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From the publisher: “Juking the stats” in DPS

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Juking the stats. Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.” – a cop-turned-teacher in HBO’s series “The Wire,” when asked to boost test scores.

Last week’s article in Westword about abuses in Denver North High School’s “credit recovery” program touched a nerve, and for good reason. It’s a textbook example of kids being used to make adults look better.

There’s no reason to believe the problems detailed in Melanie Asmar’s story are limited to North. In fact I’ve received emails from people at other Denver high schools alleging similarly questionable practices. And the New York Times wrote a national story about credit recovery abuses in April.

I’m sure most of the adults involved – heck, probably all of them – allowed and in some cases encouraged kids to cheat on credit recovery homework and exams thinking it was in the best interest of those kids. So many studies, after all, have shown that young people’s prospects improve significantly with a high school diploma.

District leadership needs to do some soul-searching about whether the pressure exerted on high schools to improve graduation rates tacitly encourages school administrators to juke the stats to make themselves and the district look better.

If the diploma has been watered down to the extent that the credential becomes meaningless, though, then every graduate of North High School is hurt by this extreme manifestation of the “pobrecito syndrome” (as in “oh, these poor babies’ lives are so hard we can’t expect too much of them.”)

There’s also an element here of gaming the system for less altruistic reasons. Juking the stats doesn’t just happen in “The Wire.”  It’s exactly what happened in North High’s credit recovery program.

For those of you who haven’t read it, here are the main points from Asmar’s story.

  • North began using credit recovery in 2008, when its graduation rate was 46 percent. The program allows students who have failed core courses to retake them online with adult supervision.
  • By 2010, North’s graduation rate had jumped to 64 percent.
  • Asmar uncovered information from sources and records showing that kids and adults gamed the system, thereby increasing pass rates. Kids used search engines to find answers or took tests repeatedly until they got the right answers and then passed those answers on to friends. Adult supervisors said North administrators “encouraged and even helped” kids find ways to pass online tests.
  • North students in credit recovery could get a semester’s credit simply by taking the credit recovery final exam for a given course, which caused Asmar’s sources to wonder “whether they really learned anything at all.” Yet a senior DPS administrator, Antwan Wilson, was quoted by Asmar defending this practice.

There are many more depressing details in the story, but you get the drift.

It sure sounds like juking the stats to me. And, as in “The Wire,” while it benefits some people, it hurts others. In this case, it’s allowing students to graduate from high school without demonstrating in any meaningful way that they have learned enough to succeed in higher education or the job market.

The good news here is that plenty of caring teachers at North were outraged by the shenanigans and blew the whistle by calling Asmar. The bad news is that they resorted to this because they couldn’t get any satisfaction inside their own building. Westword found emails showing that one mid-level administrator at 900 Grant Street knew students were using the Web to cheat, and urged the school to block those sites during tests. But apparently no one from the district followed up, and North kept the sites unblocked.

Once Asmar brought the issue to the district’s attention, Wilson, DPS’ assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness told her that the district would audit the transcripts of every North graduate over the past two years. But what will the district do with its findings? And what, exactly, can an audit prove?

It is incumbent upon the district to launch a major investigation into credit recovery practices in all its high schools. In the unlikely event that North proves to be an isolated case, the people found responsible should face harsh sanctions (Assistant Principal Nancy Werkmeister, identified in Westword as the administrator in charge of the program, recently retired, and the principal, Ed Salem, is leaving the district).

If, as seems more likely, the investigation uncovers similar problems in other schools, then the district needs to do a couple of things. First, it needs to tighten its implementation of the credit recovery program and write clear regulations about how credit recovery computer labs are monitored.

More important, though, the district leadership needs to do some soul-searching about whether the pressure exerted on high schools to improve graduation rates tacitly encourages school administrators to juke the stats to make themselves and the district look better.

Miraculously boosting graduation rates by giving would-be dropouts a meaningless diploma does no one any favors. And it sure as hell doesn’t make anyone look good. Quite the contrary.

Scandals of this sort call into question all the data the district releases trumpeting its improvement, and give fodder to the district’s relentless critics. Does DPS release the numbers without vetting them? Does it cast a beady eye and investigate suspicious jumps in test scores and graduation rates at specific schools?

I hope so. If district officials believe in statistical near-miracles, then (to borrow a parable I once heard) they are like the man who gains 50 pounds, can’t fit into his clothes, buys a much larger pair of pants, finds that they fit well and proclaims, “See, I’m in shape!”

Popularity: 33% [?]

From the publisher: Are researchers, policymakers oil & water?

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

Last month I wrote a blog post about my lack of confidence in educational research, some of which strikes me as politicized. My basic point was that in some cases you could read only an author or think tank’s name and guess a study’s conclusions with a high degree of accuracy.

As you might imagine, the post created a stir. I had some stimulating conversations with Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado education professor and director of the National Education Policy Center, which I mentioned in my post. As I wrote in that post, I like and respect Welner. Our discussions were (to use diplomats’ language) frank and open and at their conclusion we decided this was an interesting enough topic to merit a broader conversation.

Policymakers will see some researchers as timid wafflers. The researchers will view those policymakers as impulsive and shallow in their policymaking.

On Monday, we convened a group of nine people for a two-hour discussion about research, policy, politics and the media. We agreed that the conversation would be off the record, so I can’t say who attended. Let’s just say it was an interesting mix of academics and policy folks.

We did not solve the research and policy worlds’ problems. In fact, if anything, I left the conversation feeling more downcast than encouraged. But I came away with a better  understanding of researchers’ perspectives, and why it is so difficult for advocates and policymakers to use research well.

Here are my undoubtedly over-simplified interpretations of some of the main points that emerged:

  • Research by its nature is reflective and not oriented toward action. As one participant put it, good research consists of paying attention to what happened in the past, with the aim of avoiding the mistakes of the past. “Research more often describes the problem than effectively prescribes the solution.”
  • From a researcher perspective, policy is “often (recklessly) ahead of what we know.”
  • From a policy perspective, research often isn’t timely enough to have an impact on the policy debates of the day. “It takes decades for consensus to form around research findings, and for real knowledge to emerge.”
  • While most researchers would not classify themselves as political advocates, “our values guide the questions we ask.”
  • Some researchers, though, have crossed the line and have taken on more of an activist role. “Their research is pretty predictable,” one participant said.
  • Most policymakers, though, “lead with their values, not with research findings.”

From the perspective of some of the academic researchers in the room, the combination of policymakers, advocacy groups and media outlets, all uncomfortable with nuance and ambiguity, form a toxic brew. While the best research lives in the gray areas, subtlety and nuance are the enemies of soundbites and ideologically-driven debates and policy fights.

Policymakers and advocates want definitive conclusions. Researchers shy away from yes and no answers. On controversial legislation like Senate Bill 10-191, the teacher effectiveness law, researchers’ innate “caution is seen as trying to undo the intent of the legislation,” one participant said.

Good academic research is by its nature reflective and deliberate. Hence the “ivory tower.” Is it possible to bring research into harmony with a political and media culture that runs on adrenaline, competition and ideology?

It’s hard to see how. One researcher at the gathering suggested that at more tranquil times on the political calendar – summer in a non-election year, perhaps –someone convene a group of researchers and policymakers to discuss in depth and detail the issues likely to emerge as hot-button legislative issues in the coming year.

Ultimately, we will never have a system that approaches the ideal. Policymakers will see some researchers as timid wafflers. The researchers will view those policymakers as impulsive and shallow in their policymaking.

One solution proposed in passing that everyone seemed to like: Have the state legislature meet only every second or third year. That would allow time for deliberation and keep laws lacking a research basis from being passed just to justify the legislators’ existence.

Now there’s an idea worth pursuing.

Popularity: 19% [?]

From the publisher: A close watch on DPS elections

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

No matter where you stand on public education issues, there is little doubt that this fall’s school board elections in Denver represent a watershed moment. The current board is split 4-3 on whether the current direction of reforms should continue, and whether Superintendent Tom Boasberg should keep his job.

Three seats are up in November. Theresa Peña and Bruce Hoyt, strong supporters of the current regime and direction, are term-limited and cannot run again. Arturo Jimenez, who lines up against the Boasberg agenda on most issues, is up for reelection. As an incumbent, he has a leg up in winning his seat.

No one doubts that this fall’s elections will be bruising and, by education politics standards, big-money affairs.

So for the current 4-3 split in favor of Boasberg to stand, both Peña’s at-large seat and Hoyt’s southeast Denver seat would have to be won by candidates who support the district’s current direction. All that could change, of course, if the current effort to recall board President Nate Easley, a Boasberg ally, succeeds. If Easley loses his seat this spring to a candidate who opposes current choice and turnaround initiatives, Boasberg won’t be in his job come November.

So the stakes couldn’t be higher. And given Colorado’s vanguard positions on teacher effectiveness, school innovation and growth model data, the outcome of Denver school politics will reverberate nationally.

It is for these reasons that Education News Colorado has just hired a reporter to cover the DPS elections and related issues. We believe that people interested in schools and the politics of education will be keenly interested in following these races closely. At the same time, we do not want to sacrifice our coverage of important issues elsewhere, be they state policy initiatives, vouchers in Douglas County, Jeffco budget woes or Aurora innovations.

Our new reporter is Charlie Brennan, a familiar name to people interested in Colorado journalism. EdNew's Colorado's Charlie Brennan

Brennan has been a journalist for nearly 30 years. He has reported on subjects as diverse as the University of Colorado’s anthropological investigation at Gran Pajaten deep in the Peruvian Andes, the launch and explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the JonBenet Ramsey case, the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq and the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Brennan reported for more than 20 years at the Rocky Mountain News, covering a wide array of beats, starting in the newspaper’s Boulder bureau, where his coverage included a strong focus on the University of Colorado. He returned to CU in 2000 and 2001 as an adjunct instructor in journalism ethics. Brennan’s time at the Rocky Mountain News saw him win numerous statewide and Scripps-Howard honors for his reporting on a variety of beats. He also spent two years as an assistant city editor, supervising a team of reporters.

Brennan took a one-year leave from the Rocky in late 1997 to collaborate with author Lawrence Schiller on a definitive account of the JonBenet Ramsey case, “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town,” a New York Times best-seller which stands today as perhaps the authoritative book on the early days of that legal saga. Brennan also served as a frequent commentator on the case for CNN’s Larry King Live, and as a consultant to ABC News.

In 2007, Brennan left the Rocky to join KDVR Fox31 News in Denver, where he spent more than two years as an on-air general assignment reporter, covering a broad range of stories, with emphasis on Denver’s preparation for, and hosting of, the 2008 Democratic National Convention and inauguration of President Barack Obama. And in 2010, Brennan was the director of communications for Boulder District Attorney and former Boulder Valley School Board president Stan Garnett, in Garnett’s campaign for Colorado attorney general.

No one doubts that this fall’s elections will be bruising and, by education politics standards, big-money affairs. Brennan is a tough and fair reporter who won’t accept easy answers from anyone on any side of these issues.

So to get the low-down on what’s happening in these pivotal board races, check the EdNews website frequently. It’s going to be an interesting ride. Climb aboard with us.

Popularity: 22% [?]

From the publisher: Courting disaster

Monday, January 31st, 2011

As a nation we have become adept at going to extremes to prevent the last disaster or near-disaster from occurring again. Isn’t that why we must take off our shoes in airport security lines and can’t carry more than a single one-quart baggie holding 3.4-ounce containers of liquid onboard a plane?

It’s easier to be reactive than proactive, I guess. It takes imagination and foresight to anticipate what might happen next.

Sometimes, though, a disaster in waiting stares us in the face and we continue to ignore it. That’s the case with the alarming and growing shortage of nurses in schools. The decrease in school nurses occurs at a time when more kids with serious medical issues like asthma and diabetes are requiring regular assistance during school hours.

In many schools unqualified secretaries, teachers and administrators are helping kids with insulin monitoring and injections, blood draws and even feeding tubes.

“People used to chuckle at school nursing and say ‘oh, that’s just Band-aids and Tylenol,’” Kathy Patrick, the Colorado Department of Education’s principal consultant for school health services said during an Education News Colorado podcast interview last week. “Not anymore.”

It’s only a matter of time before some awful and preventable tragedy occurs. Then the finger-pointing and hand-wringing will begin and we will all ask ourselves how did we ever let this happen?

“We think about this all the time as school nurses,” Patrick said. “The potential is there for someone to act incorrectly or not act at all and have a child end up severely injured or dead.”

Patrick said some states require districts to have nurses in all schools. Short of that, she said, districts could offer training programs for people who would like to become health aides in schools. Those people would need to be trained and supervised by a registered nurse, “but at least there would be someone in the building who has a little more expertise than the average staff person.”

This way, someone with minimal training would be helping kids with what can be tricky and delicate procedures. As Patrick told me, you wouldn’t want to be in the hospital and have the person who changes your bed performing medical procedures on you. Yet we seem comfortable, or at least blissfully unaware, that the equivalent is taking place in schools across the country every day.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2020 initiative recommends one school nurse for every 750 “relatively healthy” students, Patrick said.  Given nursing shortages and school budget realities, that’s probably not a realistic figure, she acknowledged. What the state would like to see is somewhere in the neighborhood of one nurse for every 1,200 students.

But look at these ratios, reported in last week’s EdNews story by Rebecca Jones:

  • Adams 12 – 1 nurse per 4,936 students
  • Aurora – 1 nurse per 1,754 students
  • Boulder – 1 nurse per 3,500 students
  • Cherry Creek – 1 nurse per 735 students
  • Greeley – 1 nurse per 3,271 students

The high ratios slap you in the face. But what about Cherry Creek? How has that suburban district, strapped by budget realities and shifting student demographics like other districts, managed to keep a ratio even lower than what the federal government recommends? What can Cherry Creek teach other districts about prioritizing?

District Spokeswoman Tustin Amole credits a successful $18 million mill levy election in 2008 for keeping cuts from being as deep in Cherry Creek as in some Denver area districts. For the most parting, staffing at schools, other than secretaries, have been protected, though some jobs are lost to attrition.

But even before the mill levy, Cherry Creek placed a high value on nursing services in schools. “I’ve been here a dozen years and this is the way it was even before I got here,” she said.

The district averages one 911 call per day because of seizures, asthma, allergic reactions or playground accidents, Amole said. When you factor in all adults and children, “there are about 60,000 people coming in and out of our buildings every day.” About the size of Grand Junction, in other words. So nurses in schools “is something we have wanted to protect.”

What happens next is unclear. Additional budget cuts are certain, in Cherry Creek as well as all other school districts as the state ties to weather an ongoing fiscal crisis.  There is no guarantee nursing services will be spared the axe in the next round of reductions, in Cherry Creek or in districts that have already pared nursing to the bone.

And so it goes until something awful happens. Then somehow the money will materialize.

Popularity: 29% [?]

From the publisher: Practice, practice, practice

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Which of these two approaches do you believe generates better results, whatever the endeavor?

  1. Constantly shifting gears; placing a high value on trying new programs and strategies without necessarily waiting to evaluate the results of what you have initiated before moving on to the next new thing.
  2. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to it faithfully for an extended period of time, even when evidence surfaces suggesting that there may be better strategies and newer, more innovative techniques that could yield better results.

In the real world, of course, one needn’t choose one or the other. But I would argue that public education systems in this country have most often and by default chosen something resembling the first approach over the second. The frenetic pace of new mandates and initiatives have made it almost impossible for educators to settle in and get good at implementing any particular series of changes.

As state Sen. Mike Johnston wrote on this blog last week, Colorado finds itself in a place today where slowing down and implementing the state’s abundance of new initiatives would be the wisest course of action:

With Colorado in the middle of rolling out new standards, developing new state assessments that will replace CSAP, and overhauling our principal and teacher evaluation system, a number of the most critical components of our statewide system are in flux.

This summer I had the opportunity to talk with more than 1,000 teachers and more than 70 superintendents and their consistent message was that they are committed to getting standards, assessments and evaluations done right, but they need the time to do that before embarking on another big initiative.

In the following paragraphs, or course, Johnston said yes, but we must also address “student accountability” and the method by which we count enrollment in districts. So don’t expect stagnation at the State House.

I keep thinking back to a trip I took to Mexico in March 2004, when I worked at the Piton Foundation. Educator Rob Stein, community advocate and Mexican national Jaime Di Paulo and I spent a week in the state of Zacatecas visiting schools. (We also spent an enjoyable evening following around  a burro that dispensed shots of mescal, but that’s a story for another venue).

We wanted to see what we could learn about Mexican education at the classroom level, and whether any of those lessons might be useful to educators in Colorado, who were working with growing numbers of Mexican immigrant students.

You can read a full account of the trip here, the highlight of which is Stein’s insightful analysis of Mexican classrooms.

Mexico is not known for its stellar public education system. In the latest (2009) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, Mexico ranked in the bottom 20 percent of countries in reading, mathematics and science, behind the underperforming U.S. in all areas.

And yet the Mexican teachers with whom we spoke almost to a person observed that students who came to them after being schooled for a time in the U.S. consistently lagged behind their counterparts who had been educated solely in Mexico. This was especially true in math, the teachers said.

And in the hamlet of El Tepetate, where cars with Colorado plates are a common site, we talked to a couple of students from Denver (sent home to live with grandparents after misbehaving in the U.S.) who said they had to struggle to catch up academically to their Mexican-educated peers.

As Stein observes in his piece, Mexican education is old school. We visited about a dozen schools and everywhere the methodology was identical. It probably hasn’t changed since 2004. The teacher stands in front of a class of uniformed students in an unadorned, cinderblock and cement classroom and delivers lessons.

Stein wrote:

In urban and rural schools alike, the curriculum follows an almost lock-step adherence to the prescribed series of subjects, materials and textbooks issued from Mexico City. Each state teaches its own history, which is the only curricular area in which one might find differences in material taught.

In classrooms around the state of Zacatecas, on any given day, students of the same age and grade can be seen studying the same chapter, from the same textbook, sometimes at the same time of day. The full course of studies includes mathematics; science; history and social studies; reading and writing, which give way to literature in the older grades; physical education; and English.

It doesn’t sound exciting or stimulating, does it? It’s not exactly Expeditionary Learning. Yet I  came away with the impression – and I think Stein and Di Paulo shared it — that the Mexican education system in many ways does a better job fulfilling its mission – educating students through ninth grade – than some U.S. schools do fulfilling theirs – preparing all students for post-secondary training or education.

As Stein wrote, it’s as if “the floor is raised but the ceiling is lowered at the same time.”

So despite the glaring deficiencies, I left Mexico respectful of its education system. Let me be clear: I know Mexican schools are not what we want to emulate in this country in most ways. Many Mexican kids arrive in the U.S. with weak language skills – in Spanish as well as English, making it hard for them to catch up. But it’s not clear to what extent we can blame Mexican schools for this deficiency. What I’ve been told is that may of those lagging students come from rural areas and may have attended school only sporadically if at all.

Stein wrote:

Students seem highly engaged in Mexican classrooms, probably more so than in the United States. Learning seems more purposeful on average, with fewer interruptions and clearer agreements about the process of schooling. The level of learning, especially in basic literacy and numeracy, rivals that in the United States.

There is general agreement among teachers, administrators and parents that schools, in spite of their lack of books and technology, are working pretty well. Parents do not question the role of the teacher and school in giving their children a fundamental education. When asked, educators will respond that Mexican schools rival those in the United States.

Mexico is a clear case of a country that employs the second of the two strategies I described at the outset. Do we want to emulate Mexico? Probably not. Does the doggedness of Mexico’s approach to education offer us some valuable lessons? Probably so.

It’s essential that we have charters and other autonomous schools that are innovating and trying new strategies and methods. In the end, those schools will probably help us get to the next level. Meanwhile, though, it might make sense for the bulk of our public schools to slow down and get good at what they’re doing rather than endlessly questing after the next great idea.

Popularity: 15% [?]

From the publisher: Varied voices, calmer tone

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Just before the holidays, I asked readers to send me suggestions about how to make the Education News Colorado blog a place for civil discourse, debate and disagreement. I appreciate the thought that went into most of the several dozen responses I received. Many thanks to those of you who sent along your thoughts.

What I’ve decided is that to make the blog a more balanced and informative forum, I am going to have to work harder. I will still accept unsolicited contributions from my regular writers. But I may not publish them all. I will spend more time actively seeking pieces from people who are directly involved in issues making news in education circles.

You will begin to see these pieces on the blog today. If you have any suggestions about people you’d like to hear from, please let me know. I will do my best to get them to contribute.

My goal is for the blog to read like the op-ed section of a major newspaper. At times it has fallen short of that standard.

I will also moderate comment streams more carefully. If comments on a particular post head off into the weeds, I will declare that post closed. If a specific comment seems too snarky, I will contact the writer and request that he or she tone it down.

Going forward, I will insists that all comments be submitted under a writer’s real name, including a verifiable email address. I will make rare exceptions to this rule, as I already have. If you feel that by revealing your full name you will somehow do damage to your livelihood, endanger your job, etc., please contact me and explain you particular circumstances. You will need to tell me who you are. If you’re persuasive, I will publish your comments under a first name only or pseudonym. Those comments will be held to the same standards as everyone else’s.

As we move forward, the debate over public education in this country is going to get more high-stakes and therefore more heated. I’d like this blog to be more a source of illumination and less a blast furnace. Please hold me to it.

Popularity: 5% [?]

From the publisher: Setting a different tone

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

When we launched the earliest version of Education News Colorado in the summer of 2007 (called HeadFirst Colorado at the time) it was a one-person (me) operation and its main feature was an opinion blog. The idea was to create a forum where people could vigorously yet politely debate education issues of the moment. A blog seemed an excellent platform, because it allowed for close to real-time give and take.

In those early days, I recruited a group of prominent education experts to write for the blog. I tried for an even distribution across the philosophical spectrum, but fell somewhat short of that. I wanted people to feel they could speak their minds, so in those early days I allowed everyone to use pseudonyms when posting. Over time, I decided that was a mistake. Most people were respectful, but some posts were snarky and without actual names attached, there was no accountability for the snark.

No one stopped blogging when I asked people to start using their real names. Some may have modulated their tone, but everyone kept writing. And over time I added bloggers, perhaps a bit more representative of the diversity of ideas about education reform.

Today the blog, now dwarfed by our news site, faces another transition point. Perhaps it’s just that school people are exhausted, their nerves frayed at semester’s end, but some recent exchanges have rubbed feelings raw. Three different bloggers or commenters have said they’ve had enough, and are withdrawing from the conversation.

Until now, I’ve taken a laissez-faire attitude toward blog posts and comments. I have erred on the side of running comments that are, shall we say, pointed in tone. Our published commenting policy prohibits ad hominem attacks, though I have discovered that what one person views as a spirited conversation might be viewed on the other side of that debate as an assault on integrity or character. The line between the two is not always as clear and bright as we might like to believe.

What has become clear to me is that some things about the blog have to change. I do not want people chased away because they feel hounded by critics. On the other hand, I do not want to stifle vigorous debate because someone’s feelings might get hurt. So I am going to spend some time during our one week hiatus between Christmas and New Year’s thinking about how to navigate those tricky waters and make changes to the blog.

Here is where you, as regular readers, can help. Imagine that the blog is starting from scratch. What would you like it to be? Do you prefer longer posts or very brief ones? Do you like posts that consist primarily of links to articles or posts from elsewhere? Or do you prefer original commentaries? Do you like a wide variety of bloggers who may not post frequently, or a smaller number who write once or more each week?

Should elected officials (school board members, for example) and school officials (superintendents and the like) be part of the mix, or should we bar them from blogging on the site? What kind of guidelines should there be for comments on blog posts? Should I err on the side of letting most comments run? Or should I play a more active role in setting the tone by sending the snarkier comments back for revisions?

Please send me your thoughts.

I’m also interested in any specific and constructive ideas readers might have about getting a wider variety of points of view on the blog. It’s an ongoing challenge to have a range of opinions equitably represented.

One problem, I think, is that some education policy folks have more time on their hands than do educators. Someone working on education policy from a foundation or non-profit advocacy organization spends a chunk of most days thinking and writing about education policy.

Teachers, meanwhile, are busy teaching, principals are occupied with running schools, etc. They come home tired and have limited time to write. As a result, the blog tends to get skewed toward the points of view of people who have the luxury of time to think and write about education rather than those actually doing the work every day.

Given that reality, how would you suggest we address this imbalance without muzzling anyone?

If you believe the blog is skewed toward the Obama/Duncan/Bloomberg/Democrats for Education Reform view of things, you’re right. It is. And, despite the fact that my personal sympathies for the most part reside in that camp, that’s not how I want the blog to be. So, if you subscribe to a different set of beliefs and like to write, consider becoming a regular contributor. I hear a fair number of complaints about the blog’s skewed perspective but I don’t get many people stepping forward and volunteering to help balance it.

Watch this space in early January for information about the new and improved EdNews blog.

Meanwhile, enjoy the holidays. Take a real break. That’s what we will be doing.

Popularity: 4% [?]

From the publisher: Hurricane Rhee blows through town

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Michelle Rhee speaks her mind bluntly and forcefully, not pausing to worry about whether she might be offending anyone in her audience. That’s part of what endears her to people who agree with her positions on school reform. Conversely, it’s what makes her a villain among people opposed to the present-day wave of reform, for which Rhee is the poster child.

Rhee came to Denver Monday at the invitation of the Donnell-Kay Foundation (a funder of Education News Colorado), drumming up support for her new advocacy group, Students First. She launched the group a week ago on the Oprah Winfrey Show, promising to raise $1 billion (yes, that’s billion with a B) and enlist one million people in the organization’s inaugural year.

Thanks in part to Oprah’s legion of followers (“She looked in the camera and said ‘this is great! Everyone should join!’ And they crashed our website,” Rhee said), Students First in its first 48 hours netted 100,000 members and raised $500,000. And the big donors have yet to step up. This money came from the Oprah viewers, the average contribution $63.

For the uninitiated, Rhee spent three-and-a-half years as chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public Schools. She was a polarizing figure with her undiplomatic talk and her aggressive reforms. When her mentor and boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary earlier this fall, the die was cast and Rhee resigned.

She spoke at a lunch Monday at the Hotel Monaco, attended by about 20 political, educational and philanthropic heavyweights, and later to a much larger audience at The Denver Athletic Club. See this story, with embedded video, for highlights of the DAC talk.

In the more intimate setting of the luncheon, Rhee touched on a few notable themes about Students First and education reform in general. Here were her major points:

1. A national education reform organization can act as an effective counterweight to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, which “over the last three decades have very effectively been driving the educational agenda in this country.” Unions have been so effective, Rhee said, because they have marshaled “millions of dollars and millions of people and they use those dollars and those people to get the politicians they want elected, the laws that they want passed, and the laws that they don’t want blocked.”

Rather than demonizing the unions, Rhee said, it makes sense to view them as organizations that know how to accomplish their mission. “Their purpose is to protect their members, to maximize their pay and privileges, and they are doing a wonderful job of that,” she said.

“So if we want to change this we’ve got to come with the money, we’ve got to come with the people and that’s what Students First is all about. Realizing that we have to get engaged in the political game, that we have to provide some not only cover for courageous politicians…but we have to provide them with the same kind of financing for their campaigns and boots on the ground that the union does for the candidates they are backing.”

2. Students First will organize the many teachers who don’t buy into the dominant union narrative.

“I talk to teachers all the time who think that tenure and seniority are terrible, who see people in their building who are not doing the right thing by kids, and it impacts them, because they get those kids the next year,” Rhee said. “They don’t want those teachers in the building any more than anyone else does. They are tired of the union protecting them and they want to do something about it.”

Rhee predicted that what she called “this insurgency amongst the ranks” will be a powerful force, because it will show the public that teachers do not speak with the unions’ “monolithic voice” alone.

“Every American knows a teacher who is hard-working, who spends their own money on the kids, and so it’s hard when something gets framed as attacking teachers, because they think about those people that they know and it’s hard for them to swallow,” she said.

“When we actually have people from within the teaching ranks saying this is not good for our profession, then you change the dynamic and it’s not teachers versus other people who want the reform. Now of course you’ve got some teachers who want to keep these (protections) but you’ve got other teachers who are more reform-minded. And getting that activated is one of the best things we will be able to do.”

Rhee said the time is right to organize reform-minded teachers. “I have been in this game for about 20 years now and I have never seen as much momentum among the teacher ranks as I do right now in being willing to speak out on these issues,” she said. If they don’t feel isolated in their buildings, they will quickly become a force to be reckoned with, she predicted.

3. In cities with strong political leadership and troubled school districts, mayoral control is the way to go. (She said this in the presence of three Denver mayoral candidates: Michael Hancock, James Mejia and Chris Romer.)

Rhee worked under the protection of Fenty, who essentially sacrificed his political career by endorsing her bold reforms. When a mayor understands education reform, she said, then mayoral control streamlines the reform effort.

“When you’ve got seven, nine, 11 different (board members) with different agendas and they may have to kowtow to various interest groups, it’s just an impossible dynamic. A lot of my (superintendent) colleagues who work within school board structures tell me they spend 60, 70 percent of their time managing their school boards. Doing the work is hard enough without that.”

Sound familiar, Denver?

4. Ending the “government-run monopoly” over public education is essential to fixing the system. Yes, she means vouchers, at least in dysfunctional urban districts. Here is how the self-professed Democrat explains her view:

“A lot of people will say that the argument against vouchers is ‘well, you’re sucking money away from the system that actually needs those resources to improve.’ But that’s when you’re looking at things from a system perspective. When you’re looking at things from a student perspective, it’s different.”

More than once, she said, she was “faced with a parent who lives in Anacostia whose zoned neighborhood school is a place where I would never send my child, and then they do all the research and apply to the lottery for an out-of-boundary position in one of the few great schools and they don’t get a position there. And they come to me and they say ‘now what?’

“I don’t have a space for them at a school where I’d feel comfortable sending my own kid. Who am I to deny that parent a $7,500 voucher to get a decent education at a Catholic school? I can’t look someone in the face and make that decision because I need that $7,500 to make my system better. That’s not an argument that’s gonna fly with that particular parent.”

Rhee described herself as unusually thick-skinned. She will tell you what she thinks, like it or not. Some people find her an inspiration. Others find her a callous bully lacking in the social graces.

Love her or loathe her, you’d better get used to her. She’s not going away any time soon.

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From the publisher: Fight the pressure

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

I just finished watching a new film called “Race to Nowhere.” On one level it is yet another documentary about an education system that has run off the rails. But this one differs from “Waiting for Superman,” “The Lottery” and “The Cartel” – the reform triumvirate – in some important ways.

Although “Race to Nowhere” has been framed by some as the anti-“Superman,” it is in fact such a thematically distinct movie that such comparisons are meaningless. Sure, the 90-minute film takes brief swipes at No Child Left Behind and a testing-obsessed culture that sucks joy out of learning and renders schooling all but meaningless. It advocates for pumping more money into public education, barely mentions charter schools and leaves teachers’ unions completely out of the discussion.

But unlike the other three films, “Race to Nowhere” isn’t about how the education system is failing low-income kids. It’s about how as a society we have put so much pressure on our children – especially middle- and upper-income high-achievers – that we are driving them to despair and even suicide in pursuit of our dreams for them, which are little more than shallow fantasies.

In other words, to the extent that we view our children as extensions of our own egos, we are doing them tremendous harm.

The film is co-directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon and produced by Abeles. Though not in wide release, it is being screened in conjunction with “community conversations” at various sites around the country. You can see it at the Boulder theater tonight at 7 p.m. or in other venues across the state over the next several weeks. You can find a list of screenings here.

One needn’t choose sides here. I saw a lot to admire – and criticize – in “Waiting for Superman.” I loved “The Lottery.” I found “The Cartel” to be shallow and annoying.

“Race to Nowhere” hit me in a different place and on a different level. The first thing I did after watching the film – which a publicist sent me on DVD – was walk into my daughter Marian’s room and give her a hug.

She’s 21 and left her private, East Coast liberal arts college last year, half-way through her junior year. In some ways she is a lot like the kids depicted in the film.

This film will be tough for a lot of my peers to watch because it hits so close to home. None of us wants to be like the parents in the film. Many of them struck me as suburban automatons, who, driven by internal and external forces they couldn’t control, pressured and over-scheduled their kids with lessons and teams and tutoring sessions, mostly because that’s what everyone else was doing. The ultimate in keeping up with the Joneses. Heaven forbid a child should have unstructured, worry-free time.

Because she is indirectly a subject of the film, I asked Marian to watch “Race to Nowhere” and give me a review. She made it through about half of it before she decided she got the gist. Here is some of what she had to say about the movie and its message.

“What struck me was how parents are overly anxious and the degree to which they are overly involved in their children’s lives. The pressure within the school system was actually created by parents and now it has spread.

“The movie seemed very accurate in showing the pressure. But the kids also seemed like fairly weak individuals because they weren’t doing jack to stand up to it. It’s ironic. These kids probably won’t succeed in the end if they’re letting their parents and teachers boss them around that much.

“Working really hard and doing everything right only gets you to middle management. If you say screw everyone and do things your own way you’re going to be happier and in a lot of cases you are going to be successful, if you’re smart. The whole cookie-cutter thing just fills in the gaps around the people who really matter in society.” (Interestingly, the movie in its final minutes, which Marian didn’t watch, makes almost this exact point. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and other legendary entrepreneurs never finished college, and most CEOs were C students, the movie says).

What advice would she give to a 14- or 15-year old feeling squeezed in the pressure vice?

“Drink a lot of caffeine, get at least six hours of sleep a night, tell your parents to back off when they’re being jerks, and if your homework seems really stupid don’t do it and read a book instead.”

My sense is that the creators of “Race to Nowhere” would agree with every word of that advice, minus the caffeine. I’m not sure I agree to the same extent. But what do I know?

Popularity: 5% [?]

From the publisher: Hubris vs. parochialism

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

I’m at best a casual observer of the New York City public school system. The complexities of the politics surrounding any big issue in the Big Apple are daunting. But I’ve watched with detached interest over the years as the team of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein have made controversial and Herculean attempts to yank that behemoth out of a deep ditch.

Matters have gotten more interesting over the past couple of weeks, with Klein’s announcement that he is moving into a senior position at News Corp. Bloomberg immediately settled on a successor to the high-energy, abrasive Klein.

And whom did he choose? Publishing executive Cathie Black, she of purportedly amazing managerial skills and zero public education experience.

Reaction to Black’s appointment from the usual suspects was predictable. Schools aren’t businesses and kids aren’t widgets. How dare the mayor have the temerity to appoint a business person to a position that requires a different set of skills than running a business!

I find these arguments tiresome. After all, how many career educators have done a bang-up job turning around an urban school system? The answer would be none. Education is not some mysterious priesthood where only initiates know the deep secrets to unlocking success. In fact no one does; or if once we knew, we have collectively forgotten.

Still, I have to side with the naysayers this time, albeit not for their reasons.

The always iconoclastic Rick Hess said it better than I could in his Rick Hess Straight Up blog on Education Week’s website. So let me quote Hess and then give my own spin on some of his points.

“I think schools and districts pose a diverse array of leadership challenges, and that leaders facing different challenges will require various skills. Sometimes, familiarity with K-12 is a huge asset. Other times, the experiences, worldview, and skills that come with that background may actually be a hindrance. I see experience in a school district, in school leadership, or in dealing with the public sector as important assets, which ought to be weighed alongside know-how in transforming and redesigning organizations, boosting cost-effectiveness, recruiting talented personnel, managing vendor relationships, and so forth. I think Joel Klein’s skills and experience—as a CEO, top-shelf lawyer, high-ranking Clinton administration official, and NYC product—made him a phenomenal fit for the job.

“But, just as it’s naive and simple-minded to insist “you need to be an educator to lead schools,” it’s equally misguided to imagine that executives are interchangeable.”

The problem with Black, Hess and others argue, isn’t her lack of education background. It is her apparently complete lack of interest in public education, and total lack of track record even volunteering in a public school.

Has Bloomberg become so infatuated with his mostly adulatory press clippings that he believes he can pluck any successful corporate executive, stick them in one of the globe’s most challenging jobs and expect them to succeed, just because he was the one to anoint them?

That’s called hubris. And those of us who have even skimmed the Greek myths know where that leads.

Hess concludes:

“To make things worse, our intrepid friends at the Gotham Schools blog have noted: “In her memoir-cum-business advice guide, Basic Black, the chancellor appointee describes her skills as far more attuned to sales and marketing than financial analysis. While she likes the operational side of business, she writes, ‘Too much data and too many spreadsheets make my eyes glaze over.’” Again, not exactly the ideal testimonial from someone coming in to wrestle with budget cuts and execution.

“Black might be terrific. I’ve never met her and know nothing about her. But nothing that’s been said on her behalf thus far reassures me that she’s right for the job or demonstrates that Bloomberg thought carefully about why she was the right choice for this crucial post. Fortunately, there’s much time until she takes the helm and both Black and Bloomberg would be well-advised to use the next six weeks to make the case that she’s a promising pick—and not just a CEO looking for a new challenge.”

New York State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner may have pulled Bloomberg’s fat from the fire by insisting that the mayor appoint a career educator to serve as Black’s chief deputy. But that alone does not guarantee success.

And please, don’t let Bloomberg’s concession (and he’s not known to make many) to Steiner embolden his edu-critics. The argument that only educators can run education institutions is narrow-minded and parochial, and isn’t germane to the Bloomberg-Black issue.

But it is emblematic of an ongoing annoyance on the education debate, locally and nationally.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive because I have worked in education policy for 15 years but have never taught or worked in a K-12 public school. But there is a wrongheaded mindset among certain educators and teachers’ associations that only people who have walked in their shoes have a legitimate point of view about education issues.

So please, let’s dispense with the following bromides:

  1. You have to be an educator to be a legitimate candidate for superintendent or education commissioner.
  2. You have to have been a teacher or principal to speak knowledgeably on education issues. I honor teachers for their deep knowledge and classroom experience, which is invaluable. It does not, however, give them a monopoly on wisdom and virtue.
  3. You are “anti-teacher” if you view any of the positions staked out by unions as retrograde and counter to the best interests of public education in this country. (If this were true, then I would be able to name a lot of teachers who are anti-teacher).

In exchange, I pledge to stop reverting to the three most annoying bromides readers identify as endemic to this space and to the world of education reform. Please let me know your top three. Top vote-getters will be banished from this blog.

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