Do you know who likes Vouchers? The Catholic church that’s who

From the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet

By Valerie Strauss

Just how involved did the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh get in the effort to promote vouchers? Very.

This is clear in an Oct. 20 letter that Dr. Ronald R. Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development in the diocese, wrote in October to Catholic school principals.

It calls for them to be “relentless” in promoting school choice, in part by telling parents who had received financial aid that they had to call their state legislators and push for school choice legislation to receive more financial aid the next year.

Other diocese officials disavowed the letter a few weeks later, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . Another letter was sent out Nov. 16 saying that Bowes had misstated policy about financial aid.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) set school choice as his top priority; he was the keynote speaker at the American Federation for Children’s national pro-choice conference in Washington, D.C., last May.

Fueled by more than $6 million in voucher PAC contributions, Senate Bill 1 passed the Pennsylvania Senate this year and was sent on to the House.

Because of changing demographics and the proliferation of tuition-free charter schools, Catholic schools have seen their enrollments plummet over the past decade, with many schools closing and more closures expected. As a result, Catholic school officials see vouchers as a potential lifeline.

Bowes was a staunch advocate for school vouchers when he was appointed as assistant superintendent for policy and development in the diocese in 1995. He also serves on the board of directors for the REACH Foundation, a leading advocacy group for school choice in Pennsylvania.

Though school choice has bipartisan support, many Democrats oppose vouchers. The Republican leadership of the Pennsylvania House is trying to craft legislation that can garner enough votes to pass the bill before the end of the year. Next year is an election year, and it is assumed that it will be much harder to pass controversial legislation.

The No Child Left Behind Train Wreck

from the Huffington Post

by Pedro Noguera

The Obama administration’s decision to allow states to request waivers from No Child Left Behind was a step in the right direction, but only a baby step. Four in five schools across the country will be deemed “failing” this coming year if nothing stops the “train wreck” that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will inflict upon the nation’s schools. These include schools in which the vast majority of students are proficient in math and English, as well as schools in which students, teachers, and principals are making real progress in the face of formidable challenges: concentrated poverty, large numbers of students with special-needs, and state budget cuts that have severely reduced the resources needed to address the obstacles to learning.

Duncan’s characterization of NCLB is apt; a recent National Research Council study found that 10 years of test-based accountability “reform” has delivered no significant progress for students. Throughout the country, pressure to improve test scores has led to an increase in intense test preparation. In many cases, this has led to less time for actual learning and reduced the ability of schools to respond to the learning needs of the most disadvantaged students. Instead of focusing on how to deliver high quality instruction schools have become preoccupied with how to produce increases in test scores. Reports of widespread cheating on state exams appearing in city after city are increasingly viewed not as isolated instances of teacher misbehavior, but as a consequence of high-stakes testing.

To avert this “train wreck,” the Education Department is offering waivers to states to avoid forcing a massive number of schools to submit to the NCLB sanctions that kick in when school districts fail to make “adequate yearly progress.” These so-called waivers, however, amount to little more than a temporary reprieve and do not provide the change in direction that is needed. Under the Race to the Top (RTT) formula, the department is demanding that states evaluate teachers based in significant part on student test scores, and in their quest to “turn around” struggling schools RTT requires districts to fire teachers and principals who work in struggling schools. As education policy expert Diane Ravitch recently asserted, this should be seen as a Race to the Bottom for these schools and the low-income students they disproportionately serve. Most districts have no teachers or administrators prepared to take over failing schools, and not a single state has produced a reliable formula for evaluating teachers based on student test scores. In his well-regarded Learning Matters series, PBS education commentator John Merrow describes the rigid demands of RTT, collectively, as “An Act of War” against instilling in children a love of learning.

A growing number of leaders in education are beginning to openly speak out against these policies. Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, Denise Juneau, has rejected both NCLB’s requirements and Education Department waiver demands. There are signs that other states may follow her lead. California’s superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, has demanded an unconditional waiver, citing excessive costs, until Congress and the president determine how to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

It is time for the federal government to go further than to simply allow waivers under the law. Federal education policy should be focused on helping schools improve, not on punishing them. It should support the “whole student” vision of education that Juneau and others have championed, based on standards that go far beyond test scores. Most importantly, during the worst recession to hit this country in the last seventy years, we must acknowledge the need for schools and local government to address the impediments to learning posed by poverty. This does not mean allowing poverty to serve as an excuse for poor academic performance, but it does mean that we must do more to support the schools that serve the most disadvantaged children so that they can focus on authentic evidence of learning and be held accountable for student outcomes.

Ultimately, the federal government must embrace a broader, bolder approach to education that includes high-quality early education to narrow large gaps in school readiness, health and nutrition supports to keep children in class and alert, and enriching afterschool and summer activities to build on school-year gains resulting from the work of those great teachers. Anything less will keep us from achieving the educational progress our society so desperately needs.

Florida Legislators, bully and intimidate to get their way


by the editorial board

A key step in the quest to make the University of South Florida’s Lakeland Polytechnic campus an independent university is for it to achieve accreditation. It now is accredited only because of its tie to USF.

USF had applied for Lakeland to be given separate accreditation as a branch campus, but that effort was suspended when Polytechnic supporters sought to make the 1,300-student school the state’s 12th university.

The Florida Board of Governors recently voted to support independence, but only if Polytechnic met a number of goals, including accreditation.

Winning that designation might be difficult if the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which is responsible for accrediting Southern universities, is serious about upholding its requirements.

A provision in the organization’s “The Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement” mandates that the university leadership be “free from undue influence from political, religious, or other external bodies and protects the institution from such influence.”

Yet were it not for the political pressure of powerful Polk County Sen. JD Alexander, head of the Senate Budget Committee, the Polytechnic scheme would never be given serious thought.

Polytechnic has no buildings and no academic achievement of note. Most of its students are business and education majors. Talk of making it a separate university focused on the applied sciences at this stage is premature by years.

But Alexander has made clear Polytechnic is his pet project, and those who raise objections do so at their peril.

He began demanding independence after USF approved only three of the Lakeland school’s 13 requests for new degrees, though showering degrees on a school with scarcely 1,000 students is hardly a wise use of limited education dollars.

Alexander appeared before the Board of Governors to promote independence. That he controls the higher-education purse strings in the Senate was not lost on them.

Alexander brought along state Sen. Don Gaetz, scheduled to be the next Senate president, for added political ammunition. Gaetz pointedly reminded the governors, “As the incoming president of the Senate, I hear it said every year, from people sitting at this table and from the people you hire to come and talk to me — that the best investment in economic development and the future of Florida is higher education.

“And like Sen. Alexander, I believe that. But if that’s true when you lobby me, then it’s doubly true when the Polytechnic team makes its convincing and compelling case to you.”

This was nonsense, since Polytechnic’s case is based on nothing more than grandiose plans and Alexander’s political influence.

Polytechnic, now associated with a major research university, will lose resources and prestige if it goes it alone.

Students and faculty members oppose separation.

Taxpayers will pay millions more to support an independent university. Polytechnic now shares numerous USF resources, from computer networks to the admissions system. But such responsible objections are crushed by Alexander’s independence juggernaut.

At the governors’ meeting, Michael Long, the student member of the panel, told how during an earlier private session with Alexander, the senator indicated higher education funding would suffer if Polytechnic was not granted independence. Long said Alexander chastised him after the governor’s meeting and told the student he had marred his future career.

Given the political intimidation surrounding the decision, it is no surprise the board approved independence. Yet the governors had the good judgment to impose a number of sensible conditions, including accreditation and meeting ambitious enrollment targets.

But that did not stop Alexander’s political machinations.

A few days later, Alexander attended a meeting between Polytechnic faculty members and USF president Judy Genshaft, who opposes independence at this time. It seemed an attempt at intimidation.

Even so, faculty members later voted their confidence in Genshaft, but voted no confidence in Marshall Goodman, the Polytechnic chancellor who has been Alexander’s lackey in the independence campaign.

And then, though the Board of Governors had voted for USF to oversee Polytechnic’s transition to independence, Alexander contacted University of Florida President Bernie Machen.

Machen said he could step in and have UF oversee Polytechnic’s independence “because I do not endorse the branch-campus model of research universities.”

Alexander’s interference adds further confusion to Florida’s embattled higher education. Let’s not forget that Frank Brogan is chancellor of the university system, not Machen.

To be sure, an element of politics surrounds the founding of any academic institution. But the push for Polytechnic has been solely about power politics, not about meeting Florida’ academic needs, much less spending higher-education dollars wisely.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges should see that Polytechnic is a textbook case of “undue political influence.”

Where is the (education) money from the Florida lottery

From TampaBay.coms Gradebook

by Jeff Solochek

“What has six balls and screws teachers? State lotteries.”

We wish we could take credit for the (unfortunately not-so-funny) joke. The line comes from the Eduwonk blog today, highlighting a news story from Virginia that just as easily could have been written about Florida (as versions have been).

“Anyone who has bought a Virginia lottery ticket has seen it.

“‘Helping Virginia’s Public Schools’ reads the tagline printed on the backs of tickets. The lottery’s website goes a step further, declaring: ‘More than $5 billion contributed to public education!’

“Technically, it’s true. All proceeds from the lottery do go to the state’s public schools. Just not in the way many people think.

“According to educators who have watched the lottery for years, much of the public believes the lottery money is extra funding, on top of what the state is required to give. They remember the lottery being pitched that way, as bonus funding, when Virginians voted on it 24 years ago.

“Instead, educators say, the state is now using all of the lottery money – about $450 million a year – to meet its own obligations to the schools. None of it reaches local coffers as extra funding.”

Can you imagine if the lottery money were indeed supplemental? Maybe stories about another round of looming spending cuts wouldn’t be so prevalent.

We can’t ignore poverty in education

From the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet

By Pedro Noguera

While it might seem encouraging for education and civil rights leaders to assert that poverty isn’t an obstacle to higher student achievement, the evidence does not support such claims. Over 50 years, numerous studies have documented how poverty and related social conditions — such as lack of access to health care, early childhood education and stable housing — affect child development and student achievement.

The research never suggests that poor children are incapable of learning or that poverty itself should be regarded as a learning disability. Rather, research suggests that poor children encounter obstacles that often adversely affect their development and learning outcomes.

To ignore this reality and make bold assertions that all children can achieve while doing nothing to address the outside-of-school challenges they face is neither fair nor a sound basis for developing public policy, as I wrote in a recent issue of the Phi Delta Kappan Magazine.

Despite compelling evidence that education policy must at least mitigate the harmful effects of poverty on student achievement and child development, most state and federal policies have failed to do so. However, there is growing awareness among a number of educators, mayors, and policy advocates of the need to do so based on the realization that a great deal can be done to counter the effects of poverty on children’s lives and their education. Mitigation is not the same as solving a problem, but it’s nonetheless an important strategy.

In Newark, N.J., for example, the Broader, Bolder Approach (BBA) reform plan is developing a comprehensive school reform strategy.

Operating in seven schools in Newark’s Central Ward (six kindergarten through 8th-grade schools and one large comprehensive high school), BBA has introduced school-based interventions that are responsive to the issues and challenges.

BBA is working to:

• Expand learning opportunities by providing quality early childhood education and extending the school day;

• Enrich the curriculum through enhanced literacy development in all content areas and greater emphasis on project-based learning;

• Build critical partnerships that will strengthen the capacity of schools to respond to student needs and enable community interests to come together so parents and their allies can hold schools and their leaders accountable for academic outcomes.

The BBA strategy draws on research that suggests a more comprehensive approach is needed to increase academic outcomes for poor students and to improve schools that serve them. Specifically, the BBA strategy aims at combining research-based education strategies with school-based social services, after-school programs and interventions to increase the capacity of schools to respond to issues that are endemic to the social and environmental context, such as the need for health, nutrition, jobs and safety.

The BBA strategy is based on the theory that improving the schools could spur economic development and improve the quality of life for a greater number of residents. Though this proposition has never been tested at such a large scale before, the theory behind BBA is based on the recognition that education is both a cause of many of the problems that plague the city and a potential solution.

BBA seeks to transform schools by creating a series of strategic partnerships between schools, businesses, universities, hospitals, local government and an array of neighborhood-based service organizations.

The BBA strategy also seeks to change how urban public schools typically serve low-income children of color and their families. In many low-income urban communities, complacency, low expectations, disorder and dysfunction are endemic to the public schools. In such schools, failure has been normalized, and change often seems impossible.

American policy makers and reformers must be willing to accept the obvious: School reform efforts can’t ignore the effects of poverty on children’s lives or on the performance of schools. We need a more holistic strategy, one that enables schools that serve the most disadvantaged children to meet their academic and social needs so that they can overcome a track record of failure.

As promising as it is, the BBA strategy can’t do this by itself. It must be combined with state and federal reforms that promote enriched learning environments, that make it possible to attract and retain excellent teachers, and that create clear criteria for accountability of all stakeholders in the education process — educators, parents and students.

Florida’s epidemic of homeless children makes national news

From the Florida Independent

by Ashley Lopez

60 Minutes aired a program this weekend shedding light on one of the little-discussed and truly heartbreaking aspects of the country’s persistent economic woes: an epidemic of homeless schoolchildren. The subject of the program was Seminole County, Florida — a county with 1,100 homeless students.

Among the most staggering numbers highlighted during the program was “of all the families without shelter in America, one third are in Florida.”

The state’s foreclosure crisis, coupled with high unemployment and austere budget cuts, has resulted in countless homeless families in Florida living out of their cars — if they have them, 60 Minutes explains. Many families with small children are left hoping for a job or charity before food runs out. Caught in the crosshairs of this epidemic, the program shows, have been young schoolchildren.

According to this year’s KIDS COUNT data, Florida was “the state with the 2nd highest percent of children impacted by foreclosure since 2007.”

The deeply moving account of a handful of young children had a persistent theme: Most homeless families in the state had run out of options. Many saw their unemployment benefits dry up, and public services were too scarce and maxed out to provide any help.

Most of the families interviewed by 60 Minutes said they were relying solely on the generosity of donations from their community.

What was not mentioned, however, was the state’s missed opportunities to help.

One example was a line in the the state’s 2011/2012 budget that allocated $12 million dollars from the state’s general revenue fund to the National Veterans’ Homeless Support Group for “homeless housing assistance grants.” While this appropriation made it through the budget process, the item was one of the many vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott spoke about the funds this weekend, the Naples Daily News reports:

“I care completely about all these programs,” said Scott, whose budget cuts earlier this year slashed funding to some veteran and farm surplus programs that helped the homeless.

“All the programs are very important, but nobody wants their taxes to go up,” Scott explained, noting that businesses also can help spur the economy. “They’ve got to grow. We’ve got to make this a place people can do well.”

The state also reduced unemployment benefits, even though the state has yet to get a handle on its unemployment rate. A bill signed by Scott this year reduced the maximum number of weeks someone can receive state unemployment benefits. The limit went from 26 weeks to 23 — and if the state’s unemployment rate continues to fall, benefits could be limited to as little as 12 weeks.

There are currently no assurances that legislators in the state are looking to beef up public assistance programs either. Already, there are warnings of deeper budget cuts as the state prepares for a $2 billion shortfall.

Education Matters gets a Grumpy

It can be a bit lonely at times talking and writing about education. People say they care but their actions show it is often way down on thier list. That’s why when somebody who is passionate about education notices you it makes it all that more special.

Sandra Brevard who runs the excellent Grumpy Educators blog, recognized Education Matters in her piece about Florida education blogs and wrote:

The Golden Grumpy Educator Award
Huge thanks to Education Matters for the most referrals of all time that led readers to Grumpy Educators and for the comprehensive reporting on all things education, and provides focus on North Florida. Education Matters is a very important resource for all Floridians.

I am just trying to get the word out, when I started writing about education issues in the summer of 07 I thought to myself, self if people only knew they would care. It has been slow going but hopefully I have helped move education up a few notches of a some people’s lists.

Thanks Grumpy Educators, I accept the Golden Grumpy with pride.

Chris Guerrieri

To see all her awards click on the title of this blog

John Thrasher is no friend of Florida

I have long thought John Thrasher was no friend of education but it turns out he has been no friend of Florida either. His friends you ask, my guess is anybody who can add to his bank account.

Here are some of his headlines in the Times Union over the last year

11/25/11, Thrasher pushes bill to benefit Jacksonville company, client of his former lobbying firm (at the very least the appearance of inpropriety)

11/9/11, John Thrasher backs away from secret agreement with indicted former GOP state leader (secret agreements??)

6/19/11, John Thrasher’s residence in district, but real home might not be (He doesn’t live in the district he represents)

6/27/11, Thrasher’s charter school expansion bill becomes law (charter schools do worse than regular schools but they also give campaign donations to politicians)

5/3/11, Thrasher uses 9/11 to defend immigration amendment (using 911 to fan flames)

4/15/11, John Thrasher alters controversial union dues bill (a bill just designed to hurt unions)

3/22/11, Politifact gives John Thrasher a ‘barely true’ on union dues argument (isn’t barely true mostly false)

3/11/11, John Thrasher, Patrick Rooney withdraw golf course legislation (golf courses on public parks??)

2/24/11, Thrasher’s action on education bill angers opponents (he cuts off debates before supporters of education had a chance to speak)

2/10/11, John Thrasher has heated exchange during prison hearing (privatizing prisons was his objective)

12/3/10, Times/Herald: Thrasher downplaying subpoena to top GOP officials (he just wants the whole thing to go away)

4/19/10, John Thrasher wields much power for freshman Florida state senator (why??)

Is Middle School Florida’s Achilles Heel

From’s Gradebook

by Ron Mattus

Florida students entering middle schools in grades six or seven experience big drops in academic performance relative to K-8 students, and the decline continues through the middle school grades, concludes a new study by Harvard researchers. Written up in the latest Education Week, the study suggests revamping middle school grade configurations should be a higher priority for education reformers.

“The economic importance of these effects is evident from the fact that they are comparable to or exceed the magnitude of other educational interventions that have been studied in the literature,” says the study, published in September as a working paper by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. “Taken as a whole,” it also says, “these results suggest that structural school transitions lower student achievement but that middle schools in particular have adverse consequences for American students.”

The researchers said they found little evidence the decline in performance was tied to funding levels, class size, school size or “educational practices.” But they pointed to surveys of middle school principals which suggested the “overall climate for student learning is worse in middle schools.”

“This suggests a final potential interpretation of our results that is directly related to the choice of grade configuration,” they continued. “Students may benefit from being among the oldest students in a school setting that includes very young students, perhaps because they have greater opportunity to take on leadership roles. This interpretation could account both for the gains in relative achievement made by K-5 and K-6 students prior to entering middle schools and for the superior performance of K-8 students relative to their middle school peers.”

Pinellas recently decided to again put more focus on middle schools. But the Harvard study warns that reform efforts might not bear fruit if they don’t address structural issues.

“More research is needed to explain the negative effects of middle schools,” it says. “In the meantime, however, the lack of a definitive explanation should make policymakers cautious about their ability to take steps to mitigate these effects while maintaining existing grade configurations.”

Education reforms are rarely data driven

From the Art of Teaching Science

by Jack Hassard

The No Child Left Behind Act + the Race to the Top Fund = More of the Same

In an newsletter there was a No Child Left Behind Alert that I found interesting, and provided the starting point for this post. The forum discussion (a question is posed, and you can submit a response joining you to the discussion) for the day was: What’s the most important thing President Obama could do improve standardized testing? Many assumptions form the basis for this question, but my immediate response is that the President should suspend any further use of standardized tests until there is evidence that high-stakes testing provides a real measure of student learning and school accountability. Of course, the suspension of high-stakes testing did not happen.

I read many of the replies to the question, and there were thoughtful comments about the misuse of testing, and the call for alternatives. One responder did agree with me, and recommended that the President put an end of these high stakes testing.

You might ask, isn’t this a little far fetched. Schooling as we know would collapse. How would we know if students really did learn the fundamental concepts of science or mathematics, or any other subject in the curriculum? Most teachers know the answer to this question. But I won’t deal with that here.

What did happen was that the Department of Education earmarked nearly $4 billion dollars for a program, The Race to the Top Fund. Eleven States and the District of Columbia were funded after submitting competitive proposals in rounds 1 and 2 last year. The funds will be used to:

Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
Turning around our lowest-achieving schools. So, in this initiative a little more than a 1/5 of the United States will be involved in the Race to the Top. That said, there is an overlap of goals between the NCLB Act and the RTTP Fund, and that means “more of the same.”

Two Federal Mandates

You might ask, wasn’t there evidence from research to make policy decisions such as the wide-spread use of high stakes testing, the implementation of charter schools, the use of vouchers, and other key educational decisions. Did the NCLB Act and TRTT Fund go forward with clear evidence that their initiatives would be effective.

According to an article by Eric Schaps, (Missing in Action: The Non-Role of Research in Policy and Practice) published in Education Week Research Center, research has not been used to make important policy decisions. In each of these cases, policy makers did not use research to support their decisions.

For example, most schools use high-stakes, test-based accountability systems. According to Schaps, high stakes testing began in Texas and Kentucky and “morphed into” the No Child Left Behind Act after George Bush became President. NCLB now dominates the educational landscape of every state, yet, it was largely a politically driven (supported by both sides of the isle, however) policy decision without evidence on which to base this crucial decision which now is the law of the land. NCLB is up for reauthorization in the Congress. Most likely it will be reauthorized with some tweaks put forth by the new Congress. And this is unfortunate. What is needed a paradigm shift.

In the case of the Race to the Top, the Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA) of the National Research Council, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education in which it was stated:

The report strongly supports rigorous evaluations of programs funded by the Race to the Top initiative. The initiative should support research based on data that links student test scores with their teachers, but should not prematurely promote the use of value-added approaches, which evaluate teachers based on gains in their students’ performance, to reward or punish teachers. The report also cautions against using the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal assessment that helps measure overall U.S. progress in education, to evaluate programs funded by the Race to the Top initiative. (Emphasis mine)

The letter did not effect the RTTP program, and indeed, the criteria used to evaluate state proposals made it clear that student test scores should be used as a means to evaluate teachers and schools.

The Race to the Top Fund reinforces the NCLB Act, which also insists on high-stakes tests. It is true, that the Department of Education is issuing “waivers” to states to modify the rules of NCLB. But there is little change to the unfortunate continuation of the NCLB Act.

Paradigms For Change?

Will we see a change in educational reform? Will the momentum of the high-stakes, common core standards dominate education for the foreseeable future? Could a paradigm shift emerge from the discontent that is beginning to make itself known?

The kind of change that many argue is needed is one that is grounded in local initiatives, and educational research. This would result in the experimentation of many approaches to school improvement, especially if relationships between universities and schools are encouraged, and the means for future sustainability achieved. Oddly, in our democratic society, just the opposite is happening in the sense that there is this drive for a single set of standards in each subject area, and for national assessments of student achievement.

Could a paradigm shift happen?

It is possible, but leaders would have to emerge to lead the way with examples that work in practice.

One example in science teaching is to move from a teacher centered approach to teaching to a student-centered approach. This paradigm has been with us for many years, first put forth by John Dewey, and later supported by the Progressive Education Movement. Glen Aikenhead describes this paradigm when he calls for a science education that is evidence-based, and is a science education for everyday life. In his book, Science Education for Everyday Life, Aikenhead gives a clear overview of the humanistic science paradigm that differs from the paradigm that characterizes school science today.

The humanistic science paradigm gives priority to student-oriented point of view aimed at citizens who can employ science and technology in their everyday lives. What is powerful about Aikenhead’s proposal is that it is evidence-based. That is, the various components of this paradigm, the nature of the curriculum, the content of science, teacher pedagogy are based on research studies conducted by researchers around the world. This clear connection of research to policy change has been missing, not only at the state level, but especially at the federal level, and in particular the NCLB Act and the RTTP Fund.

What are your thoughts on trying to instill new thinking, a paradigm shift in science teaching?