Fallout from the Florida Legislature gutting the class size amendment

From the Miami Herald

by Laura Isenisee

At Miami Beach High, it takes 20 minutes for Nadia Zananiri to take attendance in a college-prep World History class.

There are 54 freshmen and 40 desks.

“Everything takes longer. These kids have questions, and there’s not always time to answer them,” she said.

A week into the school year, many teachers and students in Miami-Dade are grappling with bigger classes, because of changes in state rules.

Last year, enrollment in nearly every high school course was capped at 25 students, as the final phase of Florida’s Class Size Amendment (added by voters to the state Constitution in 2002) kicked in. But in the last legislative session, state lawmakers reduced the number of courses under the mandate by two-thirds. The move saved cash-strapped districts money and gave them more flexibility.

The caps still apply to core courses like reading, math and science that are required for graduation. But they no longer apply to college-prep offerings, foreign languages and honors courses like precalculus.

District officials say they are working to level out classes. Rosters may be shifted, or new ones added. Students may also opt to take some Advanced Placement courses online. Last year, the district turned to virtual courses to help meet class-size rules.

“We’re six days in. We’re are still in the process enrolling students,” said Daniel Tosado, assistant superintendent for district operations at Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

New students are still arriving — some won’t show up till after Labor Day — and other students may transfer between programs and adjust their schedules.

The school district and administrators will have firm enrollment numbers by October, when the state takes a head count in all schools.

Tosada said the target enrollment would be about 30-32 students.

“We’re going to have outliers, and we’ll address them … We’ll have a better idea day by day,” he said.

Zananiri solved the space crunch by putting computers on the floor so students can sit at the computer table. More students mean Zananiri will have a bigger teaching load — at least an extra 35 essays a week in the rigorous, writing-intensive course — for the same amount of pay.

She said what worries her more: giving all her students the attention they need.

“It’s their first AP course. It’s very difficult. I can’t always answer all their questions with 54 students and one of me,” she said.

The AP program and other advanced courses, such as International Baccalaureate, are designed to give students the same rigor as a college class. College-prep classes also contribute to schools’ state grades.

“This is just the state being cheap. This is state skirting the law on the class-size amendment,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade. “It’s cutting corners, but it’s cutting quality, too.”

So far, Chris Dougnac, a senior at Dr. Michael Krop Senior, is taking bigger classes in stride. In two of his AP classes, English literature and psychology, there are just over 40 students. It reminds him of elementary school days at Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor Elementary. Back then, he schlepped with his mom to PTA meetings and heard the campaign to limit class sizes.

“It’s intimidating, but at the same time it reminds me you have to make yourself heard,” he said.

Chris plans to apply the lesson he learned in his first AP class in 10th grade. “I realized if I want to get one-on-one teacher help, I would have to prove myself by asking for that one-on-one.”

He said his AP economics/government class, in which there were not enough desks the first day, has gotten smaller.

Parents at Coral Reef Senior High complained that one AP government class had ballooned to more than 30 students. Sections of AP physics and English literature had also grown to about three dozen students each, they said.

At North Miami Middle School, several teachers tried to organize a rally last week about crowded classes, including some core classes like science. Dwight Williams, a science teacher, said students at the struggling school can’t afford to wait for classes to be evened out or more teachers hired.

“These students deserve 180 days of education,” he said.

Several teachers said the bigger classes mean they will have to tweak their teaching style to be less personal and centered more on lectures.

“Even though we only started school a week ago, you’re feeling that some of them will be slipping through the cracks because you don’t have the ability to be as personable as you could have if there were only 25 students,” said Orlando Sarduy, 30. He teaches honors and college-prep math courses at Coral Reef. Nearly all of his classes have grown to 30-plus students.

At Hialeah High, Maite Jerez, 34, said two of her four college-prep courses have grown to more than 30 seniors. “It doesn’t seem like much, but five or six more bodies in a large setting can have an effect, negative or positive.” Jerez said.

On the positive side: “You get more brains, more voices and more perspectives in the room,” she said.

But it also means more focus on managing the classroom. Jerez said she will likely have students do more prep work.

Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/08/29/v-fullstory/2381056/changes-in-state-rules-lead-to.html#ixzz1WVh17x47

Teachers, the Rodney Dangerfields of America

From the Washinton Posts Answer Sheet

By Nancy Flanagan

Let’s say you are a teacher, and not just any teacher. You are one of those special teachers we hear about in news and policy discussions — the supposedly rare educator who has passionate disciplinary expertise, a toolbag full of teaching strategies and genuine caring for their students. You became an educator because you want to make a difference, change the world, raise the bar. You love teaching, finding it endlessly variable and challenging. You plan to spend a long time in the classroom.

So you begin pursuing a graduate degree in education. You notice that getting a masters degree in education is scorned in policy world as having little impact on student learning. A few of your classes are tedious. But some of them are genuinely interesting and valuable, pushing you to think more deeply about the work you do and increasing your content knowledge. Even though pundits declare your advanced degree does not correlate with increased student achievement, you press on. You’re enjoying the intellectual stimulation and — let’s face it –accruing credits is another way to increase your salary and you need the money.

You’re fascinated by new instructional strategies and curriculum ideas. You’re eager to learn.

But your district — which just replaced all its computers in the past two years — has no money for professional development. So you burn two of your business days, pay your own registration fee and mileage, and travel with three colleagues to a conference across the state, where — being a teacher type — you attend every single session and collect tons of free stuff to take back to your classroom in a canvas bag (which you will later give to a student as a reward for reading 25 books). The four of you share the $200 hotel room, and split a pizza. The high life.

You’re eager to share new techniques with colleagues when you return. (Those digital books would be killer for your schoolwide Mark Twain unit!) But then the State Board, in its wisdom, removes Huckleberry Finn from the 9th grade curriculum framework because talking about race is too risky for teenagers, even though you’ve been doing just that for 10 years and getting amazing feedback from students about these tough conversations.

After 15 years, when you have children and a mortgage — but still love teaching — you decide to sit for National Board Certification. You already have an advanced degree and a wall covered with certificates, but National Board Certification is a greater test of your knowledge and skills than anything you’ve tackled.

You spend about 300 hours videotaping and analyzing your lessons, finding some genuine gaps in your understanding and mastery of good instruction, curriculum and assessment. You share these perceived needs with other candidates for certification — breaking out of the egg-crate isolation endemic in teaching, and looking critically at your practice. In preparation for the National Board subject matter exams, you do a thorough content review across your disciplinary field.

And your good work and honed expertise pay off — you’re among the fraction of National Board candidates who achieve certification in the first round. This means the fee for certification (about 5% of your annual salary) will be paid back and — because you’re lucky enough to live in a state where National Board Certification is rewarded by a salary incentive — you’ll get a $2,500 annual bonus for 10 years. You may actually be able to replace your 10-year old car.

You’re not the kind of person to rest on your laurels, however. You’re already looking around for the next challenge in your personal pursuit of excellence when you read these stories:

*Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declares that your graduate degree is essentially worthless. “Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers — with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.”

*The state superintendent in Oklahoma, Janet Barresi, gives herself and her aides a raise, but cancels National Board bonuses for teachers there.

*Duncan, at last week’s Twitter Town Hall, worries about losing “great young talent,” through what former D.C. schools chancellor and national school reformer Michelle Rhee calls “the insanity” of last-in, first-out policies let the least experienced teachers go. You wonder why nobody’s defending great, experienced talent in the educator pool.

*Teach for America becomes more high profile than ever. At the University of Wisconsin, Emma Spath, the UW-Madison campus campaign coordinator for the organization, wrote in a letter to the editor in the Badger Herald: “I’m especially excited that 350 students applied from our institution alone. A new federal budget proposal would dim future admissions prospects for college seniors. Teach For America requested $50 million from Congress to meet demand among college students and communities. Without federal funding, Teach For America would be unable to hire more than 1,350 teachers who would reach 86,000 students in the 2011-12 school year. We need programs like Teach For America to increase educational opportunity in our public schools.”

You do the math. Teach for America needs $50 million to hire 1,350 teachers? That’s $37,000 per teacher — new college graduates who get five weeks of summer training before teaching in some of the country’s neediest schools — while 91,000 National Board Certified Teachers are losing their very modest bonuses all across the country. You wonder precisely whose educational opportunities are being threatened.

How does it feel to have your profession and classroom become society’s laboratory, subject to overhaul at every election cycle?


Diane Ravitch the anti-Michelle Rhee

From the WashingtonCityPaper.com

by Dana Goldstein

In the month of April, Diane Ravitch, the 72-year-old preeminent historian of American education, sent 1,747 tweets, an average of about 58 messages per day, many between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

On May 20 alone, Ravitch tweeted 99 times to her 13,000 followers. Linking to the news of a D.C. Public Schools investigation into test tampering under former chancellor Michelle Rhee, she asked: “How can teachers be evaluated by student test scores, when the scores are so often manipulated and inaccurate?” Throughout the day, she mused on the shortcomings of standardized tests, whose ubiquity in American schools she has compared—with characteristic hyperbole—to “the Chinese cultural revolution.”

“Life’s problems do not translate into four possible answer[s],” she tweeted. Minutes later, she added: “Just think: 12 years of picking the right answer, never taking a risk with a different approach to problems. Ugh.” And then: “Those who can’t teach, pass laws about how to evaluate teachers.”

Ravitch went on to note that President Obama, whose education policies she opposes, is given more time to prove himself—four years—than the average teacher, who usually gets two or three years to win tenure. By afternoon, she was on to scorning Wall Street types, writing that “teachers can do more [good] than many who collect millions for betting on stocks or hog bellies or gold.”

Ravitch was producing scholarly monographs well before anyone ever imagined microblogging. But like her books, Ravitch’s 140-character missives are serious stuff. In the past year, they’ve become a major front in her war against what advocates call “school reform” and opponents like Ravitch sometimes label “school privatization.” In the process, the Brooklynite has become a relevant figure in Washington’s local debate: Somewhat improbably, this former education official from the first Bush administration has emerged as the most media-savvy progressive critic of the reform campaign embraced by everyone from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates—a campaign that, in the public mind, is perhaps most associated with Rhee.

Last March, Ravitch capped a long career with the publication of her 13th book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Though she says it was rejected by 15 publishers, Death and Life (its title an homage to Jane Jacobs, the great defender of urban spaces) became a bestseller. It also proclaimed a sea change in Ravitch’s worldview.

Once a vocal proponent of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay for teachers, Ravitch decided sometime around 2006 that there was actually no evidence that any of those policies improved American education. She now believes that the “corporatist agenda” of school choice, teacher layoffs, and standardized testing has undermined public respect for one of the nation’s most vital institutions, the neighborhood school, and for one of society’s most crucial professions: teaching.

The best way to improve American education, the post-epiphany Ravitch argues, is to fight child poverty with health care, jobs, child care, and affordable housing.

The apostasy turned Ravitch into a sort of rock star—much like Rhee, but with a different audience. The crowds at the 100-plus speeches Ravitch has given since publishing Death and Life are heavy on unionized teachers. Last year, she won the “Friend of Education” award from their largest union, the National Education Association; delegates at the group’s annual convention greeted her with cheering, whooping glee. Death and Life has been translated into Korean and Japanese, and in the coming months, Ravitch will speak in Germany and Finland.

In November, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter dubbed Ravitch the “Whittaker Chambers of school reform,” declaring her Gates’ “biggest adversary” for speaking out against the Microsoft founder’s efforts to bring corporate efficiency standards to public schools. In December, the American Academy of Political and Social Science awarded Ravitch the 2011 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, for public intellectuals who have used social-science research to improve public policy. And in April, she addressed an overflow crowd at the annual summit of the American Education Researchers’ Association. She’s likely the first headliner at the staid confab to have also appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

“She got two standing ovations,” says Brad Olsen, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who attended the conference. “There were folks clamoring with their cellphones trying to get pictures of her. She seemed universally adored by the audience, many of whom were very young, quite frankly. They are graduate students, and they don’t know about the Diane Ravitch from before.”

If her late emergence as a liberal hero strikes progressives as ironic, it infuriates the Rhee fans who dominate both the Obama administration and the GOP. Critics call Ravitch a self-promoter, an opportunist, and a scholar who picks evidence to support her conclusions, rather than vice versa—in other words, a lot of the same things Rhee’s critics say about her.

“The problem with ‘I was wrong about everything’ as the prelude to an argument is that it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the repudiator’s judgment,” Kevin Carey of the think tank Education Sector complained in The New Republic. “[Ravitch] simply trades one pre-defined agenda for another: the collected talking points of the reactionary education establishment. It is a philosophy of resentment and futility, grounded in the conviction that public schools—and the adults within them—can’t really be expected to do better than they currently are.”

That’s a relatively respectful version of it. But the school-reform debate now has enough star power that there’s plenty of lower-brow criticism, too. If the idea of an education-policy historian popping up on Jon Stewart’s show is weird, the idea of a parody Twitter feed to caricature said education-policy historian may be even weirder.

But a review of Ravitch’s career, which actually began on the left, suggests a more complex narrative. A lifelong political liberal who has always wrestled with a sort of innate personal conservatism, Ravitch—like Jane Jacobs, the urbanist whose book she referenced—has been constant in her deep attraction to institutions that have survived the test of time, and her aversion to intellectual fads. “It’s the fierce urgency of no,” Ravitch says of her worldview. “I like institutions, in part because I like to rebel against them, but also because I think society needs them and needs to continually reshape them, not blow them up.”

Diane Silvers was born into a middle-class family in Houston in 1938, the third of eight children. Her parents owned a small chain of liquor stores. A bookworm, she also found time for adolescent thrills: At San Jacinto High School, she was a tomboy and an ardent drag racer. She’d been in three car accidents by age 16.

The Houston of Ravitch’s adolescence was embroiled in McCarthyism. Hailing from an FDR-loving, Democratic family, Ravitch was horrified by a campaign against her ninth-grade history teacher launched by the Minute Women of the U.S.A. The teacher, Nelda Davis, subscribed to a liberal internationalist worldview; she was eventually forced out. Another formative political experience came during Ravitch’s senior year, when she discovered a cache of books on the Soviet Union stashed under the school library’s circulation desk. They had been censored. She devoured them.

At the suggestion of her family rabbi’s wife, Ravitch went off to Wellesley College, in Massachusetts. Her goal was to become a reporter, so she interned one summer at The Washington Post. The experience put her off newspapering: She says most of the women in the newsroom were “gal Fridays,” making copies and fetching coffee, which seemed boring. But in D.C. she met her future husband, Richard Ravitch, who was working for a Democratic congressman from California. The couple married two weeks after Diane’s 1960 graduation, settling in Manhattan.

Ravitch set out to find a job to match her writerly ambitions. Because she didn’t want “women’s work,” it was a slog. “The only jobs available for someone with my inexperience were secretarial, typing,” she says. “It was a big turnoff.” Then, in January 1961, she came across a New York Times editorial about the death of Sol Levitas, the Russian exile who had run the small democratic socialist magazine The New Leader. The Times called The New Leader “one of the most stimulating and valuable magazines of our day,” filled with “every variety of democratic opinion.”

Ravitch looked up The New Leader’s phone number and called the office. A flustered secretary invited her for an interview. By the close of business, she had landed a $10 per week editorial assistant job. For three years Ravitch worked there on and off, gaining an introduction to the New York anti-Communist left. She remained a part of that world for decades. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, became a friend; in the late 1980s, he sent Ravitch to Eastern Europe to speak to newly organized teachers’ unions.

But Ravitch was never purely a creature of the left. As the counterculture took root in the mid-1960s, she was busy with two all-consuming projects—motherhood (her sons were born in 1962, 1964, and 1967) and research on what would become her celebrated 1974 history of the New York City public schools, The Great School Wars. She was attracted to the topic because she was fascinated by the era’s battles between community-control advocates, teachers, administrators, and the United Federation of Teachers. It was black vs. Jew, organized labor vs. New Left. And, in Ravitch’s view, the era also involved too many misguided philanthropists “playing God in the ghetto” by supporting new-fangled identity-politics curricula at the expense of traditional liberal arts.

Ravitch’s criticisms of that phenomenon yoked her to the conservative establishment, where right-leaning outfits like the Hoover Institution, the Olin Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute supported her work. She went on to spend 18 months in the first Bush administration and to produce another decade’s worth of policy writing in favor of introducing “competition” to education.

Ravitch’s move away from the left also came as she was dealing with an overwhelming personal loss. In 1966, her two-year old son died of leukemia. She was still mourning “as the flower children were running around in Central Park barefoot and setting firebombs in the flower beds,” Ravitch says. “I was not a fan of the counterculture, in part because it was such a tragic time in my own life, and, educationally, I disliked the contempt for knowledge, professionalism, and institutions.”

She still does. And while Ravitch located those trends on the left back then, she sees them today in the bipartisan consensus around market-based education reforms. In her book, Ravitch claims she was swayed by peer pressure from the Washington free-market types she worked alongside at the Department of Education and then the Brookings Institution. “Having been immersed in a world of true believers, I was influenced by their ideas,” she writes in Death and Life. “I became persuaded.”

Now that she’s been unpersuaded, Ravitch spends the greatest chunk of her energy arguing against what she sees as a war on teachers, defending their unions, tenure protections, and pensions. In fact, it’s a point she made during her time on the other side, too. In 1983 she wrote a New Republic essay called “Scapegoating the Teachers” in which she noted that “it is comforting to blame teachers for the low state of education, because it relieves so many others of their own responsibility for years of educational neglect.”

Almost 30 years later, Ravitch says she’s particularly offended by the suggestion—implicit in the media’s celebration of Teach for America, the organization that launched Rhee’s career—that perhaps teaching should not be a lifelong profession at all, but a bleeding-heart diversion for elite 20-somethings.

“To me, it’s like saying that we’re going to build up the Peace Corps so at some point we can replace the senior diplomats,” she says. “That’s ridiculous.” Ravitch—who says she’d probably apply for TFA if she were leaving college today—nonetheless thinks that instead of letting the much-publicized program suck up all the “psychic energy,” there should be college loan forgiveness for people who become teachers. “Then you would have so many people applying to join this field that you could select the top 10 or 15 percent,” she says.

In her new pose, Ravitch’s policy ideas sometimes seem politically irrelevant in a budget-cutting, public sector-baiting season. No GOP-run Congress would approve a national college loan forgiveness program for public school teachers. But, especially in the year of the Wisconsin labor showdown, the argument about honoring professional teachers has struck a cord.

“When I was in Florida the other day a guy came up to me, and he was literally crying,” she says. “He said, ‘I was about to quit teaching and I read your book and I decided to stay.’ So I feel almost a sense of mission.”

Ravitch may have a knack for self-promotion, but her emergence as the leading voice of education-reform dissent also owes a lot to serendipity—with an assist from D.C. voters.

Though Ravitch spent years sparring with New York schools chief Joel Klein, Rhee’s story last year became a truly national one. For much of her tenure, the high-profile chancellor benefited from the fact that nearly all of her critics could be caricatured as local yokels with no ability to focus on the big picture. That caricature reached its apotheosis after last year’s mayoral election, which much of the media characterized as a revolt by down-market ignoramuses who couldn’t understand the importance of school reform. Officially crowned a martyr, Rhee embraced a second career as a national education activist.

With a significant media profile of her own, Ravitch became a go-to critic for anyone looking for a contrary opinion. The former DCPS chancellor made things pretty easy, giving Ravitch an opening to blast her for advising far-right governors like Rick Scott of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey. “Rhee maintains being bipartisan while being closely affiliated with the Tea Party governors,” Ravitch says. “The bipartisan agenda has become what used to be the GOP platform. I wonder if the Democratic Party will ever regain its sense about the importance of public education and equity.”

Ravitch was in Argentina in March when USA Today broke the news that half of all D.C. schools had likely corrected students’ mistakes on standardized tests. Nevertheless, she dashed off a column for The Daily Beast (where I am also a contributing writer). Rhee’s policy of tying pay to test scores, Ravitch wrote, had resulted in “cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum…This formula, which will be a tragedy for our nation and for an entire generation of children, is now immensely popular in the states and the Congress. Most governors embrace it. The big foundations endorse it. The think tanks of D.C., right-wing and left-wing, support it. Rhee helped to make it fashionable. If she doesn’t pause to consider the damage she is doing, shame on her.”

Hari Sevugan, a Rhee spokesman who used to work for the Democratic National Committee, says, “Ms. Ravitch may be satisfied that our students are placing at the bottom or middle of the pack in international assessments, but we aren’t. In order to increase our competitiveness with rising powers in China and India, we can no longer accept the status quo—as Ms. Ravitch is doing.”

Sevugan also points out that StudentsFirst, Rhee’s advocacy organization, has worked in Michigan, Nevada, and Maine to pass school reform laws that attracted bipartisan support. “I’m a proud Democrat, but I know that reform cannot be achieved by one party alone,” Sevugan says.

In May, Ravitch picked a high-profile fight with another reform-minded former D.C. education official, Deborah Gist, now Rhode Island’s education commissioner. In an Education Week blog post, Ravitch claimed that at a meeting that also included Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state teachers’ union leaders, Gist “dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time… In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology.”

In response, Chafee said Gist had “comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times.” A documentary filmmaker who’d been at the meeting then offered to release footage if all parties agreed; Ravitch said she wanted to see it first. On May 24, she took to her blog to apologize: “I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry. Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse.”

The apology for meanness did not address the charge that she had misrepresented Gist’s behavior. The footage has not been released.

In a separate contretemps, an anonymous Twitter feed called “OldDianeRavitch,” opened in April, featuring a steady stream of hyperlinked free-market school reform arguments Ravitch once made, but now disclaims, such as: “NYC schools chancellor should have the power to close schools that consistently fail or engage in corrupt practices” (from a 1995 Times op-ed) and, “Without testing, there is no consistent way to measure success or failure” (spoken at a 2001 panel discussion at City College).

The account was clearly a parody. But Ravitch pushed Twitter to shut it down as a violation of its anti-impersonation policy. The feed soon relaunched with the handle “NOTDianeRavitch.” In an email, its author sneered that “the old Diane Ravitch cherry-picked the evidence that supported her policy views at the time, and the new Diane Ravitch does the same, just for a different set of views.” Of course, the parodist insisted on sniping from behind the veil of anonymity: In an email interview, the writer would only say that he or she holds a Ph.D in one of the social sciences and was doing the Twitter mockery anonymously because, “I thought that I might be pigeonholed” politically for tweaking someone now considered a liberal icon.

Several of Ravitch’s former allies declined to be interviewed for this story. Off the record, some questioned whether there’s something strange or even disturbing about the way she seems to go out looking for a fight, then responds in a hurt way when she herself is attacked. That view is most bluntly articulated by Jay Greene, a conservative University of Arkansas professor who blogs on school reform. “She is behaving like a classic bully,” Greene wrote about Ravitch’s behavior toward Gist. “She hurls insults and allegations against others on a continual basis, but as soon as she is challenged she tries to shut-down the opposition, punish her critics, and deplores the meanness of public discourse.” It’s the same case many of Rhee’s critics made.

Asked for her take on these recent tempests, Ravitch emailed, “Why are conservatives so afraid of me? Why invest so much energy attacking a 73-year-old (as of July 1) historian who has been writing about education for 45 years? What’s their problem?”

But the after-effects of Ravitch’s switching sides are not always venomous. The same day she issued her apology to Gist, Ravitch traveled to a D.C. meeting about one of the most controversial strategies in reformers’ playbook: shuttering low-performing schools. In D.C., Rhee closed 20 of them. Focus groups organized by the meeting’s sponsor found that District parents would have rather seen their children’s schools flooded with resources than closed down.

It’s the argument Ravitch has been making for a year. “They’re not shoe stores that you can close and move to a different mall,” she said during a panel debate afterwards. “We don’t close the firehouse if there are more fires in the neighborhood. We don’t close the police station if there is more crime in the neighborhood.” Instead, singing from the liberal hymnal, she argued for policies to address the poverty-related “root causes” of academic failure.

Facing off against her in the debate was Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice and where Ravitch once sat on the board. Finn argued that school closings are a rational response to tightened budgets and shrinking enrollment. Ravitch listened with her hands clasped under her chin, staring out into the distance.

It was a poignant moment. The pair were once close: They co-founded an education-reform research clearinghouse in 1981; they profess to adore each other’s families. In an anguished review of Death and Life, Finn cited their 30-year friendship before declaring that Ravitch’s “prescription for the future is guided by wishful thinking, nostalgia and unwarranted faith in an antiquated institutional arrangement.” He took particular issue with Ravitch’s defense of teachers’ unions, which he, like many reformers, sees as a primary obstacle.

Disagreeing so stridently has made the relationship “difficult,” Ravitch said quietly during the coffee break before she and Finn spoke. Are they still friends? “Not the way we used to be.”

Diane and Richard Ravitch divorced in 1986. Today, she lives in a gracious brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, one of the borough’s poshest neighborhoods. Her longtime companion is Mary Butz, a former New York City public school principal who ran a progressive principal-training program that was shut down by former schools chancellor Klein in 2005.

Sporting an electric-blue turtleneck, leggings, and neat silver bowl-cut as she knocks around a living room lined with bookshelves and decorated in eagles, roosters, and red, white, and blue Americana, Ravitch says she enjoys the education-policy pugilism, Twitter fights and all. “If I’m on Twitter it means I’m not writing. But you know, I think fast, and when I see somebody say, ‘this is right, this is wrong,’ then I want to get into an exchange!” But she says her speaking schedule is so exhausting that she plans to make more of her future appearances via video-conferencing.

A grandmother of three, Ravitch is also excited about her youngest grandson enrolling, this September, at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, one of New York’s most coveted neighborhood schools. Some 65 percent of the kids are white; 80 percent meet or exceed state standards in math, English, science, and social studies. The PTA fundraises, via PayPal and employer matching, to support supplemental programs. At P.S. 167 in Crown Heights, less than three miles away, 99 percent of students are black and Hispanic; fewer than half perform at grade-level in math and reading. There is a PTA, but it doesn’t have a PayPal-enabled website.

And that, to Ravitch, is the problem. P.S. 167 needs more funding and support to improve curriculum and instruction—not blame for being in a tough neighborhood, where it must work with disadvantaged kids whose parents are less able to get involved at school. “All children should get the kind of education I want for my own grandchildren,” Ravitch said. “I still think it’s valuable to know grammar and spelling, even in a computer age. I still think that history should be taught chronologically. Children should know two languages, and one of them should be English.”

So while it’s true that Ravitch has changed her mind, she’s also pretty constant on some basic questions. And, like the disillusioned liberal she was during the 1960s, she’s still profoundly pessimistic about the contemporary scene. Just like 40 years ago, Ravitch fears, the small-c conservatives are losing the argument.

“It’s a very bad time,” she says, dramatically. “These are dark days.”


Why won’t Jeb Bush leave Florida’s schools alone

From the Baccuda Post

As we recently reported, email accounts from Gov Scott’s transition office were closed in January and the private company handling those accounts deleted the emails. But a member of Scott’s transition team recently recovered a batch of e-mails that included some sent by former Governor Jeb Bush to Scott. Jeb prefaced these emails to Scott as “Take them for what they are … a desire that you succeed,” while including a long list of lessons learned with suggestions of items Scott should focus on in his agenda. While these e-mails could be interpreted as the sincere desire of one who has been in those same shoes, other aspects should make Floridians sit up, pay attention and scratch under the surface of our politicians’ moves to see what is really going on. If Jeb had simply wished Scott well, told him to take his time making decisions, and find time to enjoy life, it would have been gracious. But Jeb was anything but. Jeb was throwing his considerable weight around, forcibly hinting that Scott pass his policy concerns. Policy concerns that represent Jeb’s future political life. Since it’s sometimes difficult to connect the dots with so much information out there, we will attempt to bring some sense to those gratuitous, arrogant, and, frankly, hypocritical suggestions.

Part 1 – The “Education Savings Accounts” Suggestion

Jeb recommended to Scott that he push ahead with “education savings accounts” or a form of universal private school vouchers. These vouchers would allow kindergarten through high school students to receive an amount they could use to offset private school tuition. While opponents say these vouchers would hurt public education, Jeb and his supporters say that these vouchers give parents choice, improve education and save Florida money by shifting students to private schools.

But which private schools would benefit the most from these vouchers? CHARTER SCHOOLS. The same charter school movement that Jeb himself has been deeply involved in since he helped fund the Liberty City charter school in Miami in 1995. And why is it so important to Jeb? Jeb made “education reform” the hallmark of his two terms as Governor, in spite of his having absolutely no credentials that would qualify him as any kind of an expert in education, and has continued on this mission in the years since. Since Jeb couldn’t transition to the White House directly from the governorship like his brother did, this has become his signature issue to remain relevant in the national landscape for his future presidential run. And fundamentally changing the public school system nationwide, with education improvement coming because of charter school education, would cast Jeb as a “reformer” and would provide the blueprint to cast him as a Reaganesque visionary. Yet Jeb, like Reagan, needs help from others. And over the years, different enablers have stepped up to the plate.


Schools depend on handouts to survive

From the New York Times


EARLIER this month, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that he and five other wealthy individuals had raised $1.5 million to reinstate the January Regents exams, which New York State had canceled because of budget cuts.

Private Donors, Including Mayor, Save January Regents (August 3, 2011) Although praiseworthy as a matter of personal philanthropy, the donation by the mayor and the others, whose names were not disclosed, is highly distressing as a matter of public policy. It is disgraceful that essential components of our public education system now depend on the charitable impulses of wealthy citizens.

At least 23 states have made huge cuts to public education spending this year, and school districts are scrambling to find ways to cope. School foundations, parent-teacher organizations and local education funds supported by business groups and residents contribute at least $4 billion per year to help public schools throughout the country.

In New York City, families and philanthropies are asked to pay for classroom supplies and music and art lessons. In Lakeland, Fla., a church provided $5,000 worth of supplies for an elementary school’s resource room, and paid for math and English tutors. The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted in December to accept corporate sponsorships and to allow the placement of corporate logos on cafeteria walls and in ball fields.

Many schools that have already reduced hours, increased class sizes and eliminated electives are also now charging fees for workbooks, use of lab equipment and other basic instructional materials; extracurricular activities long considered essential are now available only to students who can afford them.

In Medina, Ohio, The Wall Street Journal reported, it now costs $660 for a child to play on a high school sports team, $200 to join the concert choir and $50 to act in the school play. High school students in Overland Park, Kan., pay a $120 “activity programming fee” and a $100 “learning resources fee.” In Naperville, Ill., they are charged textbook and workbook fees, even for basic requirements like English and French, according to The Chicago Tribune.

In some cases, students from impoverished backgrounds are exempted from these payments if the class is required, but must pay for Advanced Placement courses or sports and other extracurricular activities. If they can’t pay, they miss out.

Public education was built on the philosophy articulated by Horace Mann, the Massachusetts reformer who pioneered the Common School: a system “one and the same for both rich and poor” with “all citizens on the same footing of equality before the law of land.” Today, that vision of equality is in jeopardy.

As anti-union sentiment continues to spread, politicians may wrongly assume that education cutbacks mainly affect the salaries and benefits of teachers. In reality, it is the students who pay the dearest price. Some California districts have reduced the number of days in the school year; in Miami, 4,500 students will be deprived of after-school programs this year; Texas has cut pre-kindergarten programs for 100,000 children. The poor are, unsurprisingly, disproportionately affected: Pennsylvania’s education cuts amounted to $581 per student in the poorest 150 school districts, but only $214 per student in the wealthiest 150 districts.

Not every state will have a Bloomberg to step in, not every school has a P.T.A. with the resources to help out, and not every child has a family that can afford fees. Depending on private contributions is inequitable and unconstitutional; public financing should fully support public education.

Most state constitutions, in fact, guarantee all students a sound, basic public education. These constitutional rights cannot be put on hold, even in tough times. It is unconstitutional to call on parents to pay for textbooks and lab fees for required courses. And art, music, sports, basic educational support services and many extracurricular activities that promote learning, creativity and character are not luxuries; they, too, are essential features of a sound, basic education.

California acknowledged as much last December when it settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging illegal school fees. Officials ordered school districts to halt the practice and to refund the fee money they had collected. While schools in California now must eliminate textbook and activity fees, affluent children whose parents can afford to reinstate teaching positions will continue to have more educational opportunities than their poorer counterparts.

A number of judges have begun to respond to the devastation in state education financing: in May, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature to reinstate $500 million in funds for poor urban districts, and last month, a North Carolina judge blocked cuts that would have decimated financing for a statewide preschool program.

The courts are doing their job, but litigation is time-consuming and expensive. Politicians have a constitutional obligation to protect public education. They need to ensure that adequate public funds are available, and the people need to hold them accountable for doing so.

Michael A. Rebell is the executive director and Jessica R. Wolff is the policy director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Is cheating on standardized tests here to stay

From the NPR

by Larry Abramson

Cheating scandals have rocked a number of school districts across the country this year. The publicity is pushing states to look for better ways to detect and prevent tampering with the test results, and some say constant vigilance is required to guard against cheating.

What happened in Atlanta is hard to imagine: Dozens of administrators and teachers apparently conspired to change answers on standardized tests. When those tests showed big gains, school leaders took the credit. But they were caught, in part, because Georgia investigators have been looking for signs of tampering for years.

Kathleen Mathers, who runs Georgia’s Office of Student Achievement, says her state is in its third year of using erasure analysis of all elementary and middle school tests. Mathers says that concerns about testing led the state to ask test designer McGraw Hill to look extra closely at those No. 2 pencil marks.

She says the company’s scanners can differentiate “between an answer choice that is definitely made and intended to be the answer choice, and answer choices that were previously made and then erased.”

Mathers says that analysis cost the state about $27,000 — a small fraction of its testing budget. The data established that in many schools there were just too many switches from wrong to right.

Hard To Detect

That information alone is just the start, says testing forensics expert John Fremer. “The best thing to do is looking for unusual agreement among test takers.”

Fremer runs Caveon Test Security, which has helped Atlanta and Washington, D.C., investigate suspicious incidents. He says if every student is getting the same answer right or the same answer wrong, then something might be going on.

No Child Left Behind required testing to be rolled out at each of the grades between grades three and eight. But with this it meant that we had to distribute the resources for testing across more grades.

– Cary Miron, professor at Western Michigan University
Investigators also look for unusual spikes in test scores, he says. Sometimes there’s a good explanation for that improvement. Fremer says cheating is hard to detect because despite recent scandals, it is still very rare.

“Only 1 or 2 percent, maybe, of educators don’t follow the rules,” he says.

Pennsylvania is currently looking into patterns of unusual erasures or jumps in achievement.

But not every state follows up on that initial erasure analysis as vigorously as Georgia did. That probe involved involved dozens of investigators across state government.

Some say educators tampering with kids’ futures may actually become more common.

The Consequences Of Not Passing

Professor Gary Miron of Western Michigan University says this problem is part of the troubled legacy of No Child Left Behind. The law said test scores would determine the fate of entire schools.

Schools that fail can be shut down, and bad test scores can also jeopardize funding. And now a growing number of states are planning to evaluate teachers based in part on test scores.

Miron says before No Child Left Behind, schools tested less often and more carefully.

“No Child Left Behind required testing to be rolled out at each of the grades between grades three and eight,” he says. “But with this it meant that we had to distribute the resources for testing across more grades.”

Miron says that leaves less money to check for tampering.

But others in the field say scrutiny of test results costs only a fraction of testing budgets and should be considered part of the cost of doing business.

Fremer of Caveon Test Security has built a business on this assumption.

“You’re not going to be able to run a state testing program without doing comprehensive analyses of the results,” he says. “I mean that ship has already sailed.”

Most states have joined in an effort to establish a common national curriculum and, eventually, a common set of tests.

They hope to administer most tests by computer, which could make it tougher to tamper with results or force investigators to develop a new set of tools to find and stop cheating on standardized tests


How much and what type of math do we actualy need?

From the New York Times

Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford

There is widespread alarm in the United States about the state of our math education. The anxiety can be traced to the poor performance of American students on various international tests, and it is now embodied in George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which requires public school students to pass standardized math tests by the year 2014 and punishes their schools or their teachers if they do not.

All this worry, however, is based on the assumption that there is a single established body of mathematical skills that everyone needs to know to be prepared for 21st century careers. This assumption is wrong. The truth is that different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact.

Today, American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, precalculus and calculus (or a “reform” version in which these topics are interwoven). This has been codified by the Common Core State Standards, recently adopted by more than 40 states. This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life.

For instance, how often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or a “complex number”? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.

A math curriculum that focused on real-life problems would still expose students to the abstract tools of mathematics, especially the manipulation of unknown quantities. But there is a world of difference between teaching “pure” math, with no context, and teaching relevant problems that will lead students to appreciate how a mathematical formula models and clarifies real-world situations. The former is how algebra courses currently proceed — introducing the mysterious variable x, which many students struggle to understand. By contrast, a contextual approach, in the style of all working scientists, would introduce formulas using abbreviations for simple quantities — for instance, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc², where E stands for energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light.

Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering. In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages. In the basic engineering course, students would learn the workings of engines, sound waves, TV signals and computers. Science and math were originally discovered together, and they are best learned together now.

Traditionalists will object that the standard curriculum teaches valuable abstract reasoning, even if the specific skills acquired are not immediately useful in later life. A generation ago, traditionalists were also arguing that studying Latin, though it had no practical application, helped students develop unique linguistic skills. We believe that studying applied math, like learning living languages, provides both usable knowledge and abstract skills.

In math, what we need is “quantitative literacy,” the ability to make quantitative connections whenever life requires (as when we are confronted with conflicting medical test results but need to decide whether to undergo a further procedure) and “mathematical modeling,” the ability to move practically between everyday problems and mathematical formulations (as when we decide whether it is better to buy or lease a new car).

Parents, state education boards and colleges have a real choice. The traditional high school math sequence is not the only road to mathematical competence. It is true that our students’ proficiency, measured by traditional standards, has fallen behind that of other countries’ students, but we believe that the best way for the United States to compete globally is to strive for universal quantitative literacy: teaching topics that make sense to all students and can be used by them throughout their lives.

It is through real-life applications that mathematics emerged in the past, has flourished for centuries and connects to our culture now.

Sol Garfunkel is the executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications. David Mumford is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown.


America is number 1, in children living in poverty

Not quite but give us time. -cpg

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

By Larry Cuban

If there is one drumroll that most Americans recognize it is the familiar chord reformers have played for three decades: U.S. students score perform poorly compared to other countries in math, science, and other academic subjects. The familiar thrum drives the foot-tapping rhythm that reformers have used again and again to show that Shanghai, Seoul, Bangalore and Singapore graduates will out-innovate and out-compete U.S. students. So the drumbeat over international rankings drumbeat gets played repeatedly.

Largely ignored by many current reformers, however, is the 2010 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report: The Children Left Behind . Playing off the name of the law that President George W. Bush signed in 2002, the title refers to inequality among children in rich societies. The data in the UNICEF report challenge the assumptions President Bush and bipartisan policy elites believed were unassailable when passing the legislation. That is, public schools can reduce racial and economic inequality by extending opportunity to succeed in schools for those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Immigrant and poor parents believe this in their bones and have acted on it for decades. So have a legion of school reformers.

Yet the report places the U.S. at or near the bottom of the list of 24 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a list composed of the world’s wealthiest nations. The report measures inequality in children’s health, educational achievement, housing and well-being.

The report examines three aspects of inequality: material well-being (household income, access to educational resources, and the amount of space in homes), educational achievement, and health. For each country, researchers asked:”‘how far behind are children being allowed to fall?”

“The question … requires a measure not of overall inequality but of inequality at the bottom end of the distribution. In other words, the metric used is not the distance between the top and the bottom but between the median and the bottom. The median level of child well-being – whether in material goods, educational outcomes, or level of health – represents what is considered normal in a given society and falling behind that median by more than a certain degree carries a risk of social exclusion.”

Thus, the report deals with the gap between the middle and the bottom. Such inequality, when it appears among rich nations, is — to some degree — avoidable, the report says. After all there are nations that rank at the top — meaning they have reduced bottom-end inequality — while other wealthy nations at the very bottom have done little to reduce inequality. Policies, then, do matter.

Surely, the metrics used and the all-important standard of measuring the distance between the middle and the bottom in a rich nation (see p. 32 of report) leave room for debate as all international rankings do.


After the report made headlines across the globe and was mentioned in the U.S. press briefly in December 2010, it dropped from sight. Nary a mention by reform-minded venture capitalists, edu-preneurs, business roundtables, national leaders or other card-carrying members of the policy elite. Sure, I know that the national attention span is in the nano-second range but here are data that show the United States in the basement when it comes to reducing inequality among children in rich countries.

So often in the past, reformers select, polish, and spread evidence that blames public schools, especially, when international tests in science, math, and other subjects put the United States just above Bulgaria.

But when evidence comes to light that some wealthy nations have put policies in place to reduce “bottom end inequality” where children’s health, housing, and other indicators of poverty are concerned and the United States has not, that news hardly raised an eyebrow among determined American school reformers. Why?

With a history of putting onto schools the burden of solving serious national problems — a dysfunctional tic unique to the United States — it comes as no surprise that when TIMMS or PISA scores are released an earthquake of attention rushes through the media and blogosphere with aftershocks occurring for months. Reformers drag U.S. test scores into policy debates over charter schools, parental choice, pay-for-performance plans to show that these solutions are best.

However, when a report such as The Children Left Behind points to national social, economic, and political structures (e.g., federal tax policies, governmental action on poverty, health insurance for the uninsured) that would need to be altered to reduce inequalities, silence spreads among policy elites committed to their school reforms.

Trusting the “invisible hand” to guide market-driven solutions in U.S. schools and classrooms is what current school reformers do when they follow the equation: better teachers + better schools= growing economy and reduced inequality. The Children Left Behind metaphorically raises the middle finger of another hand less trusting of market-driven solutions.


What questions did the Times Union ask Superintendent Pratt-Dannals

The superintendent met with the Times Union’s editorial board and reportedly they talked about a lot of issues.

The Times Union in recent years has been pro status quo and many times has written that Pratt Dannals is the right superintendent to lead us to a brighter education future. Since this is the case I wonder if they asked him tough questions or just lobbed softball after softball in his direction.

If they asked him any questions of substance I hope they asked him this one: How do so many kids arrive to high school without the academic skills (many also arrive without discipline and a work ethic too) they need to be successful.

He answers that one question and we fix that problem then our schools are bound to improve.

If only unions were the problem in education

From Reuters

By Deborah Meier

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers.

As I read Brill’s opening paragraphs I was cheering. Aha, he’s going to apologize for his New Yorker attack on the teacher unions! He’s going to acknowledge the difficulty of finding honest data for his students to use when it comes to education.

I’ve become such a habitual skeptic about virtually all school data for over 30 years. But democracy depends on us trusting some common sources of data. Yet, Brill’s attack on teachers and unions, and his defense of the new “reformers,” rests largely on anecdotes.

Yes, like doctors, lawyers or bankers, teachers need to pool their resources to protect their collective interests as others do as well. The AFT and NEA are their vehicle for doing this. But their collective self-interests often overlap with what’s good for students.

Now, a response to just a few of Brill’s points:

1. Rubber Rooms. I happen to know some terrific teachers and principals who were sent to the Rubber Room. They left 30-40 years of extraordinary work in despair and dishonor. It wasn’t the union that created the Rubber Room—but former schools chancellor Joel Klein. The fact that many never get charged with any crime, much less given the opportunity for a hearing, is not the union’s fault either. Brill might acknowledge that the contract was created by two groups, and that both the original decision to remove the teacher and the subsequent investigation and final appeal are part of management’s responsibility. I don’t blame my lawyer if the prosecutor delays an investigation or hearing.

But should they be “sleeping, playing board games, chatting” for their $85,000 a year? Would Brill have been happier if they were reading Crime and Punishment? One friend of mine tried to get excused from the Rubber Room to volunteer in New Orleans after Katrina. She was not allowed.

2. Charter schools. What about the many charters that have been closed for financial irregularities? What happened to those kids? What about the Stanford University study that showed that only 17% were better than equivalent public schools, and 37% were worse?

3. Verbose contracts. Those long contracts are the result of two sides putting into print all their requirements. Like many of the reform friends I’ve spent 45 years working alongside, I think there are alternatives to these contracts. But only if we’re prepared to build trust. Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Union, negotiated a different kind of contract. Tom Payzant and the Boston Teachers Union have innovative contracts for Pilot Schools in Boston. Steve Phillips managed dozens of public schools for some of the most difficult urban kids in NYC in the ’80s. With support from the Annenberg Foundation, we developed a plan for a system reform offered to New York City in the early 90s—called Networks for School Renewal. It proposed ignoring everything but salary/benefits in the contract for willing schools that served 50,000 kids, in an effort to learn from scratch what is and is not needed. The union was our most devoted supporter but the plan was vetoed by management.

4. What’s “reform”? What Brill calls reform is precisely the kind of schooling I’ve spent a lifetime trying to change; one that resists research and ideology that has long claimed that most low-income kids need constant carrots and sticks, tasks that are broken down into teachable and testable bits, and a testing system that rests on just bubbling in “right” answers. Not the kind of schooling I was raised on, nor that Education Secretary Arne Duncan or President Obama think is good for their own children. The most obvious discovery I made when I began subbing in the early 1960s on Chicago’s southside was that there wasn’t anything “progressive” (ala Sidwell Friends or the Lab School) about the schools the least advantaged attended.

5. Charters. Most charters are far from breaking new territory. Compared to their neighbors they have fewer special education and non-English speakers. They often have more reduced vs. free-lunch kids, and their “turnover” rates of teachers and kids are high. But then NYC’s Klein-era reforms have introduced such cream-skimming into almost all his new small public schools! Fifth grade test-scores are now the SAT of junior and senior high school in NYC. Without a score of “3” or perhaps even “4” your options are few.

6. Seniority/LIFO/tenure. ”Last In First Out” is commonplace in many workplaces—with or without unions. It relates to loyalty and fair play. Firing people unfairly has not “plainly” become unnecessary in today’s modern age. Discrimination is still alive and probably in some form will always be. Where has Brill been living?

7 Poverty. The U.S. has the highest percentage of child poverty of all the industrialized countries and ranks at the bottom in all services for children, including schooling. Say that to yourself over and over.

We who have labored in education before Brill have long been adamant that our schools are not doing the job our society needs. It’s too bad he has little interest in the work the “deniers” have already put in as the original reformers.