also choose to work in higher-performing schools, where they won’t have to worry about low test scores

Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute blogs in a section of the Washington Post against Hanushek’s proposed solution:

Instead of trying to fire our way to the high performance of Finland or anywhere else, why not try to emulate the policies that these nations actually employ? It seems very strange to shoot for the achievement levels of these nations by doing the exact opposite of what they do.
These findings also unearth another debate regarding teacher salary; if good teachers are worth more, should they be paid more?

This means we should be willing to pay more for good teachers, but it also increases the benefit of getting rid of bad teachers and ensuring we have a system that can do that. After all, every dollar spent on a bad teacher has the high opportunity cost of good teachers.

With such startling findings, and many questions needing solutions, there is still much up for debate.


Is Rick Scott’s Private Voucher Plan Just An Overton Window Mover?

By Ray Seaman

When I first heard of Governor-Elect Rick Scott’s plans to dismantle Florida’s public education system and turn it into a giant private voucher experiment, I was like most folks, both angry and worried. If you’re unfamiliar with Scott’s plan, here it is:

Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott on Thursday blew the door wide open to the idea of a voucherlike program for all students, saying he’s working with lawmakers to allow state education dollars to follow a student to the school his or her parents choose.

He did not use the term vouchers. Others called it an “education savings account.”

But whatever it’s called, the incoming governor, key lawmakers and a foundation tied to former Gov. Jeb Bush are setting the stage for Florida to consider one of the most radical education ideas that it — or arguably any state — has ever considered.

Scott’s plan has already received an outpouring of opposition. I haven’t heard much support at all for such a plan excluding the usual suspects like Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) and other public school haters. Perhaps the most surprising reaction however came from big time voucher hucksters themselves. Andrew Coulson, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said Scott’s proposal goes too far:

But what if the ESA [Education Savings Accounts] has no serious hope of passing muster with the state Supreme Court, and in the process of being struck down would jeopardize successful existing programs? Sadly, that appears to be the most likely outcome.

In light of the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 Bush v. Holmes ruling, in which it struck down the OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] voucher program, there does not seem to be any way for the Court could uphold any sort of voucher program in Florida even if it wanted to (see below)—and there’s no reason to think it wants to. In fact, it seems likely that a lower court would grant an injunction against any voucher program even being implemented in Florida, pending the outcome of the inevitable lawsuit.

The result of simultaneously passing the ESA program and abolishing the corporate income tax would thus be to gut Florida’s existing, successful, popular, money-saving scholarship donation tax credit program without providing a viable alternative. That would decimate school choice in Florida. Furthermore, an additional anti-voucher ruling by the Court might expand on its earlier Bush v. Holmes ruling, thereby jeopardizing the McKay voucher program for special needs children that is also successful, popular, and far more efficient than the public school system.

Leave aside for a moment the fact there doesn’t seem to be any substantial evidence showing Florida’s existing voucher program actually outperforms our public schools. However, Coulson is likely correct about the legal implications for passing a universal private voucher program into law. The St. Petersburg Times editorial board discussed this when they knocked Scott’s plans:

The Florida Supreme Court struck down the Bush-inspired Opportunity Scholarships, which were tuition vouchers to be given to students in failing public schools. The 2006 court opinion found those vouchers violated a constitutional requirement for a “uniform system of free public schools.” The high court was silent on another constitutional provision that bars state money from going to religious institutions, which a lower appellate court cited. Two existing voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit voucher for students from low-income families and the McKay Scholarship voucher for disabled students, are similarly flawed but have yet to be legally tested.

I’m not a lawyer or an expert on the Florida constitution, but it seems that based on the evidence, if Scott and the far right really wanted a universal voucher program, they would have to pass a constitutional amendment of some kind to neuter or muddy up the “uniform system of free public schools” language in the constitution. I highly doubt Florida voters would pass such an amendment with more than 60% of the vote. I would be surprised if such an idea even received a majority of the vote. Keep in mind, 62% of voters in Utah (yes, Utah) defeated a statewide ballot proposal creating a universal voucher program in 2007.

So what’s this all about then, anyway if Scott’s universal voucher plan is a legal absurdity? The only thing I can think of is the tried and true tactic of the right, which is moving the public discourse to more favorable conservative ground. This is what’s called “Moving the Overton window.” Basically, by pushing such an extreme proposal, even if it’s defeated, it becomes less crazy the next time around, and in the meantime it allows you to successfully push through less extreme, but still radical ideas into the mainstream.

So Scott’s push for universal vouchers may just make things like basing half of a teacher’s pay on a student’s test scores a more palatable idea. Keep in mind, such a proposal in the form of Senate Bill 6 caused a firestorm of opposition earlier this year, leading to its demise at the hands of Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto pen. Now, in the context of Rick Scott’s very crazy plan to essentially dismantle their schools, at least some teachers are reportedly warming up to the idea of a less destructive form of SB 6. Never mind the fact that the only major controlled study on merit pay demonstrates that it doesn’t work at all. Yet we’re still tinkering with the idea like it’s something we have to have to make public schools better. Witness the moving of the Overton window.

So while public education supporters and advocates should certainly target Scott’s universal voucher plan for defeat, they shouldn’t forget about all the other fires the legislature has burning out there. If anything, Scott’s radical plans could just be a giant distraction to get a lot of other horrible anti-public school legislation passed.


How desperate for reform should we be

By Larry M. Elkin

Our public schools are awash in high-stakes testing, but we aren’t doing well enough. We know this, of course, because the latest test results tell us so.

“To be brutally honest…a host of developed nations are out-educating us,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier this month in response to recently released international rankings produced by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The United States placed 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of the 34 OECD countries.

The real surprises, however, were the scores of two non-OECD education systems included in the study: Shanghai and Hong Kong. Averaged across the three disciplines measured, the United States had a score of 496 on a scale of zero to 1,000. Hong Kong scored 546. Shanghai averaged 577, ranking first in all three categories.

President Obama declared the situation to be a new “Sputnik moment” for American education, referring to the Cold War fears triggered by the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite in 1957. At that time, the U.S. made a massive push to improve math and science curricula as a way of retaining the country’s technical advantage. Harking back to the language of the Space Race, Obama said he wants to protect investments in education (that means spend a lot of federal money) to “win the race” for jobs and economic development.

In reality, however, the U.S. never really fell behind in its race with the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. had a few strong suits, in which it rivaled or surpassed our abilities. Rocketry, at that moment, was one of them. But there was never a time when, overall, the Soviets remotely approached the level of American technology, efficiency or productivity. From cars to nuclear power, Soviet technology was an unreliable backwater.

The current “Sputnik moment” is, like the original, an overreaction.

The PISA rankings show that the average 15-year-old American student cannot answer as many test questions correctly as the average 15-year-old student in Shanghai. But this is no cause for societal or economic panic. What is important is that our companies are able to find the talent they need to develop. Is Boeing having trouble finding enough people with the knowledge of advanced calculus necessary to design airplanes? Are publishing houses struggling to locate people with the reading skills necessary to edit books? I don’t think so. As long as I’m right, American companies will be on solid ground.

Even if companies were having difficulty accessing talent, the most practical solution at a policy level would be, not to teach more Americans calculus or editing, but to reform labor and immigration laws to enable companies to hire the people who have those skills, wherever they reside. The practical solution on a corporate level would be to send the work requiring specific skills to the places where people with those skills are available. Boeing might open a design facility in Finland, which scored an impressive 541 on the math assessment. Harper Collins might hire freelance editors based in Canada, which bested us by 24 points in reading.

The answer is not to simply amp up competition in American schools in order to try to raise our position in international competitions. This, unfortunately, seems to be what education officials intend to do. Education Secretary Duncan said at a press conference following the release of the PISA scores, “The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.”

But “accelerating student learning” to “compete” with other nations is not a path to economic prominence. Japan’s education system continues to be rated one of the best in the world, and is routinely held up as a model which critics of our system argue we ought to emulate. Yet Japan’s economy has remained lethargic ever since it tanked in 1990, and the country’s population – a better indicator of a society’s overall health, in my view – is in an accelerating decline.

The Japanese system, along with many others in Asia modeled after it, emphasizes high-stakes standardized testing. Test scores are used to separate students into stratified levels which dictate their future educational possibilities.

This leads to heavy stress and early burn-outs, so that, by the time they reach the university level, many Japanese students have already exhausted their best intellectual energies. A Canadian who teaches English at a Japanese university wrote in a critique of the country’s education system, “The result of all this test-taking and stress, is a nation of order takers who have trouble making decisions, let alone stating an opinion.”

Already I think the U.S. is in danger of falling into the same pattern. As Rebecca Pavese wrote here recently, some parents of 5-year-olds are so eager to score a competitive advantage for their children that they wait a year before allowing them to start school. This allows these children to accumulate more skills before they enter the now-cutthroat world of kindergarten.

At the high school level, the unprecedented number of star students, all within a few grade points of one another, has led several schools to start naming multiple valedictorians. William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, told The New York Times that he had heard of some schools with as many as 100 valedictorians. This crowding at the top forces students who are set on attending top colleges to do even more to distinguish themselves. Scores of colleges these days seem unwilling to admit anyone other than card-carrying superheroes.

Of course, excessive pressure to overachieve is not the only problem troubling the American education system. Far too many kids don’t graduate, and far too many of those who do graduate lack the skills necessary to be productive in a high-tech, service-based economy. Particularly troubling is the ongoing achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We need to fix these problems, but our need to do so is not contingent on how other countries are doing.

Education is very important. Being the international valedictorians based on PISA scores is not. To be successful, a country needs policies that encourage actual economic growth and social development, not good test taking.

A strong nation requires wise government spending, flexible labor markets, the ability to form coalitions, openness to competition, orderly politics, and the willingness to import labor through immigration or to outsource it through trade as needed. These are the things we need to focus on. If America does not continue to thrive in the world, it will be because of the things we do or fail to do, not because of the things people do elsewhere.


Fed Up with the Unintended Consequences of NCLB

From the blog, In the Trenches with School Reform

The name for this post can’t be A Nation at Risk. That’s already been done, but as Diane Ravitch points out in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, sound recommendations stemming from A Nation at Risk (1983) got lost or watered down in the political fray. Now it’s 2010 and we’re all floundering in the aftermath of NCLB. I should call my first post A Nation in Crisis — because I believe that’s where we are as a result of the last 30+ years of educational reform.

I don’t have to write a blog. Diane Ravitch has said everything that needs to be said. And John Merrow warns us where we’re headed in his latest book, Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity — and What We Can Do About It. Not only does he discuss how school reform has led to mediocrity, but he warns about the unintended consequences of school reform on our democratic way of life.

But until Arne Duncan reads their books and pays attention — and until President Obama instructs Arne to listen — meaning: stop talking and really listen to educators when they’re trying to educate him on the realities of school reform, I will keep this blog up and running. My hope is that you will leave a comment above, spread the word and get educators and parents to come to this blog, find their state on the map,and leave comments about their specific experiences with NCLB. If enough of you who serve in the trenches are willing to share, we may be able to get our policymakers to take notice. If teachers from 50 states + D.C. reiterate the same concerns over and over, perhaps some policymaker of influence and importance will finally listen.

I could be wrong and all of you will tell me what a delightful, meaningful time you’ve had with NCLB the last nine years. But if I’m right and enough concern is revealed in your comments . . . I’ll categorize your comments and get them available in some kind of organized shape. (I’ll reveal only your username and state.) If you too have been blogging, let me know and I will make sure that others visiting this site know about you. (See bottom of page for who some of these committed and very professional people are.)

Feel free to comment on Race to the Top, the Core Standards and so on.

Then we’ll move on to proposing solutions. (I am adapting Dr. Treffinger’s model for creative problem solving to our problem.) Along the way we’ll try as educators to come to consensus about important topics related to school reform, such as the goals of American education. Let’s try to get the train back on the track before it completely derails. We’d better hurry because sometime in late 2010 or early 2011, decisions about school reform will be made in Washington and will be, as they have these last nine years, out of our control.

Unintended Consequences of NCLB

Every change always seems to have unintended consequences — some good, some pesky, and some totally undesirable. Think of just about any change you’ve made in your classroom or your school. Most times you’ve had to pause and tweak a bit — or a lot. That’s what I’m calling for. Congress needs to pause and assess. It just makes good sense, especially with the sweeping, monumental reform our schools have undergone since NCLB. Once this assessment has taken place, it will be clear to Congress that the unintended consequences have been disastrous. President Obama and Arne Duncan refuse to listen. As for me, I’ve given up on the two of them. Congress is our last hope.

My recommended course of action for Congress: Do not reauthorize NCLB and, along with it, Blueprint for Reform. Reauthorize ESEA as it stood under Title 1. Fully fund IDEA. Then sponsor a Continental Congress on school reform. Give a voice to those in the trenches — educators and parents — and listen to them. They will do what you did not do when NCLB was so quickly passed as President Bush’s first bill. They will start with the end in mind: what are the goals of American education? What are the barriers that have kept us from meeting these goals? You will then begin to see proposals for meaningful reform — but not one set of reforms that must be applied to every school in the nation. And then at the end, where it belongs, you will see addressed what NCLB is largely about — accountability. It’s a worthy and necessary issue. No one is denying that.

My own recommendation: The federal government’s role in school reform should be only to provide direction and clarity of purpose. Support? Yes. Leadership? No. NCLB sent a shock wave throughout the country. It continues to reverberate with unintended consequences that no one could have foreseen. Federal legislation applies to all states and all districts. Interstate commerce, highways and bridges, the military — federal legislation can work in a coherent way. But schools and the populations they serve are diverse, and one law can not fit all. NCLB is the proof.

Teachers, other educators, and parents: go to the map above and record your own comments about your experiences serving in the trenches under NCLB. Explore this website to see what it’s about and what I hope it can help accomplish. Your voice, along with the voices of every educator we can get to this site, can make a difference. Go to my first blog, which is the first of several about my own experiences with school reform as a principal over the last 15 years in Arizona. Anything there sound familiar?

Regardless, before you leave this website, click on your state and leave your comments about school reform. Time is of the essence. It looks now as if Congress will deal with reauthorization of NCLB in January 2011. American Enterprise Institute held a hearing on November 9, 2010, with Congressional aides who are working to reauthorize NCLB. Watch the hearing. You’ll get an idea where things are headed.

Who Else is Trying to Get the Word Across? Where Else Can You Go to Help?

Anthony Cody, who began Teachers’ Letters to Obama on Facebook, writes an excellent blog for Teacher Magazine (edweek.org). Facebook also has a section on “School Reform.” Read teacherken’s posts, called “diaries” at Daily Kos and read his comments there as well as his posts on Huffington Post.org. Read Nancy Flanagan’s comments and many others, on Teachers’ Letters to Obama on Facebook. Nancy Flanagan also has a blog on edweek.org. More and more groups are forming. Go to Uniting 4 Kids and Jesse Turner’s Children are More than Test Scores on Facebook. Join Jesse and Christopher Janotta’s rally July 28-31, including the Save Our Schools Million Teacher March July 30 in Washington, D.C. So many of you are trying to get the word out. I continue to update a list of blogs on the sidebar to the right. If I’ve overlooked you, let me know.