Jun 30, 2011

In Ed Reform, Exchange Of Ideas Threatened (By Reality)

Wisconsin-based writer Carolyn Bucior has written on substitute teaching for the New York Times. Her new education memoir, "Sub Culture: Three Years in Education’s Dustiest Corner" spotlights substitute teaching and teacher absenteeism.

I was still in my pajamas this morning when I was publicly called an IDIOT! (caps not mine) online. Why? Because I stated in a letter to the editor of the Providence Journal that the 20 sick days being taken by the city's public school teachers were at the expense of student achievement. The article on which I was commenting stated the following: 37 percent of teachers missed 19 or more school days last school year; the absences disproportionately affected minority students and the poorest students; the absences were costing the city millions of dollars and significantly lowering test scores.

But by online critic's reasoning, Providence students' shortcomings are the result of living in one-parent households and speaking "a language other than English." And that Carolyn Bucior is an IDIOT!

By the time I poured my second cup of coffee, another critic suggested I was angry because a teacher reprimanded my child and I therefore had a "big log" on my shoulder.

What's happened to civility?

Last time I published an op-ed piece critical of teacher absenteeism, 18 months ago in a Sunday New York Times, online comments weren't allowed. Still, about 40 readers googled me, found me at my university office, and told me what they thought. The vast majority were supportive, or made a good point for the opposition. But the earliest bird was the angriest bird, and wrote, "I can't tell you how disturbing I found your letter," then he told me how disturbing he found my letter. (In short, it read: I'm a substitute teacher at a private New York City school; all the teachers I know work hard; all the subs have master's degrees in education; this must be true nationwide; in other words you're an IDIOT!) Meanwhile, over in the New York City public schools, 20 percent of teachers were missing more than the two weeks allowed them, with the highest absenteeism rates in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

What happened to dealing in facts and listening to other people’s experiences?
Angry letters or online comments are intimidating. They are meant to be. When I read these two comments this morning, I left my home office shaken and found refuge in methodically folding laundry, momentarily deciding not to speak out again.

These days, education debates can become intense and personal. One starting point for handling a heated debate, whether personal or professional, is for both parties to listen to each other, then gingerly sort fact from fiction. Thoughtless, angry reactions never move conversations along. But moving the conversation along, and learning from them, is essential if we want to improve education in this country. So let's talk, let's listen, and let's be civil. If we do that, maybe it will help our kids in more ways than one.

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.

Jun 29, 2011

Public Charter School Head Reflects On Georgia Court Ruling (Or, How Will I Fuck With Education Now?!)

Dr. Monica Henson is executive director of Provost Academy Georgia, the state's first virtual charter school serving high school students exclusively. A graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Building Excellent Schools fellowship for charter school leaders as well as a past National Board Certified Teacher, she has also served as an institute director for The New Teacher Project. Dr. Henson has worked in both district and charter schools for more than 20 years.

The recent Georgia Supreme Court decision rendering the Charter Schools Commission unconstitutional has wrought a devastating blow to education reform in the Peach State. The state commission had been authorized to approve and direct funding to public charter schools, but the ruling will allow only local boards of education to do that.

The decision essentially returns our state to the situation where local schools boards hold all the financial cards and control over public education, removing the opportunities for families to have choices and options for their children's public schools (except those choices provided by the districts).

Prior to the legislation that created the Charter Schools Commission, and gave it the authority to direct equitable funding to the schools it authorized, charter school applicants were at the mercy of local school districts to secure local funding to operate. If a local school board denied a charter petition, the only avenue available was to apply for a state charter and lose the opportunity for the critical local funding. The Supreme Court decision has returned us to that situation. State chartered schools now can only get state funding. We have gone from receiving approximately $5,200 per pupil to about $2,300.

My school, Provost Academy Georgia, will be the state's first virtual charter high school, serving students in grades 9-12 exclusively. PAGA was approved by the Commission to open this August and has already enrolled 400 students across the state. Virtual charter schools were slated to receive a reduced amount of funding already, compared to brick-and-mortar charter schools (which receive less funding than their traditional district counterparts), but the local share equivalent per pupil was an important component of our budget. The local dollars amounted to about a 40 percent increase in funding above the basic state per-pupil allocation. For every student who enrolls in our school, we would have received dollars equal to what the local school district would have added to its expenditure on each student.

What impact does the ruling directly have on Provost Academy Georgia? Our Commission charter, and the local funding share, has been voided by the Supreme Court ruling, so we have applied directly to the State Board of Education for a state special charter. But our programs will have to be reduced, severely in some areas. A hallmark of our program, which already operates in South Carolina and Colorado, is to provide economically disadvantaged students with laptops and subsidies to pay for Internet service so they can participate in our engaging online curriculum. It is far more difficult to afford this program after losing nearly half our funding. Another aspect that sets PAGA apart from traditional district brick-and-mortar schools and other online schools is that we provide every student with an advisor who stays with the student from enrollment through graduation, ensuring a strong link to a caring adult whose job is to support students and make sure they graduate on time. Along with student-teacher ratios, we will now have to increase our student-advisor ratios.

This financial struggle has been imposed on us just as we embarked on a dialogue with the Georgia Department of Education, the Charter Schools Commission, and the Governor's Office, along with agencies such as Communities in Schools of Georgia, on how virtual high schools can help attack the dropout problem in our state. Online learning has tremendous potential to engage students at risk. Traditional district schools lose thousands of young people to the streets, onto the public assistance rolls, and into jails and prisons. Despite that, defenders of the status quo are doing everything they can to prevent schools like mine from offering another choice to students.

Misinformation is being spread by those intent on stifling the truth about charter schools, which are public but operate with more flexibility than traditional district schools and often serve as models of innovation.

For example, the Georgia School Superintendents Association sent an email message to the superintendents of the districts where Provost Academy applied, as the initial part of our state special charter application process, warning them not to put our request on their board of education meeting agendas. I know this is true because one of the local superintendents showed me the email message when I arrived at his BOE meeting, which had been changed without public notice the date I was scheduled to speak. At another local BOE meeting, the members of the board of education had not been notified by the superintendent of Provost Academy's application. When one board member asked if the request could be put on the agenda, the superintendent answered no, stating that agenda items could only be added with the approval of the BOE attorney. This is not true.

Other Georgia charter school applicants are facing similar roadblocks. In Cherokee County, an attorney requested documents including emails and other communications sent between May 16, 2011 and June 20 that pertain to the proposed Cherokee Charter Academy school. The state Open Records Act requires that local governments respond to requests within three days and allows governments to recover costs for employee time and copying. The district responded that it would need $324,608 in advance to begin work, and it would take 463 days to satisfy the request. In effect, the district said it would take 6,185 hours to recover the information. That would be the equivalent of seven employees working 110 eight-hour days each.

Teachers in traditional district schools are being told that their jobs may be eliminated if public charter schools continue to be authorized. In Cherokee County, frightened district employees, including many teachers, were given black shirts to wear and told to attend the board of education meetings to protest loudly against the proposed charter school. Incidentally, the BOE had initially denied Cherokee Charter Academy on the grounds the superintendent's recommendation, noting that there was no interest among families in a charter school. Once CCA was approved by the Charter Schools Commission, over 2,000 families applied for the 995 seats available in the lottery.

The absurdity of the behavior of these foot-soldiers in the defense of status quo is exceeded only by the desire of Georgia families to gain access to better options for their children's public education. Thankfully, our elected officials are dedicated to tearing down the walls erected by the GSSA and the Georgia Schools Boards Associations, among other groups committed to preserving the monopoly held by local boards of education, no matter how poorly some district schools serve their children.

The state legislature, the Governor, and the state Superintendent of Schools are working to craft a short-term fix as well as a long-term solution. Bridge funding is needed if schools like PAGA are to survive until a constitutional amendment can be passed and/or the state's education funding mechanism is changed. In the meantime, we are looking at our already emaciated budget and wondering what else can be cut to make sure we can operate on subsistence funding.

The powerful political interests working against giving students more options, for now at least, have won the right to starve charter schools of funding and hold low-income families hostage to their ZIP codes. We at Provost Academy, along with our brothers and sisters in the education reform movement in Georgia and across the country, do not subscribe to the theory that schools are employment agencies for adults. We are committed to providing our students with a rigorous education and doing everything we can to ensure that they graduate on time, ready for college, career, and/or military service.

Public education should be about helping students create choices for themselves. It also should be about allowing families choices in where and how their children are educated. A quality public education can save a young person's life and help a child born into poverty climb into the middle class as a young adult. In Georgia however, public education, at least as practiced by some of our school districts, seems to be all about keeping dollars in the pockets of those who are committed to perpetuating the status quo.

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.

Jun 28, 2011

Education Reform In Colorado (Or, I'm Not A Teacher And I Only Care About My Money)

Jeff Benton is the co-founder and Managing Director of Group 720, a marketing communications firm based in Denver, Colorado. He is passionate about education reform and recently hosted an event for StudentsFirst at his home. Jeff and his wife, Jackie, are in the process of putting together a StudentsFirst Colorado Committee.

As members of StudentsFirst’s new Colorado chapter, my wife Jackie and I are focused on building support for policies that put the interests of kids before any others here in Denver.

Our efforts officially began in early June at an event at our home, where dozens of local business and civic leaders, most of whom are also parents of school-age children, had the pleasure of hearing Michelle Rhee’s impassioned delivery of the StudentsFirst mission.

Everyone who attended had at least one thing in common: a refusal to accept the status quo of our public education system. However, since most political discourse at the federal level has historically failed to improve student performance to the degree needed -- or to inspire citizens to get involved -- most of us are not equipped with the tools needed to bring about change.

Now, however, things are different in education reform. The ability to galvanize like-minded people toward a common goal -- albeit with numerous strategies to achieve it at the state levels -- has never been greater.

I joined StudentsFirst because it is an organization bent on delivering real change, and it offers concrete ways for concerned citizens to get involved. Michelle was a breath of fresh air for all of us who are disillusioned with the way politics has gotten in the way of student learning and achievement.

In recent months, thanks to the work of StudentsFirst and others, several state legislatures have already enacted significant reforms that will help students progress by rewarding and retaining highly quality teachers and making it easier to identify educators who are struggling.

Now it is Colorado’s turn to enact effective, timely reforms to improve our educational system. While our state is in relatively good shape in terms of having policies that prohibit LIFO (last in, first out teacher layoffs that ignore teacher quality) and protect high-performing teachers, there is still much work to be done to ensure the priorities of our students come first.

StudentsFirst Colorado intends to set the bar for advocacy and involvement. Colorado has an extremely dynamic, highly educated group of citizens who care deeply about our state and its future, and we are currently forming a committee to continue the early momentum and develop an action plan. Our committee will organize the grassroots efforts of the 7,000 StudentsFirst members in Colorado, a number in which we plan to more than double in the next six months.

If you want to be part of this movement to give our kids the schools they need and deserve in Colorado or in your home state, join StudentsFirst and find out how you can help.

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.

Jun 27, 2011

How LIFO And Other School Practices Affected One [Selfish] Teacher

Tom Greene is an honors graduate from Appalachian State University and North Carolina Teaching Fellow. Tom taught government and economics at Chapel Hill High School for the last four years and was named ‘Best New Teacher of the Year’ after his first year. He earned a full scholarship to study in Turkey with other American educators and worked to close the achievement gap with his work in the classroom and on the CHHS Equity Team. Recently, Tom was named one of the most effective educators for minority students at CHHS and participated in research on closing the achievement gap. This fall, he will attend the University of Connecticut School of Law in hopes to use his law degree to advance education reform in the United States.

The past four years were the best of my life. Each day I woke to the awesome challenge and responsibility of educating the next generation of American citizens and empowering them to become engaged in our democratic process.

I challenged my students to envision and work for a better world that is more equitable and fair than today’s. I held my students to the highest expectations, sharing in the accountability of their learning. Ironically, the very place I taught the American principles of fairness and accountability was governed by a system that was neither fair nor accountable.

For example: after my first year in the classroom I faced being laid off under the policy "last in, first out" (LIFO) due to our state's budget crunch. I faced termination despite having been selected by my principal as the "Best New Teacher of the Year" and seeing impressive academic gains among all my students. The rules were set to blindly lay off the least senior member of the teaching staff. It didn't matter that I had a successful first year helping kids reach their full potential. In the end, my job was saved because the budget cuts required that only one teacher be fired. Sadly, another effective colleague hired a few days after me received the pink slip.

The next year, I faced termination once again due to another round of state budget cuts. Here we go again, I thought. My job insecurity was based solely on my lack of seniority, even though I produced tangible student growth by all measures. Thankfully enrollment went up, ultimately saving my job. My experience with LIFO, gives me the perspective of seeing the damage these unfair policies have on kids and educators. After dealing with LIFO for two years, I became extremely frustrated and discouraged. Questions were constantly on my mind, like: Why did I have to go through the anxiety of losing my job even though I came in early, left late, and produced results? Instead of feeling supported and encouraged to keep helping kids, I felt the opposite.

Kids in particular lose out when school districts push out effective teachers. Teacher quality is essential to student learning. During my teaching career I was named an effective teacher for minority students, closing the achievement gap in my classroom each year. The persistent achievement gap between white students and minorities is one our nation's biggest challenges. My success in closing this gap should have been a factor considered when budget cuts necessitated staff reductions.

LIFO is only one of many damaging policies, others like giving salary increases to teachers based on seniority and teacher evaluations that do not consider student academic gains run counter to the mission of educating kids. Under the current rules we are pushing out some of our most talented educators, or keeping them from even considering teaching as a profession. This will only serve to weaken America's competitiveness in a global economy.

With these experiences behind me, I jumped at the opportunity to work for StudentsFirst this summer. The organization is working to elevate the teaching profession, change unfair policies, and make sure kids' needs are considered first and foremost in our schools today.

Jun 24, 2011

Meet The Staff: Leah Crusey Talks About Her Commitment To Education (As If It Matters)

Lea Crusey's interest and support for education includes time in the classroom, teaching middle school students in both East Palo Alto, CA and Singapore, and leading an advisory board of young professionals for KIPP Chicago. Most recently she served as Director of Finance for LAZ Parking/Chicago Parking Meters, a first-in-kind public private partnership that is challenging the primacy of the vehicle in Chicago's downtown neighborhoods. Past stints include the President's Office at the Chicago Transit Authority, the Kazyna Sovereign Wealth Fund in Kazakhstan, and IMI Indoor Climate in Shanghai, China. Lea is a 2008 graduate of the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy and 2003 graduate of Claremont McKenna College.

I joined StudentsFirst in April and am now part of the "Engagement Team," which leads the political and legislative efforts for education reform across states. In six short months, this remarkable team has already achieved dramatic change -- setting a momentum and model that is attracting attention and excitement across the political and geographic spectrum. Currently, I am working closely with our members and partners in Pennsylvania to ensure that the best teachers keep their jobs in the face of looming budget cuts. While this role is a natural fit, and one I am thrilled and honored to take on, the path to where I am now resulted from a purposeful journey that has not necessarily been direct.

In 2003, after graduating from college with a degree in Government and History, I joined Teach for America. As a Corps Member in East Palo Alto, California, I taught social studies, math, language arts, and study skills, writing my own curriculum and instructing more than 350 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students each day over my two years. My students represented a broad swath of California: those of Latino and Pacific Islander descent, as well as African American students. Nearly 95 percent of our kids were eligible for free or reduced lunch and all were required to partake in English Language Development coursework each day. It was the hardest job I think I'll ever have. Ensuring that my students were on progress to proficiency across subject areas throughout the year was a humbling challenge. To see the results, though, after the school year ended and know that my instruction contributed to their significant achievement and gains was incredibly satisfying. What was clear to me then, and what drives me every day since then, was the unwavering belief that all kids can learn and that it is possible for life-altering changes to happen at the classroom and school level.

In the years since teaching, I have spent time working in Singapore, China and Kazakhstan, pursuing graduate studies in public policy and focusing my professional efforts on urban planning and transportation in both the public and private sectors. Outside of work, in an effort to stay connected to education reform, I served as President of Chicago’s KIPP Ascend Charter School’s Associate Board for two years. As an advisory board of area young professionals dedicated to education reform, we dedicated hundreds of hours of volunteer work and raised more than $80,000 in new funds. KIPP DC and KIPP NYC are now creating their own Associate Boards off of our model in Chicago.

Along with 11,000 other alumni, I headed to D.C. in February to Teach for America's 20th Anniversary Summit, ready to reconnect and be re-inspired. TFA's repeated challenge to us that weekend of "what will YOU do" resonated and I left convinced that a "one day" professional return to education reform wasn't enough. Over the course of the next 8 weeks, I interviewed with Michelle Rhee and the StudentsFirst team and, in April, left my private sector job and moved to D.C. where StudentsFirst was initially launched.

Since then, I have relocated my household (well, just my husband, myself and our things!) to Sacramento, California, where StudentsFirst's national headquarters now sit. After a few months on the team, I can honestly assert that the change was worth it. What StudentsFirst is doing is revolutionary: all adults must be held accountable for decisions that impact education. The status quo doesn't work anymore; our individual and collective futures depend on a sound, rigorous and results-oriented public education system for all kids. I'm grateful to be part of a team working to create that.

Achievement Gap Persists Between Hispanic And White Students (No Shit!)

The achievement gap between Hispanic students and their white peers hasn't narrowed from the early 1990s to 2009, according to a federal report released today.

Math and reading scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) rose for both groups in fourth and eighth grade. But the persistent gap in scores is troubling. Policymakers have been trying to narrow the achievement gaps between minorities and white students for years.

An education is a basic civil right, and we need to work to ensure all of our students learn and achieve at high levels regardless of their race or ethnicity.
The achievement gap in a few states was smaller than the national gap in both subjects and both grades. That was the case in: Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Wyoming.

To read the report, click here: Nation's Report Card.

Excellent Leaders Build Excellent Schools (And Other Pablum)

Teacher Jill Whitescarver recently moved to Oregon, where she is tutoring children in reading. She previously taught in public schools in Ohio, Virginia and Idaho. She has taught kindergartners, first- and second-grade students.

Oftentimes, we forget the power and importance of a good school leader. And that's a shame. The quality of a school's principal is just as critical as teacher quality.

A principal has the power to shape the school's learning community, steer its instructional direction, affect teacher attitudes, set expectations, make hiring decisions, manage the professional development, and boost parental engagement.
Given that list, it's pretty clear principals are critical to a school's success. But, sadly, not all schools are staffed with top talent.

One area where principals must improve is in pointing out when teachers are not meeting expectations. I have worked in schools with great and not so great principals. The great principals had vision and knew how to bring about crucial school improvements, challenge and inspire teachers, and draw parent and community support. They understood instruction at every developmental level and had a vision and plan for positive change. The good principals were well read and understood best practices. They listened and addressed parents' concerns while also supporting teachers.

The not so great principals supported the status quo. They did not regularly work to observe teachers in the classroom or help them improve. Some did a poor job of listening to parents, and left teachers to fend for themselves when they needed support.

The worst principal I ever worked with hardly ever visited my classroom. She really didn't know what she was looking for instructionally, so whatever was happening was good enough as long as kids behaved and looked busy.

The best principal I worked with was the opposite. She had high expectations, and if you weren't meeting them, you knew it and were going to immediately work to fix it. When she visited my classroom, she knew what she was looking for and knew how to convey that. She talked to the children to ask them what they were doing and why. She wasn't just looking on the surface for a "nice-looking classroom"; she wanted to see purposeful learning occurring.

Teachers who welcome challenge and believe in students' ability to learn seek out principals who share that perspective. On the flip side, teachers who avoid challenges seek out principals who don't expect too much from them. This is one reason why schools can vary so much in quality.

Within every school district I have been a part of, there have been great schools and poor schools within the same district. It has appeared to me that some of the schools in communities with a lot of parent support and funding are assigned some of the best school leaders. I am confused by this practice. Shouldn't the schools with the greatest challenges get excellent leaders to help improve them? After all, it is without question that the quality of leadership guides every school's success. Other than fighting for outstanding teachers, we should be fighting for strong and effective leaders in every public school to bring about the change we need.

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.

Jun 22, 2011

Creating A Differentiated Clasroom To Help All Students Learn (All Teachers Know This)

Angela taught in Columbus City Schools where she enjoyed a short tenure as a kindergarten and first grade teacher; due to the "Last In, First Out" policy, she was forced out after two years. After leaving Columbus, she got a job at one of the best elementary schools in the greater Columbus area. Courter taught for two years in the Los Angeles Unified School District in one of the lowest rated middle schools in California. Together, they have seen the best and worst of America's education system.

Critics of the education reform movement have a few en vogue talking points. One of them centers on the following line of logic: teachers can't possibly move kids along when they have 25 kids working at tremendously different ability levels. To be sure, it is difficult to differentiate instruction. But it's not impossible. Even more, it is absolutely essential. A teacher's ability to differentiate could literally make or break a child’s school experience.

As we see it, there are several key ingredients to successful differentiation in the classroom: mindset, creativity, hard work and organization.

First, the mindset. Quite simply, a teacher needs to believe two truths about his or her classroom in order to implement effective differentiation. First, she has to believe it's her job to reach every student. And second, a teacher must believe that all of his students can learn. They may go about learning in different ways, but ultimately they can all get there. When we talk education buzz words, such as "differentiation," we must not forget that we're talking about real students who rely on teachers to help them grow and learn. While it's obvious on its face, it bears stating: If we don't actually believe we should be helping everyone, we won't; and if we don't think kids can learn or are worth our time, they won't be. Because thoughts so closely inform our actions, the right mindset is crucial to good differentiation. If a teacher believes in these simple yet fundamental truths then his actions will align accordingly.

Creativity is also crucial to differentiation. Innovation can help teachers adjust to meet the needs of their students and can help students feel engaged in a dynamic and engaging learning process. The creativity doesn't need to be otherworldly. It's as simple as finding a few interesting ways to diversify instruction and adjust for learning levels and styles. For example, teachers often differentiate by utilizing groups. Grouping students according to learning pace, either homogenously or heterogeneously, can help. If homogenously, a teacher can simultaneously reach his or her kids on the same level; if heterogeneously, slower and faster learners can work collaboratively to help each other.

The classroom "buddy" program is another creative example. Older and younger classrooms (elementary to high school, for example) can partner and work together on a regular basis to help teach social and scholastic skills, as well as allow a teacher to focus his or her time elsewhere (while every student is staying busy and learning). Whatever the actual approach, the point is that options for creative and effective differentiation exist.

Finally, there's hard work. Think about what differentiation really is: finding a way to meet the actual needs of your students. Hard work by both the teacher and student can help do this. In practical terms, this can look like differentiated sessions 20-30 minutes before school starts in the form of a "breakfast club"; or a group that meets on lunch or after school. And, for the student furthest behind, it can mean leveraging parents, friends, and other influencers to put in time to help him or her improve.

Again, differentiation is not easy. But we as educators and/or people involved in education should fight the mindset that teachers can't help every student. The right mindset, a focus on creativity, and hard work can help create an environment where students of all levels can and do learn. The ongoing debate about education reform has reinforced that this type of differentiation is necessary. And strong public schools across the country, many in our lowest-income communities, have shown us it is possible.

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.

Jun 21, 2011

Mayors: Schools Should Take Steps To Boost Effective Teaching (As if they are not?)

The nation's mayors are at the frontlines of America's educational crisis. Failing schools can lead to high unemployment rates and high crime rates in our cities. The bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors, meeting in Baltimore this week, has adopted a resolution aimed at ensuring students have access to great teachers. That's an essential part of improving our schools, because teacher quality is the most important in-school factor that affects student learning.

The resolution starts with the premise that schools have to end the practice of making key personnel decisions based on seniority, or how long someone has been on the job, and start making decisions based on a teacher’s work with students.

Specifically, the mayors called for an end to the practice of conducting teacher layoffs based on last in, first out (LIFO) rules. Noting that teacher effectiveness is critical, the mayors said seniority should only be a determining factor in layoff decisions when two teachers have been evaluated as equally effective. The timing of the resolution is critical. Many school districts are facing budget shortfalls and are grappling with difficult staffing decisions now.

The resolution also calls for meaningful evaluation systems for teachers and principals. That might sound like common sense or management 101, but too often educators go without adequate evaluations and the feedback that comes with them. The mayors' proposal states that multiple measures ought to be used to judge success, because you generally shouldn't base these employment decisions on only one factor. However, the resolution makes the important point that evaluations have to be linked to critical data reflecting how students are progressing academically.

For more on the resolution or the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Baltimore, click here: www.usmayors.org.

Student: Young Voters Look At The Issues, Not The Party Or Politician

Justin Schulze studies International Development and Economics as an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University. He is currently an intern at StudentsFirst. Justin also is as an intern for KIPP Journey Academy in Columbus, Ohio. Justin has volunteered and traveled in Costa Rica and Peru and conducted research in Ecuador and Bolivia. He is an active member of Amnesty International.

As a college student in Columbus, Ohio, I've seen firsthand the intense political polarization gripping my state. The governor and fellow Republican lawmakers have proposed controversial policies regarding the budget, the economy, and spending. Democrats have responded with protest marches. With battle lines clearly drawn, it seems Ohio citizens are being forced to answer the question: Are you with the current administration, or are you against it? To tell you the truth, however, I'm neither.

I'm part of a new generation of young people whose beliefs cannot be limited to the political platform of one party or one governor. On some issues, we're "conservative." On others, we're "liberal." Personally, I disagree with Governor Kasich and Republican legislators on a number of issues. For example, I am a fervent opponent of Ohio's death penalty. This year, however, the governor has overseen several executions, and more are scheduled. On the death penalty, I think the governor is just plain wrong, and I let him know by writing him letters, calling his office, and joining in protests.

When it comes to reforming education in Ohio, though, I believe the governor has hit the mark. Like him, I'm excited to bring young, energetic teachers to our state through programs like Teach for America. Like him, I think we need to end the archaic "last In, first Out" policy that lays off teachers based on seniority rather than performance. Like him, I believe our teachers need to be measured with a robust, objective evaluation system that rewards educators who consistently outperform their peers. On all of these points, I agree wholeheartedly with the governor, and I support his proposed reform measures as vigorously as I oppose his position the death penalty.

Let's be honest: politicians are unlikely to ever represent our opinion on every issue. But let's not let political divisions keep us from supporting politicians on the issues in which we do agree, like reforming public education in Ohio. For young Democrats today, supporting a Republican lawmaker (or vice versa) on education reform does not make him or her a sellout. Rather, young people willing to cross party lines to support meaningful reform to improve educational outcomes for our students represents the best, not the worst, of civic engagement.

Jun 17, 2011

Understanding Public Charter Schools (Or, More Spin From A Shyster)

Charter schools are public schools that operate with more flexibility than traditional district schools. Yet, many people mistakenly refer to them as "private," or say they simply don't understand what category they fall into. We wanted to answer some of the common questions we have received about charter schools. So, we turned to James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center for some answers.

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.

SF: Charter schools are public schools, but there seems to be some confusion over this. Why, and can you clear it up?

JM: Part of the confusion is in the name. "Charter school" sounds like an alternative to “public school,” and the longer label of "public charter school" has never really caught on. Also, charter schools are not operated by a department of education or school board. Like all non-profits, they are governed by a board of directors.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded. They are non-sectarian, tuition-free and judged by public school academic standards. Public officials, usually known as charter authorizers, oversee them. Charters are open to all students, regardless of background, making them more accessible than even some district schools. (Think of selective magnet or gifted schools in many districts).

SF: Why do charter schools sometimes struggle to find building space? How do the policies around housing charters vary geographically?

JM: The top reason is lack of funding. In most states, charter schools do not receive funding for facilities. Many schools have to turn to private fundraising, using operating dollars to pay rent, and/or sharing space with other organizations or schools.

The policies around this vary by state and sometimes by school district. The underlying challenge is charter schools can’t fund buildings the way traditional districts do, by directly levying taxes or issuing bonds. The most generous states provide loans, grants, credit enhancement, or even (usually modest) direct funding. Still, finding a facility is a big challenge for charter school founders anywhere.

SF: Can you talk about the demographics of charter schools?

JM: The demographics vary quite a bit, by state and city. A suburban charter school in Arizona will have different demographics than an urban charter school in Chicago. In general, charter schools spring up to reach underserved and disadvantaged student populations. Nationwide, a majority of charter school students are African-American or Hispanic. In New York City, that number is over 90 percent, and three in four students are from families in poverty.

SF: Do charter schools fall under the same accountability standards as traditional schools?

JM: Charter schools are held to the same academic standards as district schools, and their students take the same tests as district students. The actual accountability is different, though and generally tougher. A charter school that is failing academically is supposed to lose its charter and be closed, and that routinely happens where charter school authorizers are strong. In many traditional school districts, unfortunately, a school can fail children for years or even decades without running out of second chances.

However, it must be noted that in many states, charter authorizers have not done as good a job as they should enforcing accountability. There is a strong movement for increasing accountability within the sector.

SF: Talk about charter schools and student achievement.

JM: We are not launching charters schools just to buck the system. The number one priority for nearly every charter school is ensuring that all of their students are academically proficient.

Not every charter school is achieving that goal; there are certainly some charter schools that should be closed for under-performance. At the same time, there are many charter networks and schools across the country that are helping their students achieve at exceptional levels. These are the schools we should be focused on -- these are the schools everyone should be studying and learning from.

SF: Charter schools are sometimes criticized for taking more advanced students and financial resources away from traditional district schools. Can you address this?

JM: When charter schools were first created, critics warned that they would "cream off" the best students. This hasn't happened. As charter school leaders will tell you, charter schools attract many families who have not seen much success in district schools. On the other hand, families who feel well served by district schools are loath to switch.

Part of the worry was that the need to fill out a charter school application, even though it's a simple one-page form, would screen for more motivated parents. There's little evidence that this true. In a study of the KIPP charter schools, Mathematica researchers found that KIPP students tend to come in with achievement levels that are lower than the average for their districts. The study also found KIPP schools have a positive impact on student achievement.

It is true that charter schools don't always reach every high-need student group. In general, charter schools enroll fewer students receiving special education services and students who are English Language Learners. The charter sector is focused on this, and we are seeing a trend towards more schools opening that are designed to serve these populations.

SF: Charter schools are also sometimes criticized for "draining" financial resources away from traditional district schools. Is that accurate?

JM: Public schools receive funds for each child they educate. If a student moves from a district school to a charter school, the district school no longer receives funding for that student, as they no longer have the expense of educating that child. The charter school now receives funding to do that.
The real question is whether charter schools take an unfair share of resources per student. The answer is clearly no. While each state funds charter schools differently, in most places charter schools receive less on a per-pupil basis.

SF: Charter schools are described as having more flexibility than traditional schools. What does this look like and how is it beneficial?

JM: Most charter schools have four crucial forms of flexibility. First, they control their own staffing. That means they can hire the teachers and leaders they want, compensate them in flexible ways, and dismiss those who are ineffective. The best charter schools use this flexibility to create a professional atmosphere that is high-energy and focused on student achievement.

Second, charter schools control their own curriculum and instruction. They can choose a program, then tweak or replace or expand it, based on what's working.

Third, charters schools control their own schedules. If they adopt a longer school day and/or school year, they can choose to spend more time on core subjects without sacrificing other areas of learning.

Finally, charter schools control their own budgets. That allows them to move resources where they are most needed. It also means that they don't have to worry about a central office taking money back, a fear which can lead district schools to spend their money in an end-of-the-year rush. That's not a recipe for effective spending.

Of course, freedom can lead to failure or even abuse. That’s why we need good charter school authorizers to grant charters only to qualified groups, and then provide effective oversight without trampling autonomy. That capability doesn’t exist in every state yet, so we need to keep investing in it.

SF: Can charter schools drive improvement in neighboring traditional schools? 

JM: At this point, when change does come, it is usually from above. In Washington, D.C. and New York respectively, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein authored reforms that are intimately associated with high quality charter school practice, including paying much more attention to teacher evaluation, giving principals more autonomy over curriculum and budget, as well as imposing the threat of closure on schools that did not perform.

There is anecdotal evidence that individual district schools, under their principals’ leadership and vision, are absorbing lessons that high-quality charter schools have to teach and using educators who have been in those schools to drive reform within their buildings.

SF: What does the future look like for charter schools? Are they growing in number? How are they changing?

JM: By every measure, the charter school sector is growing and becoming an ever more important part of the public school landscape. There are currently over 4,900 charter schools operating in 40 states. The number of students served has grown from about 350,000 in the 1999-2000 school year to over 1.6 million students in 2009-10. Charter schools’ share of enrollment is also on the rise in many cities, most dramatically in New Orleans (71 percent of students) and Washington, D.C. (38 percent).

With this strong growth, we are seeing three important trends. First, non-profit charter school networks are finding ways to grow and gain advantages of scale without losing results or autonomy.

Second, we are seeing an increased focus on charter schools designed to serve particular, high-need populations.

Third, there's a growing recognition that charter schools are here to stay. Districts are embracing charter schools alongside traditional and selective schools. Perhaps most importantly, politicians and interest groups on all sides are talking less about whether charter schools have a role to play and more about what that role should be. I think that's a healthy development, because the distinction that matters most isn't whether a school is district or charter, it's whether it works or not.

Jun 14, 2011

The Role Business Can Play In Improving Our Schools

Frederick M. Hess is resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He has authored influential books on education including "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels," and writes the Education Week blog "Rick Hess Straight Up." A former high school social studies teacher, he has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, and Harvard University.

Whitney Downs is a research assistant in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, where she focuses on school cost-cutting practices, the role of private enterprise and business engagement in public education, and the legal and structural barriers faced by education leaders.

Have businesses always worked with American schools, and are these partnerships now on the rise? Why?

Whether it was Horace Mann leading the Common School charge in the 19th century, or Bill Gates deeming the American high school "obsolete" in the 21st, business leaders have recognized that they have a vital role to play in American education. While there's no good data to tell or quantify if these partnerships have grown, business leaders know that the quality of new workers is crucial to their success. As a result, they have a practical interest-- as well as a civic one-- in helping to improve school quality.

Are the most successful partnerships between business leaders and school officials occurring at the state, district or local-school levels?
In the report, we focus on terrific efforts at the city and at the state level. It's less where you do it than how well you do it. And what we try to show in the report is what it looks like to do it well while the same time providing some practical guidance on how to get there.

What are the benefits that result from partnerships between the businesses community and schools?

Effective business involvement can lend political muscle and credibility to reform efforts. It can also provide ballast and staying power in a system where district leadership can change and flavor of the week reforms often rule the day. Business can also bring practical expertise to thorny educational issues like evaluation and data systems – issues business leaders have been wrestling with for a half-century or more.

What are the obstacles to achieving such partnerships and ensuring they last
It can be politically perilous. Taking tough stances with school leaders can attract criticism, and supporting policy changes often draws political opposition. Business leaders have a lot on their plate. It's easy to get distracted, and it requires a concerted effort to acquire expertise, figure out how to focus, and to stay the course.

What is some advice business leaders can use to help overcome these obstacles?

It's easier to fend off political backlash when the business community as a whole steps up on issues, as opposed to an individual firm or CEO. Business leaders have community-wide credibility, and when they speak out as a collective, it's harder to ignore their advice or demonize their motives. In regards to the limited attention span of business when it comes to education, we saw that structures to organize business involvement – as well as staff devoted to hammering out logistics and ensuring meetings happen – can be hugely helpful in ensuring a sustained, long-term and consistent involvement.

In which communities do you think the business community has had the most impact on education?

In the report, we profile enormously successful business communities in Austin, Nashville, and Massachusetts. While these locales certainly aren't the only examples of business successfully making an impact on education, the depth and sustained level of business involvement in these communities is relatively unique in a country where business leaders have often been told to simply write checks and let educators do the rest.

What about the criticism that schools are different from businesses, and therefore shouldn't be run like them or, maybe, even influenced by them?
The first is a red herring. There is no one way a "business" is run, and, in any event, no one is suggesting that business leaders tell schools how they should operate or serve kids. Rather, there's a need for support, expertise, and tough-minded pressure that business can provide. On the second, we often hear that schools are democratic, civic entities. Well, business is an important part of a given community. Business leaders have a responsibility and a right, as does any other citizen, to help promote school improvement. And given the practical concerns and political clout of business, there's an enormous upside to having business leaders actively engaged.

To read the full Chamber of Commerce report, please click here: Chamber of Commerce report.

Jun 10, 2011

Teachers speak out: Dispelling fears and myths about teacher evaluations (Chuckle)

Emmy is director of Ohio policy and research and Jamie is senior Ohio policy analyst and associate editor for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Columbus, Ohio.
Like many states, Ohio is struggling with how best to evaluate teachers and how to use those evaluations to inform personnel decisions (like remuneration, tenure, professional development, and -- when budgets or enrollment leave no choice -- layoffs).
In Ohio, roughly half of the school districts are participating in the federal Race to the Top program and as such are committed to developing and implementing robust teacher evaluation systems that incorporate student achievement data and inform personnel decisions. And during the ongoing state budget debate, the Ohio House introduced language that would put in place an evaluation system that incorporates student academic growth and several other key job-related performance factors to determine teacher effectiveness, and would make effectiveness a key factor in determining how teachers are assigned to schools, whether their contracts are renewed, and -- when budgets make it unavoidable -- how they are laid off.
The evaluation model in this bill resembles those developed in a bipartisan manner in many other states. Unfortunately, however, the Ohio Senate has dropped all of these provisions from its version of the budget, preferring instead to maintain Ohio's status as a state with archaic laws that force school districts to consider only seniority when making teacher layoff decisions.
Why? Even prior to this particular legislative battle, myths and fears expressed by educators and policymakers about teacher evaluations have been rampant here. Opponents of overhauling teacher evaluation systems argue they're inherently unfair, arbitrary, prone to bias, focused too much on test scores, ruin collaboration, create competition, etc.
But are they really? We wondered if these allegations rang true in places where teachers are evaluated in rigorous ways. So we reached out to DC Public Schools and went into the field to ask teachers who are already participating in a rigorous evaluation system, called IMPACT, what they think about these matters.
The teachers we interviewed included science teachers, an elementary math coach, a fourth-grade teacher (of all subjects), a special-ed middle school teacher, an art teacher, and a master educator (who conducts the observations on behalf of DCPS). They shared what it's like to be evaluated through observations five times a year and to have part of their performance linked to student test scores.
Overwhelmingly, even despite some concerns expressed by several of the teachers, common themes emerged. Binary rating systems ("satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory") are neither informative about which teachers are effective and which are not, nor do they these systems help teachers improve their practice. Even teachers with significant concerns expressed that IMPACT correctly identifies the worst performers and the top-flyers. And several teachers who have not yet earned the distinction of "highly effective" said that IMPACT motivates them daily to improve their practice.
The responses from these teachers are candid and powerful, and begin to peel back the myths and fears we've heard here in the Buckeye State. Do evaluation systems like DC's IMPACT water down the art of teaching to one set of test scores on one day? No. Frequent and unannounced observations spread out over the year which are based on a clear outline of expectations, along with several other metrics -- like commitment to school community and professionalism and other measures of student achievement growth -- actually capture the measures of effective teaching far better than previous evaluation systems. Teachers in non-tested subjects, like art and science, explained how IMPACT evaluates them fairly even though their scores are somewhat different from those of teachers in tested grades and subject areas. And every single teacher we interviewed could point to specific areas of instruction that improved as a result of the feedback cycle and relationships with master educators (who conduct the observations). In short, while IMPACT isn't perfect -- and neither is any evaluation system out there -- it's certainly far better than what Ohio has in place and should compel us to institute a more meaningful system in the Buckeye State. Hear these teachers talk about their experience in the video below:
As Ohio and other states struggle to reach agreement on how to make teacher policies focused on effectiveness and performance, and more conducive to attracting the best and brightest to the profession, these are conversations that absolutely must happen. We hope that lawmakers, policymakers, and teachers alike find these perspectives from teachers already evaluated by comprehensive systems which place a high priority on student achievement growth valuable and realize that any efforts to improve teacher effectiveness across the state rest on our ability to evaluate teachers and use this data to make key decisions that are in the best interests of students.

Jun 9, 2011

Michigan Mom Reflects On Great Teaching, Calls for End to LIFO

As the mother of two generations of children, ages 39-16, Nancy has been actively involved in Michigan's public schools for 35 years. She has seen firsthand the changes that have taken place in America's school over the course of nearly four decades, and as a result, she is passionate about the mission of StudentsFirst and the issues that are vital to educational reform for the 21st Century. Nancy and her family currently reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I am a 64-year-old mother of four, ages 16 to 39. Actually, my husband and I are parents of not one, but two generations of children. After our older two left home for college in the early 1990s, we started over and adopted two more children. I am also the grandmother of five, the oldest of whom will be entering high school in September. As you might assume, we feel we have a great deal invested in Michigan's public schools -- past, present, and future. During the past 35 years, my husband and I have partnered with literally hundreds of teachers in the course of our children's educations. Many of those experiences have been extremely positive, and extremely rewarding. Many, however, have not.
Over the course of decades of involvement in the public school system, we have always sought to honor those teachers who have honored their profession and their students. By the same token, we have been diligent in attempting to affect change where we believe change is needed. I believe that one cause of those unsatisfactory experiences has been the last in, first out policies that require seniority to be the determining factor when teacher layoffs occur.
We do not advocate the elimination of teachers based on either age or length of service, for we have experienced good teachers at both ends of the spectrum -- young and old, experienced and not-so-experienced.
Consider Miss Angot, who taught English Composition at Birmingham Seaholm High School during the 1980s and 90s. Miss Angot was nearing retirement by the time we met her. She was financially secure and did not need to teach. Except for one thing: she loved her students, and wanted them to become not just good, but great writers. She did not care if her students loved her in return; she only cared that they learned -- and loved -- to write.
Then there is Mr. Erby, a brilliant young man who taught 7th grade Algebra to my younger son. When I first met Mr. Erby, I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, "What could he possibly have to teach my son? He’s just a kid himself!" But then I listened to what Mr. Erby had to say when he addressed the parents for the first time that year. He told us, "I am not here to teach your children Algebra!" For a very brief moment, this seemed to confirm my initial impression. But then he continued: "I am here to teach your children how to gather information, evaluate that information, and make decisions based on their evaluations."
Today, I would fight for both Mr. Erby’s and Ms. Angot's survival in the public school system. Both have demonstrated complete devotion to their students; both contributed greatly to my children's educations, and to all of the public school students who have been fortunate enough to study under their tutelage. But sadly, there are teachers in the system who are not so committed to their students. I believe helping students grow intellectually is a far more important benchmark than years of service when it comes to staffing our schools. Let's make sensible decisions that put the needs of children first as we consider changes to our nation’s school system.
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.

Jun 8, 2011

Meet The Staff: Kaitlin Murphy thanks teachers after school school system honored

Kaitlin Murphy worked as a middle, high school and college teacher for 10 years before joining Michelle Rhee’s education reform team at D.C. public schools as a writer in 2007. She is a freelance writer and continues to provide communications support to StudentsFirst. She blogs on www.kaitlinmurphy.org.
Last week I learned that my hometown school system in Barrington, Rhode Island was rated in the Forbes Top 10 "Best Schools for your Real Estate Buck".
I attended public school in Barrington, ranked fourth in the nation by Forbes, from the second grade through high school. In the decades that followed I learned a lot about education -- from my students, other teachers, research, and from the experience of working for Michelle Rhee and her education reform team at the DC Public Schools.
But when I thought about why Barrington, Rhode Island would have made this tiny list, all the research, best practices and controversy over education reform slipped away.
All I could remember were my teachers.
As someone who chose to make a living as a teacher and writer, I could focus on the powerful influence of strong reading and writing teachers.
For example, my sixth-grade language arts teacher, Mrs. Rahmne, paired up with a colleague and had both clusters not only read Katherine Paterson's "Bridge to Terabithia," but also co-write a play based on the novel and perform it for the school. Somehow they created a space for 60 imaginations to run wild while simultaneously imposing the structure that the writing process needed.
But if my family is right, I loved reading from the point my older sister helped teach me to read my first words from a faded blue Dick and Jane reading primer. By middle school, I don’t think my parents' summer reading incentives were necessary to get me flying through the classics, uh, -- Sweet Valley High series -- during summer vacations.
The teachers I remember the most taught subjects I wanted to ignore.
Mrs. Boisvert relentlessly sought to find connections between biology and our daily lives. One day she wrote on the board, "Why the Person Sitting Next to You Just Breathed in Your Spaghetti Dinner from Last Night." She easily transitioned our disgust into rapt interest in the process of cellular respiration.
For her, giving us authority over our fruit fly jars that year was worth every accidental mass fruit-fly escape -- if it meant we might catch her enthusiasm for the benefits of the genotype and phenotype discovery to medicine.
I did not care about biology before her. After one year with her, I signed up for AP Biology, still unsure if I could handle it but knowing she would be the teacher.
Mr. Eddins taught history and political science, and he loved to provoke us into debate. He would force us to take a stand based on the facts, and he never let us get away with an easy or convenient answer. He came into class nearly aflame when the Berlin Wall came down, firing questions at us and pulling us out of our apathy to think about the event's impact on the future of democracy, freedom and the world.
Mr. Telford put popular songs to math terms in middle school to make sure we would remember them. He once had us almost convinced that Prince’s hit "Raspberry Beret" was actually "Red Spherical Thing." I still sing Mr. Telford's version when I hear the song today.
Mr. Tobiasz, my pre-calculus and calculus teacher in high school, knew long before "The Case Against Homework" that homework was only as good as the teacher who assigned it. He used homework as a launch-pad for his lessons, having students volunteer to write out the problems on the board, then teach the path to our answers to the class. These lessons lifted a huge block for me in math once I saw how many different ways there were to a right answer. The subject never became easy, but I signed on for calculus the next year because I knew Mr. Tobiasz would be the teacher.
Finally, I wish coaches could be included more often in our discussions about teachers. Annmarie Marino is still the track and cross-country coach in Barrington, and the lessons she taught are still ripening now -- lessons about pacing in running and life, cultivating grace in competition and navigating the challenge of pushing and besting myself.
My teachers were not cool. They wore dorky ties in flagrant disregard for our strict, peer-enforced social mores borne of self-consciousness. The best of them showed us how to take the content seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. They oozed with crazy-passion for their subject areas. They paced electric across their classrooms, fueled by questions and sheer joy in the behaviors of protons, fruit flies and DNA; protagonists and melodies; formulas and functions; governments and rebellions.
Eventually they sent us on our way, with their lessons and love for learning following us out the door.
No school system is perfect, and as I imagine is true for everyone, there were some classrooms I wish I could have dodged. But when I remember my teachers in Barrington, Rhode Island, one thing is clear. If my hometown has one of the Top 10 public school systems for the real estate dollar, the teachers made it so.

Teachers Share Their Stories

"Last In, First Out" policies across the country have had a devastating effect on teachers and their classroom.
Great teachers with stellar performance records are being let go on the basis of seniority, ignoring their stellar performance in the classroom. This system is hurting our schools and our children's futures.
We asked teachers to share their stories and tell us how LIFO has impacted their lives. Their stories reflect the struggles faced by new teachers every day:
My first year of teaching I was in a low-income school in the Portland Public School District in Portland, Oregon. I loved the school, loved the job, and would have been happy to teach there for a long time. Unfortunately, the Portland Public Schools were continually struggling financially and had to often cut teachers. My first year teaching my school cut the librarian, P.E. and music teachers. At the end of my first year, more cuts were ahead, and my job was on the line. Even though I was a dedicated teacher, had great performance reviews, a master's degree and a special education endorsement, my principal was forced to cut me solely based on Last In First Out... It wasn't what was best for kids, but that was what happened.
— Katie, OR
This is my second year of teaching second grade and I have fallen in love with this profession. I look forward to seeing my students faces light up when that light bulb turns on during their learning ... With last in first out, so many energetic, passionate teachers are let go for the sole purpose of being "new." Not bad teachers, just new teachers. It is a flawed system that pushes away teachers who are excited to teach, and retains some teachers who are merely waiting for retirement or are no longer passionate and enjoy what their jobs any longer. We NEED to change this flawed system and keep teachers who are willing and passionate to help change their students lives.
— Megan, CA
I have been teaching for 5 years and I must say every year I think that I'm the luckiest person in the whole world because I love my job and I make a difference. However all of that has changed as of March 2011. District 57 in Mount Prospect, IL cut 24 non-tenured elementary teachers. The teachers were cut not based on performance but because we did not have tenure and we were the last hired, first fired! The education system in this country needs change because what happened to us is not right.
— Kelly, IL
Join StudentsFirst in helping to reverse this unfair policy, take action now and save great teachers

A LIFO Debate in NYC

Jonathan Bing is a Democrat serving his fifth term in the New York State Assembly representing the Upper East Side and East Midtown Manhattan. He is a leader on education, economic development and advocacy for libraries and the arts. In 2010 and in 2011, Jonathan introduced legislation in the Assembly which would repeal the "last in, first Out" (LIFO) provision of state education law. It requires that teacher layoffs be based solely on seniority without any regard to performance for which the New York Daily News called him "a profile in courage" that has "stepped up big time for parents and students."
As states and cities across the nation experience record budget deficits, it is necessary to cut highly valued government services and programs. Regrettably, in New York City, this means the potential layoff of several thousand public school teachers. To combat the most egregious effects of the impending teacher layoffs, I introduced a bill in the New York State Assembly to repeal "last in, first out" or LIFO.
When layoffs of teachers are necessary due to budget deficits, the LIFO provision of New York State education law dictates that the last teachers hired be the first fired, regardless of the teacher's quality. In fact, seniority is currently the only factor that may be considered. As a result, many of our most effective teachers are sent packing and schools in growing and high-needs communities are disproportionately impacted.
LIFO should be repealed because it harms communities where teachers are needed the most. That's why the ACLU filed a lawsuit in California to end LIFO in that state. School districts in the South Bronx will lose 20 percent or more of their teachers under LIFO, while other districts in the city will only lose five percent. Why? School districts in low-income communities have a larger share of junior teachers who would be among the first laid off under LIFO. This will cause significant disruptions in an educational environment that can ill-afford such distractions. It is also within the schools in these low-income neighborhoods that the majority of students are African-American or Latino, resulting in LIFO's unintended consequence of discrimination.
New Yorkers have gotten the message about LIFO. A recent poll found that 85 percent of New Yorkers support LIFO's repeal. Proponents of maintaining the status quo, however, claim that repealing LIFO is "anti-teacher" and "anti-union." This sentiment could not be further from the truth. In fact, the legislation I have authored specifically states that collective bargaining will control layoff procedures between the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the City. It's taking an antiquated, 70-year old law under which teachers have no say in how layoffs are conducted and gives them a voice in the process that they never had. That's why Educators 4 Excellence, a group of more than 2,000 recently-hired teachers – who are also UFT members – has made reforming LIFO their signature issue.
Proponents of the current system also say that New York City has enough money this year to stave off teacher layoffs so LIFO's repeal is not needed. Not only do they not have their facts straight, but it's like saying that you shouldn't build a fire escape on an apartment building because it's not currently on fire. Why would any recent Teach for America or master's of education graduate want to teach in a state where they know that no matter how good a teacher they are or will become, they will be fired if the economy declines? New York State needs a structural fix in place so that are children are taught by the best teachers possible no matter the state of the economy.
In a state that prides itself on its progressive politics and forward-thinking policies, its education system should not be a relic of a bygone era. LIFO has shown itself to be a regressive, backwards policy that will shortchange the education of thousands of children across New York. The time to repeal LIFO is now.
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.

Jun 3, 2011

StudentsFirst Answers Your Questions

The questions below have consistently come up through the conversation on the StudentsFirst Facebook page. We wanted to answer the questions and look forward to continued discussion of these issues.
FB Community: When evaluating teachers, why does StudentsFirst believe 50 percent of an evaluation should be based on student achievement data?
We believe any good teacher evaluation system will use multiple measures to review educators, including valid student growth data and other factors that demonstrate a command of teaching and learning. Research tells us teachers are the single most important school-based factor in a student's academic achievement. Knowing that, it is critical that we measure the effectiveness of individual teachers when it comes to student learning. We believe the largest single component of a teacher's evaluation should be based on objective measures of academic progress and therefore, we recommend that 50 percent of the evaluation be based on student growth. This reflects the importance of a teacher's ability to move students forward academically. If standardized test data is not available, other methods of measuring student achievement growth should be developed. We also believe other factors should be included in a fair and robust evaluation system such as: principal observations, peer reviews, contributions to the whole school community and student and parent feedback.
FB Community: StudentsFirst talks a lot about evaluating teachers, but what about evaluating administrators?
We believe in the need for effective principals and strong evaluation systems for principals. Like teachers, principals should be evaluated based on clear and consistent criteria from a variety of sources. At least 50 percent of the evaluation should be based on school-wide student achievement growth. Just as teachers should be judged on the ability to move their students along academically, principals should be judged on overall school performance. In addition, principals should be judged on their ability to attract, develop and retain excellent teachers. When reviewing the work of our principals, we must also consider other responsibilities that come with the job. These include managing a school's finances and facilities and welcoming and encouraging parental involvement.
FB Community: What about poverty (Or other external factors)?
A student's family background and socio-economic status too often impacts their school readiness. Achievement gaps between low-income children and their wealthier peers appear early. We applaud the work of organizations that address child poverty and child welfare more broadly. Our focus at StudentsFirst is on impacting the factors we can control once a child walks into a classroom, regardless of where a student started. We believe that any and every child can succeed if given a chance. Schools that have experienced high levels of academic success with all students, including those from low-income homes, set high standards and expectations. They also hire, retain and reward highly effective teachers.
Many of the nation's current education policies negatively impact poor children. For example, when we lay off teachers based solely on seniority, disadvantaged schools often are hardest hit. That's because they tend to have a high percentage of new teachers – the ones who are the first to be forced out. We are working hard to change these last in, first out policies. Instead, we need to identify our most effective teachers and do everything we can, including offering bonuses, to encourage them to teach in disadvantaged schools. By staffing schools with excellent teachers and providing parents with great school options regardless of their zip codes we can work toward closing the achievement gap.
FB Community: What is StudentFirst's position on children with disabilities in the context of standardized testing?
The federal No Child Left Behind law mandates that we include children with disabilities in the accountability systems we've built for our schools. That means we have to measure how children with disabilities are doing academically and compare progress being made across classrooms and across schools. There are times we make exceptions and don’t test students with severe disabilities, but that's not too often. More typically, we make accommodations. These might include offering oral tests instead of written ones or giving the exams in an untimed setting.
Among the biggest proponents for including special needs groups in our school accountability systems were advocates for children with disabilities. Telling them they don't have to bother taking the tests given to typically developing children is akin to saying you can’t measure up, or you aren't worth the effort. That's just about the worst message to send to any child. We must hold all kids, including those with disabilities, to high standards. It's the law, and it's the right thing to do.
FB Community: In this time of fiscal crisis, how will schools be able to afford new initiatives?
We do not advocate new unfunded mandates in education. We do support putting precious resources where they can have the greatest impact. While nationwide spending on public schools has increased dramatically over the last decade, student achievement has remained flat. A big challenge that must be tackled is making sure our money is spent wisely and on programs proven to positively impact student achievement. We know that an effective teacher has a significant impact on student learning. We must invest our limited resources in programs and policies that move toward an effective teacher in every classroom and that includes paying great teachers significantly more. We also believe in paying effective teachers more for teaching hard-to-staff subjects in hard-to-staff schools.
FB Community: How are art/PE teachers rated under new evaluation systems?
Every evaluation should quantify student growth. However, there are many subjects and skills that are not tied to statewide tests. In these fields, states, districts and schools need to develop other ways to measure student growth outside of the traditional accountability systems.
FB Community: What, specifically, does SF recommend for increasing parental and community involvement?
StudentsFirst encourages parental and community involvement by spreading awareness about educational issues and helping parents advocate for their children. By raising awareness about laws and policies that impact student achievement, we are trying to provide parents with the tools to speak out and be heard. We are advocating for policies that give parents a variety of educational choices regardless of their income or where they live. We also are working to ensure school districts communicate with parents in a transparent way about the education their kids are receiving. For example, we pushed for a Florida law that mandates parents have to be notified if their children are being taught by teachers with ineffective ratings. We believe well-informed parents will advocate for the kind of reforms that put the needs of students ahead of any others in our schools.
FB Community: Is the fight to end LIFO a way to justify firing more expensive, senior teachers?
StudentsFirst advocates only for policies that are focused on improving student learning. Keeping the most effective teachers in the classroom, regardless of whether they are 20-year veteran teachers or newer teachers, is the best policy for students. When budget shortfalls lead to layoffs, it is wrong to make these decisions based on how long a teacher has worked in a school rather than how well a teacher has done moving students along academically. Research shows when layoffs are made based on seniority, schools let some of their best teachers go. We need to end this harmful practice.