Aug 29, 2011

Students Need Us To Work Together [Or, We're The Pot, AFT Is The Kettle]

We should be working together, not attacking each other.

Earlier today, the AFT issued a press release five days after the anonymous attack website Rheefirst - which has been passing itself off as a grassroots voice in opposition to reform - was exposed as being started and run by the teachers' union. In the release, they condoned the site saying it was not "a big deal."

In our view, it's disappointing the AFT would in one breath call for greater civility and in the very next breath condone a website that launches anonymous personal attacks as not 'a big deal' after its true authorship has been exposed. If it wasn't a big deal why not release the site under their name to begin with? Why did the AFT try to hide their connection to the site by laundering it trough multiple IP addresses?

But more importantly, we think our kids deserve better than the brand of poisonous discourse and negative attacks that the AFT thinks aren't a 'big deal,' but which unfortunately are typical of old Washington special interest politics. We hope that the AFT will join us in shifting the tone of the debate, as well as the substance, so that it no longer focuses on what's best for the adults in the system, but instead what's best for the students in our classrooms.

Teacher-union advocates and student advocates should be working together to improve our schools, not attacking each other.

Aug 22, 2011

School Spending And Student Learning [Or, Money Is More Important Than Children, And You Can Pay Us To Say Anything]

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through ideas and action. He is the author of the CAP study "Return on Educational Investment: A district-by-district evaluation of U.S. educational productivity." In this blog, Mr. Boser answers questions from StudentsFirst about the study.

SF: Why did the Center for American Progress decide to commission this study?

Mr. Boser: We hoped to kick-start a national conversation about educational productivity. Second, we wanted to identify districts that generate higher-than-average achievement per dollar spent, demonstrate how productivity varies widely within states, and encourage efforts to study highly productive districts. Third, and most important, we wanted to encourage states and districts to embrace approaches that make it easier to create and sustain educational efficiencies.

SF: You analyzed spending and student achievement data from more than 9,000 school districts in this study. How did you use that data to determine a district's "educational productivity?"

Mr. Boser: In the business world, productivity is a measure of benefit received relative to spending. This project adopts that concept to measure public school districts' academic achievement relative to their educational spending, while controlling for cost of living, student poverty, the percentage of students in special education, and the percentage of English-language learners.

SF: According to the study, to what extent are school districts focused on improving educational productivity? What tools do districts need to improve productivity?

Mr. Boser: While some forward-thinking education leaders have taken steps to promote better educational efficiency, most states and districts have not done nearly enough to measure or produce the productivity gains our education system so desperately needs. Some fear that a focus on efficiency might inspire policymakers to reduce already limited education budgets and further increase the inequitable distribution of school dollars. We understand that, but in education, spending does not always equal success. Countless studies have shown that how a school system spends its dollars can be just as important as how much it spends. But our country's education system lacks the proper incentives, support, and accountability structures to ensure that resources deliver the most efficient results. This section explains how we arrived at this point and what we must do to reform. We also detail our methods of evaluating educational productivity.

SF: Many scholars have noted that schools serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds receive less funding than schools in wealthier districts. In your opinion, what impact would more equal funding have on student achievement?

Mr. Boser: More equal funding would do a lot to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education. Our nation's system of financing schools is unfair. Low-income and minority students are far more likely to attend schools that don't receive their fair share of federal, state, and local dollars. But while the issue of fairness must be central to any conversation about education finance, efficiency should not be sacrificed on the altar of equity. Our nation must aspire to have a school system that’s both fair and productive.

SF: You conclude in the study that "low productivity is costing the nation's school system as much as $175 billion a year." How is that possible?

Mr. Boser: After adjusting for variables outside a district’s control, we looked at districts with below-average productivity, and it turned out that they spent over $950 more per student than did above-average districts. This estimated loss in capacity equals about 1 percent of the nation's GDP, or $175 billion. To be sure, inefficient districts are not necessarily "wasting" the lost capacity. Our approach cannot account for all the factors outside of a district’s control, and the extra money spent by some districts might be supporting outcomes beyond the scope of this study. But our estimate might also be low since it does not cover the cost of poorly prepared students entering college and the workforce. Far more research needs to be done in this area in order to better understand the scope of the productivity problem.

SF: What are some of the ways that model school districts have dramatically increased productivity?

Mr. Boser: Highly productive districts reported a laser-like focus on student performance. "The biggest driving force [here] is first and foremost the question: 'How will this enhance learning?'" said Michele Campbell, superintendent of Pennsylvania's Fort LeBoeuf School District. "Expenditures need to fit into our vision and overarching educational objectives." The districts used a variety of ways to increase student achievement. Some emphasized low-cost strategies, such as requiring principals to visit every classroom each week to give feedback on instruction. Some tried to create a more collaborative teaching culture. Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools in Iowa has been building "learning communities" of teachers to ensure student learning is taking place and help educators develop their curricula.

SF: How can individuals reading this blog find out more about the productivity of their own school district?

Mr. Boser: Accompanying this report is an interactive website, Educational Productivity, that allows anyone to compare the relative productivity of thousands of school districts and find out more about their spending and achievement. Because we cannot control for everything outside a district's control when calculating its productivity evaluation, the site makes it easy to compare similar districts based on their demographics and enrollment. It also allows users to see how districts fare under different approaches to measuring productivity.

Aug 17, 2011

The Achievement Gap Is Not "Nonsense" [And She Didn't Say It Was]

An education blogger recently posted audio of teacher-advocate Diane Ravitch at the "Save our Schools" conference in Washington late last month in which she makes the following statement about the black-white achievement gap:
Since the first NAEP test in the early 1970s, the black-white achievement gap has been cut in half. So when they tell you our schools are declining, tell them nonsense, you don’t know what you're talking about.
Please see below for the reaction of George Parker, former President of the Washington Teachers Union and Senior Fellow at StudentsFirst:

I have always viewed Diane Ravitch as a knowledgeable advocate. However, I was extremely disappointed when Ms. Ravitch recently dismissed as "nonsense" claims that the persistent and stubborn black-white achievement gap is a sign that our nation's schools are in decline and represents a systematic failure of how we approach education.

As a math teacher for over a quarter of a century in the DC Public Schools and former President of the Washington Teachers Union, I have felt the existence of the achievement gap first-hand and seen its devastating consequences play out in our communities year after year. I strongly disagree with Ms. Ravitch’s "nonsense" assessment. It is not "nonsense" to believe the persistent and stubborn achievement gap that stigmatizes African-American children as "less academically prepared" is a glaring sign of systematic problems with our nation's education system. Nor is it "nonsense" to think that there is a fundamental problem in how we approach education that calls for sweeping change when only 9% of black, male eight-graders read at grade level.

Indeed, 20-plus point gaps in reading and math scores across age groups and proficiency gaps that have grown over the last 15 years are not just signs of deep-seated problems but should add a sense of urgency for much-needed systematic change. This ongoing achievement disparity clearly demonstrates that our schools are not successfully serving the educational needs of all our kids. The futures of poor, minority children are significantly dimmed as a result of our continued failure to address the achievement gap with the urgency it deserves.

I believe Ms. Ravitch's statement is a disservice to the parents, teachers, and many schools districts around the country that are struggling to meet the diverse needs of their students. As a life-long educator, it is insulting to have the very real student achievement gap dismissed and minimized in this way. But an even greater tragedy would be for us to continue with the status quo that got us here in the first place and fail to make the sweeping reform necessary to ensure our nation's schools work for every child.

Aug 12, 2011

How 'Bout That [Or, I will Blame A "Paid Operative" For Rhee's Terrible Judgement. Ironic?]

We've received a few inquiries from our members about a story that ran yesterday in the Huffington Post about Michelle's participation in the Willow Creek conference today.

It's a surprising story for a number of reasons. Here are the facts. The Willow Creek conference is a gathering of members of the faith community who are committed to advancing social change. So uncontroversial is this gathering that previous speakers have included President Bill Clinton and the singer, Bono. So, unremarkable is this group that Pastor Hybel, who helps to organize the conference was invited by the White House to introduce President Obama just last summer.

So, it was surprising when Michelle was attacked for "legitimizing" anti-gay positions through her participation in this conference. Indeed, The pro-gay-rights group Soulforce has worked with and praised the conference for its outreach efforts. At the same time anti-gay bigots have attacked the conference for the same outreach.

The man attacking her was Asher Huey who initiated a petition drive on the issue. Interestingly, no one ever contacted us to ask that Michelle not participate in the conference. Indeed, the first we had heard anyone had any concerns about this conference was when the Huffington Post contacted us for the story. That's right - Instead of asking us to withdraw as he ostensibly wanted, Mr. Huey went straight to the Huffington Post. Notably, others with the same exact relationship to the conference, such as President Clinton, were not attacked by Mr. Huey.

So, Michelle is attacked for her participation in a conference so uncontroversial, that not one, but two, Presidents of the United States have worked with it. She's attacked for legitimizing anti-gay positions, despite pro-gay rights groups supporting the conference for its outreach efforts. Michelle is singled out for attack, while others with the same exact relationship she has to the conference are not. She's attacked for not withdrawing from the conference, despite not being asked to withdraw. Doesn't make sense, does it?

It doesn't make sense that is until you learn that Mr. Huey is a Washington political operative who is paid by the AFT. Huey's employer, the DC-based consulting firm New Partners, has a long-standing relationship with the AFT. In fact, Mr. Huey has personally attacked Michelle on dozens of occasions on his public twitter feed.

How 'bout that? Make more sense now?

StudentsFirst believes that opportunity to the highest quality education is an issue of basic civil rights. We do not support the abridgment of civil rights, and indeed are working to guarantee them to children around the country. These kinds of distractions don't serve the advancement of those rights for anyone.

Aug 10, 2011

A Partnership That Puts Kids First In New Jersey [Or, More Bullshit About LIFO Cuz We Got Nuthin]


We are thrilled to tell you about a new partnership we just formed with New Jersey-based Better Education for Kids, Inc. (B4K) to work on education reform in the Garden State.
B4K, based in New Brunswick, has a strong foothold in New Jersey, which will compliment the experience StudentsFirst has working on improving our schools nationally. Together, we plan to advocate for policies that put children first and improve student learning.
The alliance is a great example of how education reform groups are working together to advance our common goal of ensuring all kids have access to excellent schools . It's not about who makes headlines, or who gets credit. This movement is about ensuring America's children get the best education possible. Right now, our achievement gaps are too big, and our kids are lagging _ particularly in math _ behind their international peers. We can, and must, do better.
The partnership in New Jersey will focus on securing comprehensive reforms aimed at making sure all kids have great teachers and ensuring families are empowered with information and educational choices.
We also will work to elevate the teaching profession by getting rid of antiquated policies, such as last in, first out teacher layoffs, which ignore job performance while allowing seniority to dictate who stays in our schools and who goes. A recent survey found that there was widespread support in New Jersey for doing away with LIFO.
We also are advocating for better teacher evaluations that will provide educators with the feedback and professional development they want and kids need them to receive.
By working together, with your help, in the interest of children, this new alliance will surely be able to follow the lead of states like Florida, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee, which enacted comprehensive education reforms in recent months. We couldn't do this work without your support. Thanks for your efforts. We look forward to working with you in New Jersey.

Aug 9, 2011

States Enacting Comprehensive Ed Reform [Or, Don't Concentrate On Efficacy, Concentrate On Numbers!]


Hari Sevugan is Vice President of Communications for StudentsFirst. Previously, Hari was the National Press Secretary for the Democratic Party. He also served as Senior Spokesman for the Obama-Biden 2008 campaign. Before entering politics, Hari was a teacher in Washington Heights, New York. He is a Chicago native and graduate of Northwestern University Law School and the University of Illinois.
Congress has been slow to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law so that it works better for educators, students and parents. But state legislatures are stepping in to enact important education reforms across the country.
So far the trend hasn't received much national attention, but this US News article spotlights the reforms taking hold.
The new laws enacted in several states call for improving teacher evaluations and ridding our schools of last-in, first-out (LIFO) seniority rules, which dictate that time served should trump job performance when budget cuts require teacher layoffs.
Layoffs are terrible, but doing them through LIFO is even worse. No in-school factor is as critical to student achievement as the work of a teacher in the classroom. We have to retain our best educators if we truly want to improve our schools. With your energy we've helped change the laws in a number of states so we make decisions based on performance on the job rather than solely years in the job.
What's striking is the sweep of the change you have helped bring about. Often change is greeted with protests by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But as we work across the country, having conversations with our neighbors over the backyard fence and with our family across the kitchen table, or with our fellow parishioners across a church pew and fellow parents at the PTA snack table, we are seeing a change in our expectations. As the US News piece points out:
"With a sudden and striking momentum that nearly defies explanation, states are redefining their expectations for teachers. Ohio, Illinois, Nevada, Utah, Florida, Indiana, Idaho, Arkansas, and Michigan are on that list. Last year Colorado weighed in with dramatic reforms, and parallel reforms are expected soon in New Jersey and Texas. D.C. no longer stands alone. The reforms vary by state, but the common themes are clear. Teachers are expected to prove they are effective before being awarded the job protections of tenure. They are expected to undergo serious job evaluations that include both classroom observations and student test scores. When kicked out of one school for being ineffective, they don't necessarily have a guaranteed job in another school. And in a few cases, they are no longer rewarded financially for mere longevity and university degrees that have no connection to improving teaching skills."
Have no doubt, there will still be many who oppose change - they are too vested in maintaining the status quo not to be - and it will not be easy, but change is coming. As the breadth of the reform efforts we've already been engaged in show, we've tapped into something real, undeniable, and, with your continued help, unstoppable.

Aug 1, 2011

Settling Our Issues: Conversation, Not Litigation [Or, Please Don't Sue Us Anymore]

James D. Merriman is Chief Executive Officer of the New York City Charter School Center, and is one of New York's leading experts in charter school law, authorizing, and operations. Before joining the NYC Charter School Center in 2007, he worked at the Walton Family Foundation where he helped develop and implement the foundation's grant making in the charter school sector. James came to Walton after serving as executive director of the Charter Schools Institute at the State University of New York (SUNY), an authorizer of charter schools in New York State. In this role, he helped create a structure in which a high quality charter school sector could flourish.

New York State court recently handed down an important victory to families seeking better public schools and to Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to infuse the system with higher quality options. The lawsuit in question, brought by the local teachers union (UFT) and the New York state chapter of the NAACP, sought to block the city from, among other things, co-locating 15 public charter schools with district schools in public school buildings. The groups argued that the city's space sharing arrangements for district and charter schools (gyms, cafeterias, etc.) disproportionately favored the charters and created a separate and unequal situation. This characterization was inaccurate and caused great uncertainty for the 7,000 families whose children were supposed to attend these schools in the fall.

In his ruling, the judge stated that the UFT and NAACP could not show that they were likely to prevail. It's a precedent-setting ruling given that, until charters receive funding for facilities like all other public schools do, they'll continue to need access to public space in which to open, expand and serve their students. This ruling makes that a little easier.

The question is where do we go from here? School leaders and teachers are focusing on opening their doors in a month's time. But the UFT and NAACP have vowed to continue their court battle.

This entire case was built on the premise that reasonable adults within schools can't resolve space-sharing issues themselves. We don’t believe that premise.

Over the course of this case, charter and district leaders from affected schools have been coming together to find thoughtful, commonsense solutions to dividing up space. Indeed, by the time the case came up, the space-sharing arrangements under consideration by the judge had already changed on the ground. Meanwhile, conversations were taking place about how to improve the whole process moving forward. Bill de Blasio, for example, the public advocate and a possible 2013 mayoral candidate, went so far as to release a set of recommendations for future co-locations. While we don't agree with all of his ideas, his acknowledgement that charters schools have a right to public space and his attempts to push for solutions instead of lawsuits is very encouraging.

It is disappointing to see the fights over space detract from the real issue at hand -- improving public schools for all children. Sadly, these disputes don't appear to be over. Just days after the ruling, opponents filed yet another lawsuit challenging co-location. This will mean more time and attention given to lawyers. We'll continue to fight in the courts, but we know teachers and leaders in great charter and great district schools will continue to work together to put students needs ahead of any others.

The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.