Jul 26, 2011

Let's Celebrate, Reward And Learn From Successful Teaching [Or, I Was Rated Awesome By A Flawed Measure!]

Eric Bethel previously taught fourth, fifth and sixth grade in the DC Public School system, where he currently serves as an elementary master educator. In this position, he helps evaluate and provide feedback to his peers. Eric holds a B.A. in Sociology and an M.A. in Elementary Education, both from Mount Saint Mary’s University.

As I reflect on my experiences teaching under IMPACT, the Washington, D.C. teacher evaluation system first introduced in 2009, one of my proudest moments was being recognized as a highly effective teacher.

It was a great feeling to know that my school district finally had the capacity to identify and recognize its teachers for the quality of their work with children. It marked the end of an era where teachers were invisible to those outside their classroom walls, and no one celebrated the tremendous feat of delivering high-quality instruction. Doing a great job always meant something to my students and their families, but now officials in my school district signaled clearly that it meant something to them too. What's more, they wanted to learn from it.

Beyond the obvious benefits of the financial rewards that were attached to being highly effective under the D.C. system, the recognition and appreciation that I received provided a renewed energy. The designation resulted in professional growth opportunities, such as offers to participate in mission-critical focus groups or invitations to apply for exciting programs. One such invitation led to a six-week fellowship working with our school leaders at the district's central office. These types of experiences simply didn't exist in the system of old. I found my morale and commitment to our mission at an all-time high.

As I look at the recent release by D.C. Public Schools of this year's IMPACT data, I immediately think about the 600 plus highly effective teachers that will be honored and recognized for their outstanding work.

It is my hope that the recognition, appreciation, and compensation that those teachers will now receive will inspire and encourage them to continue to charge forward in the same way that it did for me. Those successes, which have been overshadowed in the media by tough personnel decisions to separate underperforming teachers from the system, are worth talking about, learning from and celebrating. While it's important to usher out those who aren't effectively helping students learn, we must also shine the spotlight on those who are moving students towards success and serving as models of excellence for others.

I'm extremely proud of our teachers and just as proud of our district for recognizing them.

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.

Jul 25, 2011

TFT Has Something To Tell You About Students First: Updated

Michelle Rhee's Students First Facebook page, like Education Nation before it (prompting my Miseducation Nation response), has stopped allowing people to post on their wall. It seems to have happened at around 2pm Pacific on Monday, July 25, 2011.

This tactic is popular with folks who are trying to get their lies believed. They need to obfuscate, cheat and squash any and all dissent, especially dissent with facts to back it up.

Students First is in the business of convincing the public that poverty is a choice and can be overcome. Well, to be fair, the say that since poverty is such a huge problem they have decided to focus on the one factor in a school they know they can get popular support for--teacher bashing. They admit poverty is a much larger problem, and they go on to admit that it's too big for them, so they will focus on teachers, or something.

The are confused. They have no good reason for ignoring poverty as they claim to want to put students first.


Poverty's effects account for 60-90% of factors negatively impacting a child's ability to learn. Teachers and schools have effects that account for the other 10-40% (most researchers agree that the low number --10% -- is the more accurate measure of the effects. Ninety percent of factors fall outside of school. Rhee want to focus on the 10%, and she want one billion dollars to do it.)

If it weren't so dishonest it would be funny.

Update: Here is the proof that my assumption about SF being responsible for cutting off access to posting to their page was on purpose and not a glitch as they first claimed--a claim which has been scrubbed and replaced with the truth:

1) Here we have two comments where the missing SF claim of a glitch used to be. SF's original claim, that is was a glitch, was transposed by Sahila:
"StudentsFirst is not responsible for the removal of wall posting privileges, nor do we sensor any material that is not deemed abusive or profane. Unfortunately, Facebook is experiencing technical difficulties across the platform. We are working on having the issue resolved, thank you for your patience."
It used to be between the 2 comments you see below, but it was removed.

2) Here we have the new comment from SF saying they did it, not FB, and they offer no explanation of the removal of their first comment that was a lie.

So, they lied, and were caught. And Michelle Rhee wants you to trust her. She lied. Again. Again? Yes, again. She lied about her student's scores as a teacher, she lied about all those screwed up teachers she fired as Chancellor (remember they were rehired at huge expense?), she lies about the negative effects of LIFO and tenure, and she lies about the root causes and solutions to poor school performance by our most vulnerable kids.

Why does anyone trust her? Oh, they don't. She's a tool of the Oligarchy, and trust has nothing to do with it.

Jul 22, 2011

Poverty Doesn't Have To Lead To Failure [Or, Let Me Talk About Exceptions And Ignore The Rule]

CJ Penso is a Summer Research Associate about to enter her senior year at Oberlin College. She has worked with children in a variety of settings, from summer camps to inner-city high schools. At Oberlin, she works as the financial manager of student activity funds for the student body.

According to so many statisticians, I should have failed. I am both multiracial and a first generation American. I was raised by a single mother on the edge of gang territory, in a two-bedroom apartment sparsely furnished with items mostly originating from garage sales, secondhand stores, or free bins. My mother always worked two to three jobs and we relied heavily on the child support my father sent in highly-anticipated, though often tardy, checks. According to all the studies, I should be barely literate, less than basic in math, and possibly involved in a gang.

Statistics do not always show the whole picture, though. Correlation is not causation, and though I have heard that "poverty hurts the brain," I can assure you that there is nothing particularly wrong with mine. Unlike many of my neighbors, I did not fail. I am about to enter my final year at a prestigious private college, and this summer I was lucky enough to be hired as a Summer Associate at StudentsFirst.

Many statistical studies do not explain why there are students like me, students who instead of failing set their sights on being the best they can be and work hard to get there. What made a difference in my life was the quality of the schools and teachers I have had. It was not easy to access those resources, though. Had it not been for the herculean efforts of my mother, I would never be where I am now.

My mother became a teacher in NYC in 1985. She moved to California in 1989 to be with my father and worked as a substitute teacher for all the districts in a 20-mile radius. What she saw in the schools uniformly appalled her. She was determined that I would receive a great education and knew that I would not in the schools for which we were zoned. Unlike many families, we were too poor to move to a good district or, really, to move at all. Rather than see me stifled in poor schools, she worked tirelessly to make sure I could attend the best private schools available. She searched for scholarships and financial aid, researched and interviewed local private schools, and even fought an extended battle in court to ensure that I received adequate child support. All the while, she was teaching me to read, write, and do basic mathematics. She always read bedtime stories to me until I could read bedtime stories to her. As a result of her efforts, I have been privileged enough to attend good private schools from the time I was two years old to now.

I recently spoke to my mother about her efforts to put me in private schools. She said it was worth the struggle to see me educated, even though all of the financial aid she worked so hard to obtain still left the cost of my schooling outside of our financial means. In retrospect, she wished that she had had access to publicly funded vouchers to aid in paying my tuition. Though I have never felt strongly one way or another about vouchers, I found my mother's reasoning to be compelling.

"If the state has a mandate," she said, "to provide appropriate and safe (safe is important) education for every student, and if they are not capable of doing it, then they should pay for it to be done. If a kid has special needs that the local community cannot meet, then the state is required to pay for a private source. The same should apply for everybody."

My mother had to struggle to put me in a school that would teach me at the level she believed I needed. Though she received no help from the state, she gave me an invaluable education. However, not every student in this country is lucky enough to have a parent who is able to wade through the mire of the system with as much skill as my mother. Families are hindered by language barriers, misinformation, and far worse financial situations that ours.

The children of these families should not have to miss out on a good education because of the obstacles in their paths. Every family deserves the right to choose for their child the best option available be it a good neighborhood school, a public charter school, or maybe in some cases private schools. A child's success shouldn't be determined by whether or not you live on the right side of the train tracks. It is for these causes that I came to StudentsFirst, where we are working to ensure families have quality information and good educational choices to that more students will beat the statistics like I did.

Jul 20, 2011

Michigan Education Law Expected To Boost Teaching And Learning In The State [Or, Let Me Lie To You, Suckers]

With Republican and Democratic lawmakers looking on, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed new legislation into law this week that is expected to dramatically improve education in the state.

The new law requires that teachers and school administrators undergo rigorous, fair and transparent evaluations along with the professional development they need and want. Currently, teachers are evaluated infrequently and often complain the professional development they receive isn't targeted to their specific needs.

The new Michigan law also makes an important change to how teachers are retained. Before the law was enacted, schools that were going through budget cuts had to lay teachers off by seniority rather than based on job performance. Now, a teacher's work will kids will be the most important factor in determining who stays and who goes. That's critical to ensuring we keep our best teachers in the classroom.

The law also states that parents must be alerted when their children are placed in classrooms with teachers who have been evaluated as ineffective. Parents are the best advocates for their kids, but they can't speak up and demand better if they don’t have all the information at hand.

Shannon, a parent from Kentwood, was among the StudentsFirst members who turned out for the signing. "I am so excited to be a part of a new beginning in Michigan where all students have a chance of reaching their potential with great teachers," she said.

Last, the law reforms tenure so that this benefit is reserved for effective teachers.

Throughout the state, parents, students, educators and policymakers have come together to improve education in Michigan. The need is great. Only a third of the state's 4th graders were proficient on a federal reading test. With newly enacted changes, however, Michigan is on track toward ensuring children have access to great teachers and improved schools.

Please check out photos from the signing here.

Jul 19, 2011

A Teacher Tackles The Tough Issues Being Debated In Education Today [Or, Blah, Blah, I Got Nuthin, Blah Blah.]

Amanda Williams has been teaching first grade for 11 years in the Arizona public school system. She has a degree in Early Childhood Education from Arizona State University.

I have taught first grade in the public school system in Arizona for 11 years and am currently pursuing National Board Certification. Based on my experiences of the last decade, I see very clearly the crisis going on in Arizona and our country as a whole and I want to support the cause of education reform. Michelle Rhee had the courage to initiate change for my profession and for children, which is why I signed the StudentsFirst pledge and strongly support this organization. I humbly speak to you as just one of the many good teachers in our country. These are my opinions, and I do not claim to know everything and have all the answers. I am only giving a picture of my experience in the public school system, and as we all know, experiences vary across the country.

On the topic of teacher evaluations:

For years, I have felt that there should be better evaluation systems for teachers. Why do I feel this way? I don't feel that administrators can get a clear picture of a teacher's ability by one or two observations a year. I also think there are many other aspects involved such as, ability to communicate well with families, involving families, providing quality interventions for students who struggle, evaluation by fellow teachers, contributions to the school community, attendance, and yes, most importantly, student achievement.

How do we assess student achievement fairly? That is a huge challenge that we face at this point. I will suggest that, I, as well as any other good teacher, can clearly show you how students have progressed in my classroom. My district has many forms of assessment that we use throughout the year to evaluate student progress. The question should be: "Did this teacher help to close the achievement gap for this student? Did the student make adequate to excellent progress while with this teacher?" Even though it is difficult, we must keep working to determine student learning as a part of teacher evaluations.

I teach in a state where tenure has been non-existent for many years, however, our evaluation systems can be improved. Our state is currently in the process of changing this system and we just recently changed the "Last In, First Out" procedure of laying off teachers based on time served not performance.

These are all very good steps in the right direction, however there are many kinks to be worked out in the process of evaluation. Administrators must rise to the challenge of holding teachers accountable and to high standards. A fair evaluation system will help them to do this. I urge districts, schools, states, to involve the teachers in creating such a tool. Administrators also need to be evaluated with the same high standards.

On the topic of bureaucracy:

Waiting for Superman really put into words for me, the frustration that I feel with our public school system. "The Blob" as they called it, is a mess of bureaucracy that is preventing change. One of the areas of disconnect can sometimes be the Governing Boards and the State Legislatures. Often candidates for these positions do not have the experience needed to make the crucial decisions that affect our schools. The public must educate them on what is best for our students, as well as be informed voters. Teachers and parents have the ability and, I believe, the responsibility, to be the strongest voice to these people.

On the topic of outside factors:

Good teachers and schools try their hardest to reach out to families and involve them in their child's education, but often our students are not having their basic needs met at home. In my experience, many families are just trying to make ends meet and get food on the table. One of the biggest challenges for teachers is that in some areas we have children constantly moving in and out of schools and districts. We do the best we can in determining students' gaps and providing interventions to close these gaps. And we can never stop working hard in this area during the time we have with children, but our communities must work hard too to help ensure no kids are left behind. I am not making excuses, just stating reality.

It is my hope that the Common Core standards will help in the area of raising expectations and standards for all children. The Common Core standards are also a huge step forward in aligning what we are expecting of our students across the country, from one state to the next. Teachers must be held accountable for meeting these standards.

Teachers working toward change:

I joined StudentsFirst because I want to be a part of change in our country. I want to be involved with a group of parents, educators and concerned citizens who know that student achievement is the absolute most important thing in our schools.

As a teacher, I want to be held to high standards and I believe that good teachers will strive to reach those high standards for their students. In my opinion, it is also a step toward great teachers receiving the recognition that they deserve and eventually changing the way our schools and our profession are viewed by our country. I care about my students and also about my profession and want to see both flourish as they should.

I see the StudentsFirst organization as a way for people to communicate their thoughts and ideas about things that are happening in our country. I am thankful and excited that I can hear from other teachers and professionals from around the country regarding educational issues. I feel that we have a power to use this network for the greater good, to spread a message for change, and to actually make change.

At times, I think the StudentsFirst message, especially regarding LIFO, can be misconstrued in a way that makes teachers feel like we are being blamed for the big mess that we are in. That is not the case.  If you read StudentsFirst's website with their policy agenda, their blogs, their editorials, their Facebook page or if you reach out to them directly like I did, you will see that StudentsFirst acknowledges that teachers are the solution to the problem, that teachers are the most important aspect of promoting change and closing the student achievement gap. I think sometimes teachers feel they need to defend themselves and what they know. And often times, we do need to do that. But this is not the purpose of the StudentsFirst blogs and Facebook discussions. None of us have all the answers, nor the means of solving all of the nations problems. Nor does StudentsFirst. However, this organization is focusing on things that need to be repaired, ensuring that great teachers are teaching children. This is a step forward and only one of many.

We teachers should be supporting each other in these national efforts, as well as in our schools. Our main goal: student achievement. We need to set aside our egos and our need to be "right" and focus on exchanging ideas and collaborating in a respectful way, just as we do in our schools with our colleagues. Instead of focusing on what is not being done and blaming others for what they may not be doing, we need to focus on what each of us CAN do, to make a difference. We are all on the same team (our students' team) and should be celebrating and supporting each other. StudentsFirst is still growing and developing more and more ways for teachers to become involved in speaking out for their students and for reform. One way is to communicate nationwide with other professionals. Let's do it in a way that will reflect teachers as the dedicated, caring and knowledgeable professionals that we are. I urge teachers to become active in their local communities in spreading the word that we need to "Save Great Teachers" and talking to other educators about StudentsFirst. We do have the power to make change for our students and our profession.

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.

Jul 18, 2011

A Future Educator Talks About Changes She'd Like To See In Education [Or, I'm Pretty Ignorant Of The Facts, But Listen To My Opinion Anyways!]

Jamie Engel is a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder where she is studying English and Political Science. Along with her work at StudentsFirst, she has worked with Denver Parks and Recreation to assess and encourage programing for disadvantaged youth.

I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. There's just something about the excitement that comes along with learning - the exploration of new ideas - that has intrigued me. My teachers sparked in me a love and desire to learn. I will always remember my 5th grade teacher, Ms. McCalister, who taught me how to appreciate the art of reading and who encouraged retention of knowledge through group discussion. I can only hope that I can help my future students in the same way.

However, recently I have grown concerned about my career choice. Even if I become an inspiring and effective teacher, the reality is that I could lose my job based purely on my date of hire rather than how good a job I do helping kids learn. Even if I am lucky enough to retain my job in the face of last in, first out (LIFO) teacher retention policies, I worry that I will find myself in a system that doesn’t seem to value accountability the way most other professions do.

I can't help but think that I'm not the only prospective teacher worried about outdated rules that make teaching just a bit less attractive as a profession. I wonder whether policies like LIFO are causing future educators to turn their back on teaching for other careers?

I have heard awful stories from some of my own teachers; tales of educators who made tremendous gains, in both urban and rural school districts, yet were handed pink slips because they had only been teaching for a few years. It is essential that we bring accountability to the system to ensure that layoffs are strictly conducted on job performance not job tenure.

I came to StudentsFirst to learn about education policy at the state and local level and to learn how to advocate for reform. Can I change the system single handedly? No. I do have faith, however, that things will change drastically by the time I begin teaching. We are at a monumental point in history; those in favor of reform are organizing and implementing change within their communities. Look at the progress that has already been made. For the first time, in states like Nevada and Indiana, layoffs due to budget crunches are going to be based on effectiveness, not years of experience. In unprecedented numbers, people are coming together to voice their opinions in the hope of transforming education.

We must continue to organize and push for reform that will positively transform our education system. It is imperative that we propel the movement and inspire people along the way. The status quo simply won’t do. U.S. students are getting outperformed by their international peers, particularly in math. And achievement gaps between groups of students within our own borders are too big.

I believe I will stick with my plan to become a teacher, because I am confident that the work being done will bring change to the system. I dream of being an educator because I remember the difference teachers like Ms. McCalister made in my life, and because I know the day will come when the system values accountability and supports those providing the highest quality education to students. Until then, I will continue to put students first by working to change a system that doesn't always do that.

Jul 15, 2011

Speak Up For College Opportunity [Or, I, Like Everyone At Students First, Answer To The Billionaires]

This weekend, July 16th and 17th, members of Congress and the President are likely to craft a debt reduction deal that could slash Pell grants.

Now more than ever, a college education is critical to securing a place at the center of our country's mainstream. But tuition is skyrocketing twice as fast as health care costs, three times faster than family income, and four times faster than inflation. To make matters worse, nearly half of all states have cut their need-based student-aid programs this year. Michigan, for example, cut its programs in half; Ohio slashed its aid by nearly two-thirds. It's no wonder that, by age 24, students from wealthy families are 10 times more likely to have a college degree than are students from low-income families.

As debt-reduction talks in Washington reach a fever pitch, policymakers are looking for big budget cuts. And the Pell program is a prime target. Earlier this week, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., a leader in the negotiations, proposed cutting $10 billion from Pell. Another congressman referred to Pell as the "welfare of the 21st century." Yet another high-ranking lawmaker insisted that Pell is contributing to rising college costs, despite the fact that Pell's purchasing power is so diminished that today it only covers about one-third of the cost to attend a four-year public university.

If you're reading this blog post, you're probably passionate about ensuring that all of America's students are ready for success beyond high school. You're advocating for better teaching, higher standards, and more rigorous courses. And you're tearing down the barriers that stand between students and success. But right now, I'm hoping you'll turn your attention to saving the program that helps millions of low-income and working-class students overcome one of the biggest barriers they face: the high cost of college.

Pell is the cornerstone of our nation's financial-aid policy. It's the best chance that many working-class and poor kids have to attend college. And an educated workforce is crucial to our future economy that this deal is supposed to secure.

What you can do

1. Sign the Education Trust petition on Change.org to ask Obama to preserve funding of Pell grants at all costs.
Join the 10,000+ people who understand the importance of Pell grants to disadvantaged students and to the strength of our economy. Negotiations are happening this weekend so we need your signature today.

2. Take Action on Save Pell Day -- July 25th.

The deal that may be made this weekend will have to be approved by Congress in the weeks to come. That's why thousands of folks will come together on July 25th for Save Pell Day, an online day of action. On that Monday, advocates for students across the country will use Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and e-mail to contact Congress and spread the word about saving Pell from potential cuts. To learn more about how you can take action on Save Pell Day, follow the campaign on Twitter, check out our Tumblr Blog and join our Save Pell Community on Facebook.

End LIFO In Minnesota [Or, I Will Lie To You]

Jill Schoenberg is the author and creator of the award-winning Journal Buddies books for kids. She attended the University of Minnesota and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Youth Studies and Sociology. Her professional experience includes more than seven years of working directly with young people – helping them to understand and strengthen their self-esteem, creative talents and life-skills. She is passionate about helping kids to be their best and to achieve excellence in education and every area of their lives.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders in the legislature appear to be on track toward a compromise over the state budget.

With stakes so high, it's no surprise that many important policy initiatives will be left on the table when the budget is finalized. Nevertheless, there are some policy measures that are too important to leave behind, no matter the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in today.

One initiative that is currently being considered – it was in the omnibus education finance bill that Gov. Dayton vetoed - is a measure to end damaging 'Last-in, First-out', seniority-based teacher layoffs ("LIFO").

The way LIFO works is it mandates that when teacher layoffs occur due to budget shortfalls, an educator’s length of service trumps job performance in deciding who stays and who goes.

This outdated practice does not make sense. Teachers are so important to a student's success in the classroom. Research shows that when a LIFO policy is in force, more highly effective teachers are lost, districts tend to require a steeper number of layoffs and the most disadvantaged schools are disproportionately affected. Policymakers, including the governor, are in a position to end LIFO in Minnesota by making sure it is a part of the final budget package.

Minnesota lawmakers should do the right thing here in the home stretch. Don't fail us now, more importantly - don't fail our kids.

Jul 14, 2011

Working Together, We Can Improve Educational Outcomes For Hispanic Students [Or, As A Member Of The Chamber Of Commerce, I Like Money]

Julio A. Fuentes is President & CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (Hispanic CREO). The group's mission is to improve educational outcomes for Hispanic children by empowering families through parental choice in education. Mr. Fuentes previously served as the President & CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which he founded. He currently serves on the Florida Chamber of Commerce Board of Governors, the Board of Directors for Florida Kidcare, Chairman of Latin CEO, and most recent appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist as a Commissioner for a Blueprint for Juvenile Justice reform. Mr. Fuentes resides in Wellington, Florida with his wife and two kids.

America's Hispanic population is our largest, youngest and fastest growing minority group. In the classroom, one in five students is Hispanic.

But experts say about half of Hispanic students don't graduate with their peers each year from high school. And the problem persists beyond high school. Only 13 percent of Hispanics hold a bachelor's degree.

What's more the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students isn't budging, according to a recent report by the federal government.The report found a consistently large gap between Hispanics and Whites in reading and math among elementary- and middle-school children.

To bring national attention to this education crisis, the Hispanic Counsel for Reform and Educational Options is working with StudentsFirst and others to launch the Coalition to Ensure Educational Opportunities for Hispanic Children to Succeed.

The coalition will come together this Friday in Fort Lauderdale for a series of panel discussions with education and business leaders as well as policy makers. Together, we hope to come up with ways to ensure our Hispanic students succeed!

Jul 13, 2011

Public Schools Are Here To Stay, Reforms Will Strengthen Them [Or, Let Me Provide A False Equivalency Straw-Man Argument (It's All I Got!)]

An advocate for a certain approach to school choice recently said that she believed "public schools should go away." Not surprisingly, the comment generated a good deal of controversy.

It's understandable that some Americans are frustrated with our public school system. Public schools helped developed a talented workforce over the years, but the system has lost its way. Today, for too many students, it isn't working at all. Despite the billions we pour into it, public schools aren't delivering what we need in the 21st Century. American students score at the bottom of the pack in math and science when compared to their international peers. What's more, we have persistent achievement gaps between racial minorities and their white peers.

Those who would say there is no crisis in public education, and who would advocate policies that would preserve the status quo, are wrong. We cannot afford a public school system that takes in as much as it does and produces so little for our children.

However, those who look at the system as it is and argue that we should do away with it are equally wrong. The right to a free public education is not only essential to our future success, but a cornerstone of the American creed that anyone who works hard can make it here - because they have the fair shot at a quality, state-funded education.

The answer is not to turn our backs on public schools, but to roll up our sleeves and do the work necessary to turn around troubled schools.

That means investing in our schools to bring more resources to the classroom, and providing good nutrition and counseling services so that students are in a position to learn. But there is perhaps no more important step we can take to improve our schools than enact policies that ensure our kids have access to the very best teachers available.

These policies should include rigorously and fairly evaluating our teachers and rewarding those who succeed on the job with career and leadership opportunities and better compensation. Educators who need help should get it, but those who don’t improve must move on.

We also have to make sure we expand educational choices for parents and students to drive competition and spur reform and innovation in our public schools. In the end increased choice will provide added incentive to our traditional public school system to improve its performance. Many of our public charter schools and magnet schools serve as laboratories for new ideas that, if warranted, can also be use in our traditional schools.

However, support for public education cannot mean support for public schools alone, but also for public school children. We need to do everything we can to serve our public school children and give them the opportunity that a publicly funded education is supposed to provide in America.

Several years in a row in an ineffective classroom can negatively impact a child's entire life trajectory. Knowing that, I support giving kids a variety of educational choices. These can include staying in a school that is evolving, or going elsewhere. This can also mean seeking a spot in a better performing public school or trying to get into a public charter school. Or, for poor children, it can mean securing public funds to attend private schools.

But we must be careful to only offer these vouchers to children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and to hold private schools that take our public dollars accountable for their work with children. We ask and demand no less of our public schools.

It's time to make real and lasting change to our public schools. It doesn't mean doing away with them. It means reforming them.

California Board Of Ed Could Finalize Trigger Laws Today [Or, Ben Austin Might Hit The Jackpot!]

Debbie O’Toole is a San Diego native and is married with three children in city schools. She has served as president of the local elementary school parent organization, volunteers in class, teaches art, field trip driver, fundraising, etc. Being dismayed with the lack of communication between the school district and parents prompted her to start a website focusing on giving parents information about district issues in a timely manner. Voiceforourkids.org began in June of 2009 and reaches thousands of parents each month through email alerts. This year Debbie joined Parents for Quality Education as president to continue to advocate for children, concentrating on state legislation.

Parents from all over California will converge on Sacramento today in hopes of seeing the State Board of Education give final approval to regulations for the Parent Empowerment Law, also known as the Parent Trigger Law. The law allows parents with children at chronically failing schools to intervene and bring about a set of changes through a simple petition process.

Eighteen months after the law was signed, parents have been waiting for the board to approve the final regulations. Several parent groups have made multiple treks to the capitol to express their frustration in not being able to use the new law, but we are looking for that to change after today.

The makeup of the board changed after the election of Jerry Brown as governor, and it includes a paid lobbyist for the California Teachers Association. This board member attempted to add to the regulations that not only should half of the parents agree to a change at a school, but half of the teachers should also have to agree. To say this has been an uphill battle is an understatement.

But, as frustrated as we’ve been, we’re hopful the board will do the right thing and that today will be remembered as one in which childrens' interests came before any others.

The first group of parents to attempt to "pull the trigger" was from McKinley Elementary in Compton. Those parents have been treated horribly by school staff and the district, yet they fight on. Starting this fall they will have a new charter school, two blocks away at a local church. Not exactly what they had in mind, but at least their children don't have to spend more time at a failing school. Thankfully, as well, these parents are still working hard to see the law work for other parents.

The law is simple; if a school is failing (based on a set formula), parents can petition for change. Fifty percent of parents need to sign the petition. Parents vote to choose one of the four choices allowed; remove the principal or staff, close the school altogether, make changes like lengthening the school day or turn the school into a charter. Some feel the law doesn't go far enough because of one caveat; there is a cap of 75 schools. Over 1,300 qualify under the formula, but only 75 will be allowed to change. It's not a perfect law, but there's no question it's an improvement over 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.

Jul 12, 2011

What Is Value-Added Measurement And How Can We Use It [Or, Even Though VAA Wasn't Designed To Rate Teachers, Let's Use It Anyway!]

Value-added models for assessing student learning and teacher effectiveness are central to a lot of education policy discussions taking place nationally. We have examined the issue in a previous blog post, Fair Incorporation of Student Assessment Data Into Assessments: A Q & A with Dartmouth Professor Douglas Staiger. But questions continually arise on the topic on our StudentsFirst Facebook page. So we thought we'd revisit the subject here.

We know that teacher quality has a significant impact on student learning. We also know that some teachers are more effective than others. In the past, we did not endeavor to identify our most effective teachers nor did schools or districts regularly use teacher effectiveness to make staffing decisions. But in order to best serve students, this has to change. Value-added models, while they should not be used as the sole measure of teacher effectiveness, have an important role to play in teacher evaluation.

Value-added models look at a student's achievement gains, measured by tests taken at the end of the school year, compared to what was expected. Those expectations could be based on previous years' gains, socioeconomic factors and school and class makeup, for example. These models tell us whether students in a teacher's class met, exceeded or fell below expectations. By taking many things into consideration, value-added models can control for many factors that are outside of a teacher's control when it comes to student achievement gains and can more accurately measure the direct impact of the teacher.

Value-added models have their limitations, but they also are an important way of using the data schools are now generating to closely examine what's happening in classrooms across the country. Teachers and school administrators are using value-added models to examine whether students are making the strides expected, to look at learning trends in an entire school or district and to assess the impact teachers are having on student learning. By assessing teacher effectiveness, schools and districts can make better decisions about teacher placement, use the most effective teachers as mentors, ensure that we retain and reward effective teachers, and provide support to those teacher who need it.

We don't think value-added assessments should be the only way to examine teacher effectiveness. Using value-added analysis tells us a lot more than we used to know about teacher performance, but it does not tell us everything -- just as observations in the classroom or looking at a teacher's contribution to the school environment provide an incomplete picture. A quality evaluation system must include multiple components.

We have to continually look at ways to improve our evaluation systems so that they measure teacher effectiveness as accurately as possible. Teachers and students are depending on that. Ultimately, we at StudentsFirst believe that overhauling the way we evaluate teachers and principals is absolutely key to improving student outcomes. Value-added analysis, when used properly, is an important part of the solution and a positive step in the direction of measuring what matters for students.

One of the better reports on value-added analysis was done by the Brookings Institute in November, 2010 and can be found online here: Brookings Report.

Jul 11, 2011

Closing Student Achievement Gaps [Or, I Don't Know What I'm Talking About]

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.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released a report on an ongoing American crisis that undermines our constitutional foundations of equality and justice. The report, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, reveals that the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students isn't budging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, "achievement gaps occur when one group of students outperforms another group and the difference in average scores for the two groups is statistically significant."

A McKinsey & Company report "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in Americas Schools" identifies four critical achievement gaps in the United States: between American students and those in other countries; between low-income students and their wealthier peers; between students from different school districts: and between students of different racial identities.

The achievement gap between white and Hispanic students is especially alarming due to the NAEP report citing 2010 US Census data that finds: "Hispanics are the second largest racial/ethnic group in the United States, comprising 16 percent of the nation’s population." Our nation's schools must feel a sense of urgency, when we find a large sector of the population's children underperforming and lagging behind academically, limiting economic production, and ensuring greater future reliance on government assistance.

Based on the federal NAEP report, the American dream is being denied to many of our students. The report shows a 21 and 29-point difference between white and Hispanic students in mathematics in grades 4 and 8 respectively, with a 25 and 24-point difference between white and Hispanic students in reading found in grades 4 and 8.

If we disaggregate the data into income levels, we still find an alarming gap of 11 and 13 points in reading between white and Hispanic students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (students eligible for free and reduced lunch based on the family's income) in grades 4 and 8. What's more Hispanic students who do not qualify for the National School Lunch Program perform just one point better than white students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Further, if we compare Hispanic students who are not English Language Learners and English speaking white students, we still find an achievement gap of 15 points in both grades 4 and 8.

Race should not determine student achievement. The achievement gap between white and Hispanic students is a civil rights violation. As a teacher, I witnessed the transformational power of high expectations for all students. I pushed them to achieve at the highest levels, accepting nothing less than success. One of my Hispanic students came to me performing at the lowest levels, yet I kept challenging and engaging her with academic rigor, not giving up on her eventual success. This student graduated this year and wrote me an encouraging note describing how holding her to high standards gave her the confidence necessary to excel in school.

I take pride in helping my students succeed and defy the national trends that relegate Hispanic students to low achievement levels and trajectories. Many of my Hispanic students faced cultural, social, and economic challenges, yet when academically challenged and supported these students have made remarkable gains. I know in my classroom, my Hispanic students performed well. I'm convinced that all kids can and want to learn, it is up to American educators to motivate and inspire minority students to achieve.

Our nation's teachers and school leaders must adopt a sense of urgency to close this gap and no longer normalize and accept the failure of our Hispanic students. The achievement gap between white and Hispanic students ensures that we lose billions of dollars in economic growth, while preventing countless students equitable opportunities in life.

Jul 8, 2011

Standardized Testing In Our Schools [Or, My Justification For Using Test Scores To Assess Teachers]

Michael Loeb just completed his third year as a teacher. He teaches middle school students with special needs in the Throgs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, NY. Prior to teaching in New York he assistant taught and mentored in Washington, D.C.’s public schools.

A standardized testing debate currently rages in America. I have heard some people harshly criticize any use of standardized tests as a means of assessing student growth, and in turn, teacher effectiveness. I disagree with that view, because there are two aspects of this debate that I maintain to be true: one - our students need to perform at proficient levels on tests and a variety of other assessments now and in the future. Two - curricula that are aligned to a test don't have to eliminate teacher creativity or critical thinking in students.

Our students are growing up in a society that emphasizes testing way beyond K-12 public education. To enter college, our students must be able to demonstrate their abilities in a multitude of ways, including through a test. The same applies for many of our students that attend graduate school. And many of the professional fields that they may choose to undertake require them to pass a standardized exam, such as law, nursing, and, of course, teaching.

While standardized tests are currently imperfect, they are improving and already provide us with important information on student progress. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have partnered to incorporate the internationally benchmarked Common Core State Standards into their tests. CCSS-aligned tests will better prepare students to enter college in America and maintain a career in a competitive global economy. Additionally, the learning expectations for all public school children in the partnering CCSS states will be uniformly rigorous.

A March 2008 Economist magazine article explains why consistent high national standards are so important: "In Mississippi 90 percent of fourth-graders were labeled "proficient" or better in the state reading test in 2006-07. Only 19 percent reached that level in a national test." Standardized tests can help ensure that where a child lives will not negatively impact his or her learning expectations.

I am a teacher whose career was directly impacted by standardized tests. Last month, I finished my third year of teaching students with special needs in the Bronx, NY. In May, I submitted a 200-page application to my school district's superintendent in support of my tenure candidacy. The application contained lesson plans, unit plans, student work, reports on student progress, the agendas of workshops I led, and my students' standardized testing data. I learned a few weeks afterward that while much of my application was strong, I did not earn tenure because my students, on average, did not grow enough academically, according to their standardized English and mathematics tests. While personally disappointing, I philosophically agree with the decision made by my superintendent.

No, testing is not the sole means of measuring learning, but it is one important measure of many. As an education system, we must measure our students' proficiency through a litany of mediums -- essays, long-term projects, lab reports, discussions, presentations, homework and, yes, tests. It was refreshing to hear New York City's teachers union president Michael Mulgrew acknowledge to me and other educators at a January education policy panel that, in fact, "tests are part of what we do as teachers."

When I plan units of study to help prepare my students to meet testable standards, I spend the majority of my time crafting projects and assignments that will represent a range of ways students can demonstrate their learning. This year I was able to guide my students through creating and delivering PowerPoint presentations, writing historical informative essays supported with primary sources, and debating the persuasion techniques used in the film An Inconvenient Truth. Teaching students to perform on a standardized test and teaching students to perform on a host of different engaging assignments are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

I tell my students: yes, you must meet the state and national standards, but you also must meet my standards. That's not up for debate.

Jul 7, 2011

Last In, First Out Hurts Minnesota Schools [No, It Doesn't, And How Could You Know? You Are Just A College Student]

Claire is an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota and the president of Students for Education Reform (SFER) - Minnesota. SFER works to close the achievement gap and ensure an excellent education for all children by mobilizing the next generation of leaders in education reform. The group's members believe that college students are important stakeholders in the education discussion and offer a unique perspective as the most recent benefactors of the K-12 education experience. SFER Minnesota expands the human capital pipeline in education reform, striving to raise the profile of education issues in Minnesota by engaging student voices to advocate for the policies that drive improved student outcomes.

At the end of the regular legislative session in Minnesota, as part of the Omnibus Education Finance bill, lawmakers passed a measure that would help ensure kids in the state have access to great teachers by ending harmful policies related to teacher layoffs.

In light of the tough circumstances around a current government shutdown in Minnesota, we know leaders on both sides of the aisle are working hard to come to an agreement on budget matters that will be in the best interest of the state. We ask that, as all parties work to pass a budget that will work for all of us, ending seniority-based teacher layoffs remain a priority. The time to end this policy is now.

Because of current budget shortfalls, many schools in Minnesota are letting teachers go. It's an awful situation, but how these layoffs occur makes the problem even worse.

In Minnesota, like in many other states, when funding shortages lead to layoffs, seniority dictates which teachers should stay and which ones should go. This policy of last in, first out – LIFO for short -- means some highly effective teachers, who are skilled at moving kids along academically, could be shown the door. Meanwhile, less effective educators could stay. That makes no sense, and it hurts kids. Teachers are the most important school-based factor that impacts student learning.

It shouldn't matter how long an educator has been on the job. What should matter is how well that person has done helping kids learn. That's why we are urging lawmakers to change the law to make sure the most effective teachers stay on the job, regardless of their length of service.

Children are at imminent risk of losing some of Minnesota's best teachers. Lawmakers should act quickly to end LIFO. Such a move would follow a successful effort by lawmakers and Gov. Dayton earlier this year to push through an important law allowing people to become teachers even if they didn't go through traditional schools of education. That has allowed motivated mid-career changers and other talented individuals to join the ranks of Minnesota teachers. We need to make sure we're not pushing these teachers, and others, out the door.

When you look at the statistics, it's hard to argue with the need to do everything we can to make our schools better. While Minnesota students often achieve at higher levels than kids in other states, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Consider fourth-grade reading scores on a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. Just 37 percent of Minnesota children were proficient (meaning they demonstrated competency) on the federally administered test. For black and Hispanic students in the state, that figure hovered around 12 or 13 percent.

We can and should expect so much more of our schools. There is not one silver-bullet approach we can point to that will give us the schools we need to compete globally and provide our children with the schools they need and deserve. But ending LIFO and saving great teachers will go a long way toward achieving those goals.

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.

Jul 6, 2011

Serving Students With Special Needs [Or, I Was Never A Teacher So You Shouldn't Listen To Me]

Nathan Levenson is Managing Director of the District Management Council, a firm focused on helping public school districts raise student achievement and improve operational efficiencies. Prior to joining the District Management Council, Levenson was Superintendent of the Arlington (MA) Public Schools. He began his career in the private sector and was twice elected to his local school board.

SF: As a country, overall, how are we doing at educating our children with special needs? Where have we improved and what can we do better?

It is a mixed bag. Over the last 30 years the country has made significant progress in integrating students with disabilities into the general education setting. Gone (mostly) are the days of students with disabilities in run down rooms in the basement with scant supplies and no curriculum. The attitude towards students with disabilities has also improved. They are more accepted by their peers and often active in the school community. Despite these gains, overall it is hard to be pleased with the state of special education in America. Despite much caring, and even more spending, students with special needs achieve at unacceptably low levels, and too few are prepared for college, work, or independent living.

SF: What percentage of a district's budget typically goes toward special education? Is that money usually spent wisely?

Strangely enough, no one knows for sure how much is spent on special education. Few school budgets accurately track this. For example, legal bills for IEP disputes are often charged to the legal line item, not special education. The same is true of some transportation expenses, which aren't credited to the special education budget. One recent study indicates total spending on special education has risen from 4 percent of district budget to 21 percent from 1970 to 2005. Some districts in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and other high spending states, spend over 30 percent of the budget on special education. None of these figures include the cost of classroom space and facilities. Since special education spending isn't tracked in detail, it should be no surprise that often it isn't tightly controlled. For example, general education class sizes are tightly managed, but in many districts caseloads for special education teachers and therapists are completely unknown. Equally surprisingly, in many districts some special education staff are (unknowingly) assigned many more (or less) hours of work than their colleagues. Even worse, too often the services and programs funded just aren’t helping kids learn! This is unfair to both students and taxpayers.

SF: What role do early intervention services play in helping students with special needs succeed and how costly or efficient are these programs?

I like to simplify this topic, and assert that only three things really matter in early intervention -- reading, reading, and reading. The stats are clear -- reading is the gateway to all other learning. Children who struggle in reading are over-referred to special education and often never catch up. This is especially sad, since we have "cracked the code" on how to teach reading. The National Reading Panel and the What Works Clearing House spell it out. Some districts feel they don't have enough money to implement a best practice reading program, but our studies have shown that typically it costs 1/2 to 1/5 as much as the current mish-mash of elementary support programs. The obstacles aren't dollars, but focus, turf battles, silos, and other organizational self-imposed barriers.

SF: In your paper, you suggest a need for more closely integrating special education and general education programs. Can you explain your views and offer some practical advice on how a district could do this?

This is perhaps the most obvious and controversial point in the paper. The idea is simple; students who struggle to learn math need two things: a great math teacher and extra time with this great math teacher. While hardly a complex idea, it is quite common for students with special needs to experience just the opposite. It is far more typical that a special education teacher, who has little or no training in math will be either the only teacher for a special needs student, or will provide all the extra help. Unintentionally, we have systematically shifted the responsibility of teaching math, English, and reading from content expert general education teachers to non-teachers (paraprofessionals) or teachers not trained in reading, math or English (special education teachers).

The most direct solution is to have general education teachers provide both core instruction and the supplemental extra help. The math department should be responsible for students learning math, even students with disabilities, rather than the special education department.

SF: You point to areas where the federal law can be improved to benefit special education services, such as mandating new rules around teacher quality. Can you discuss this and also highlight approaches state and local policymakers can pursue?

State and federal policy reinforce two of the most troubling aspects of how we serve students with special needs. The first is a relentless focus on inputs rather than outcomes. It's against the law if services aren't provided or spending is reduced, but it's basically OK if the services and funds don't result in a child that can read! Grant rules also make it hard to combine funds into one effective, robust program, and encourage many smaller, less integrated efforts, all in the name of closely monitoring the inputs (grant dollars).

The Highly Qualified requirement of the No Child Left Behind Law has also been interpreted by many states in a way that unintentionally hurts students with special needs. It seems that a general education student requires a teacher steeped in math content, training, and expertise, but that very same teacher can't instruct a student with special needs, because a special needs certificate is required. In fact, a student with special needs can be (and often is) taught math by someone with no training or expertise in math, yet they are still deemed "highly qualified".

SF: If there are ways to raise student achievement and lower costs, why aren't more districts doing this?

I think there are two obstacles: compassion and fear. Rightfully so, no one wants to take away anything from students who struggle. Out of love, we have lowered expectations, shielded students from rigor, and propped them up with paraprofessional support. This is well intentioned, but it hasn't actually helped many students with mild to moderate disabilities succeed.

Too often we are fearful of acknowledging that what we are doing isn't good enough. This fear is compounded by the concern that improving outcomes will cost more money. Only by combining compassion for students and a commitment to improve special education without siphoning resources from other children can districts raise achievement for students with special needs.

To see Levenson's report click here: Rethinking Special Education.

Jul 5, 2011

Poverty Matters. But So Does School Reform. [Says A College Junior]

StudentsFirst Summer Associate George Hornedo is a junior at Cornell University where he is majoring in Government. He previously interned with the Half in Ten Anti-Poverty Campaign, a project aimed at cutting the poverty rate in half in a decade. He also is the founder and president of Cornell's Half In Ten chapter. George is from Indianapolis.

The lines are drawn in the education reform debate that unfairly and inaccurately box people into two camps: one that is trying to abate poverty and one that is trying to improve schools. Like most issues, though, things are not so black and white.

The education reform debate is about how best to create and foster an environment where children can learn and thrive - all children, including those from underprivileged backgrounds.

We can all agree that what we are doing now is not working. Our achievement gaps are too big, and our international test scores are middling at best and flat-out awful in some areas.

There is no question that teacher quality is a powerful and dominant force in improving student learning. So we have to do what's necessary to improve teaching, and I just don't see how that is an attack on anti-poverty efforts or an attack on teachers. After all, we're talking about paying effective teachers much more than they make now, ensuring they stay on the job in the face of layoffs and using robust evaluations to fairly assess which educators are succeeding. To divert attention from reforms based on teacher quality, critics point to poverty as the culprit. In doing so, these critics are dividing people into two competing camps, those who believe we must address poverty to improve education and those who believe we must improve education to alleviate poverty.

As Diane Ravitch recently wrote in the New York Times, "If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle."

I hope Ms. Ravitch is wrong that solving poverty will take a miracle, and we must work to eradicate it as best we can. The reality is alleviating poverty will require fundamental and systemic changes in business, politics, economic systems, taxation, and more. Education is one important tool through which students can be helped, even amid poverty. In fact, a well-educated child can break the generational cycle of poverty.

Nations like India and China are producing more highly qualified workers than in the U.S. As President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union, "This is our Sputnik moment." The time to act is now and we must operate within political reality.

About 1 in 5 children, or 15 million kids, in the U.S. are living in poverty. This is a crisis that we need to address immediately. If, like me, you feel education is the best tool to bring people out of poverty, join the movement to put students first in education reform. If you believe hunger, health care, or a steady home and income can better alleviate poverty, then organize and mobilize around those issues.

As President John F. Kennedy said, we must "think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation." In the end, we're all working together to leave our nation and world better for future generations. We're all on the same team.

Jul 3, 2011

The DREAM Act Is Good For Kids And Good For Our Country [Will Wonders Never Cease?]

As the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools, and as a mom to daughters who attended a public bilingual school, chances are I have come to know some wonderful children who have succeeded in school but who still may not get a shot at the American dream.

These are kids who were brought to this country illegally by their parents or perhaps another relative. They had no choice in entering America, but they were raised as Americans with American dreams. And they did what was expected of them to achieve that dream -- stayed out of trouble, studied hard, got good grades. But as they look forward to college many of them won't be able to pursue the career they want because of the actions of an adult in their lives years ago.

One of the reasons I started StudentsFirst is because for too long our educational policies have focused on adults, not kids. We need to change that and prioritize the needs of children. We have an opportunity to do that with the DREAM Act, legislation that has been debated in Congress for years and which is gaining new momentum. It would allow people brought here as children to be eligible for in-state tuition and, after having gone to college or served in the military, would put them on a path to legal status.

Immigration is not my area of expertise, but I know that the current policy has implications for our education system and isn't working for kids. It's wrong to punish children for the actions of their parents, and we should work to get this legislation enacted into law. On Sunday I am participating in a special edition of ABC's "This Week" focused on this topic. Also participating is Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who recently acknowledged he was an undocumented immigrant brought to the United States from the Philippines as a 12-year-old boy. Vargas spoke of a lifelong fear of being discovered and of having to lie and cover up his past in order to work as a journalist. Along the way, Vargas met educators and employers who became aware of his secret and helped him keep it.

No child should be forced to live in the shadows and hide their identity, nor should any teacher or mentor have to cover up the truth. It also makes no sense for our country to forgo the talents of people like Jose Antonio Vargas. Passing the DREAM Act is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. America has invested in these successful young people, and as a nation we should benefit from their hard work and success. In the DREAM Act, we have legislation that is good for kids and good for our country. It should become law.

Tomorrow is July 4, a holiday my family and I love. During this patriotic time of year, I can think of no better way to celebrate our heritage as a nation of immigrants than to turn the DREAM Act into a reality.

Jul 1, 2011

Chamber Of Commerce [Red Flag Right There!] Says Ed Reform Is Needed To Secure U.S. Future

Margaret Spellings is the President of the U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She also is president and CEO of Margaret Spellings and Company and a leading national expert on public policy. Spellings served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009.

In the past few years, we have seen unprecedented leadership and funds dedicated to innovation and reform in education. This national dialogue and ambition for change is greatly needed and can certainly be considered movement in a positive direction, but systemic advancements have remained elusive. Why is that? The reasons are numerous and the points of view endless, but there is a case to be made for the American business community taking bold and fiercely committed action to challenge the education system's status quo.

A particularly jarring visual representation of the dismal state of education nationwide and an example of why action is needed now can be found in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. This interactive map created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW) compares the state of education across all 50 states and the District of Columbia in nine categories, including student achievement, graduation rates, and achievement gaps. The map provides a quick view of how each state adds up in comparison to others. One look at the map makes it apparent that partners from all sectors need to collaborate to bring about transformative reform. To jumpstart this change, ICW is calling upon the business community to take a proactive and invested interest in education.

Why business leaders? At the Chamber, we have consistently heard from our members that there is a shortage of workers entering the workforce with the skills necessary to compete in a global economy, particularly when it comes to careers in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field. Business leaders are uniquely able to articulate the skills necessary to succeed and support our educational system in delivering the education required to meet those needs. Business is the one of the only major stakeholders that has the freedom to approach educational challenges in new ways given their fresh perspective and political leverage.

Partnerships, however, need to be more robust than simply donating money and sponsoring scholarships. As ICW has showcased in its recent report, Partnership is a Two-Way Street: What It Takes for Business to Help Drive School Reform, businesses can leverage their expertise, political heft, and leadership to push for a more systemic change in our nation's school system. Businesses can also be bolder when it comes to advocating for improved STEM education. This is not an easy task, but no major shakeup ever is. However, it is clear that unless our school systems do a better job of teaching our children, our national competitive edge will be jeopardized and our children will continue to graduate lacking the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

That is why the U.S. Chamber has come out fighting when it comes to education reform and has proposed a way forward for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). We recognize changes to the law are in order, but we can't lose the fundamental focus on raising student achievement and closing the achievement gap. We've made a lot of progress under NCLB, but clearly still have a long way to go. We've seen increases in student achievement in our elementary grades, especially for disadvantaged students. In 2008, African-American and Hispanic nine-year-olds made double-digit gains in both reading and math compared to 1999. This focus on subgroups of students has resulted in significant gains on the Nation's Report Card. And as the United States becomes even more diverse, we all have an interest in ensuring that our students are graduating from high school prepared to enter college or the workforce.

As reauthorization is being debated, some have proposed limiting accountability to just a handful of schools. We cannot substitute transparency for accountability or focus just on our worst performing schools, as it would halt progress for millions of students across the country who attend schools that aren't the worst of the worst but still have significant numbers of students not yet on grade level. While the lowest-performing schools are in desperate need of action, ignoring the vast majority means ignoring black, Hispanic, low-income, and limited English proficient students, and students with disabilities all across the country who aren't even close to getting the education they deserve.

The Chamber is unapologetic in its support for continued transparency and disaggregation of data, annual testing, and a strong accountability system that supports all students and all schools. It is in the details of the accountability system, however, that the Chamber proposes significant changes to current law that would essentially move from the federal pass/fail system set out in current law and instead allow states to define with their own accountability systems as long as they meet several key criteria to ensure that all schools are held accountable for all students.

While the Chamber will not retreat from a focus on the success of every child;not just those in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools—we believe we have struck the right balance between accountability and flexibility such that we are not going back to a time when billions of taxpayer dollars were spent without any expectation for student results.

The business community stands ready to work on behalf of our nation's children. While we clearly have a vested interest in ensuring a quality workforce with the necessary skills to succeed, we're also parents and grandparents as well as community leaders who want to see our children succeed and our nation prosper. For all those willing to work toward additional and accelerated reform, you have a partner in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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.