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Is there a subtext to public union critiques?

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The recent push to weaken public sector unions is making me uneasy. Part of the reason I am uneasy is that I am not even sure that this subtext is real. From day to day, my opinion shifts, to the point that I wonder whether I should even be writing this post. The object of this discomfort: The concern that teachers are the focal point of the rhetoric surrounding these initiatives at least in part because education is dominated by females.

There, I dropped the F bomb. But first let me explain why I hesitated to do so.  It is because I can think of many other reasons why teachers and teachers’ unions are the focus of the rhetoric surrounding initiatives. These reasons range from the credulous (There are more teachers than policemen and firemen and so reducing teacher pension benefits will make a bigger dint in state budget deficits.) to the cynical (The governors supporting the cuts are Republicans and conservatives are more likely to be sympathetic to the law and order functions of government.)

The concern that teachers are the focal point of the rhetoric surrounding these initiatives at least in part because education is dominated by females.

Now here’s what made me uneasy: As national attention has turned to the protests surrounding the Wisconsin capital, it has been focused almost entirely on the teachers and teachers unions that would be affected by Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to weaken or eliminate collective bargaining.  Nationwide, more than 80% of K-12 teachers are female. If other affected employees were mentioned at all, they were referred to as social workers (69% female) or nurses (92% female for registered nurses). Exempt from Walker’s proposals (although supportive of the affected unions) are police and fire unions. Nationwide, 16% of patrol officers are female, and 3% of firefighters.

Then, in a profile in this week’s Sunday Times Magazine, reporter Matt Bai zeroed in on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s antagonistic relationship with public employees’ unions.  Yet the only union members interviewed for the article were leaders of teachers unions.  On the first page of the article, Bai writes:

“Hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers linger on scenes from Christie’s town hall meetings, like the one in which he takes a part a teacher for her histrionics. (‘If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question.’)”

Personally, I cannot ever recall hearing a man referred to as “histrionic. “When I viewed the clip in question, I certainly did not find the teacher to be “deliberately affected or self-consciously emotional; overly dramatic, in behavior or speech.” I could not help but think that if the questioner had been a man, he would have been described as “persistent” or “insistent.”   As for Christie’s response, I also cannot think of the last time I heard a grown man’s laughter described as a giggle except perhaps in jest. Yet it remains acceptable to subtly denigrate a grown woman by describing her like a child.

Anti-union sentiment and initiatives are nothing new in this nation. Union membership has been shrinking now for decades in the private sector as the percentage of the general public that supports unionization. As Bai writes, public sector unions are in a sense, “the final frontier” for those who oppose unions.  There are many, many potential reasons why teachers’ unions appear to be viewed as both the primary target and the weakest link in this battle. I can’t help but wonder if the “f” word is one of them.  Further, it is not uncommon these days to hear complaints about “anti-teacher rhetoric.” (The crafters of such rhetoric generally deny that they are anti-teacher, as does Christie.)For those who believe that such rhetoric does exist, I can’t help but wonder if some it may also be anti-female.

Popularity: 11% [?]

The price of milk in education (answers now provided)

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

I’ve updated this post with the answers and source links, which follow the questions below:

Last week I moderated a mayoral forum on education at KIPP. The candidates were, I thought, quite good – there was a suitable range of opinion, and almost everyone was willing to take a stand on some of the more controversial recent issues (including SB 191 and the DPS turnaround efforts in Far Northeast Denver).

As part of the forum, I reflected that my first memory of watching a debate as a kid was seeing a group of candidates asked “what is the price of a gallon of milk.”  I thought this was a pretty good question – not just because as a kid I thought milk was still cool, but I also intuitively understood that this and similar queries were a way to see if candidates walked in the shoes of normal citizens and understood the simple, concrete realities of daily life.

So, as the moderator, I wanted to come up with equivalent questions —  what are the basic statistics that mayoral candidates (and indeed all stakeholders) should know about Denver’s K-12 public schools? What is the price of a gallon of milk in education?

Below are the questions I asked the candidates (who overall I thought did quite well); I’ll post answers to them in the next few days [Update: answers provided].  Some of these questions are more detailed and nuanced than the price of milk, and several were covered in recent news articles in the days leading up to the forum, so perhaps consider the line of questioning to include current events.

I invite other questions (or answers) in the comments (and if EdNews has video of the candidates for this segment of the forum, would be great to post).


1. How many schools in DPS?  How many total students? What is the student to employee ratio?

- There are 162 total schools, however 11 are “alternative” (i.e. often not facilities-based) so the number most people use is 151;

- As of October 1, 2010 (count day), there were about 80,000 students (precise number is 79,423);

- The student to employee ratio is 6:1 (13,087 employees – note that this includes transportation, maintenance and similar activities)
Source: DPS website

2. Over the past five years, has DPS proficiency in CSAP core subjects (math, reading, writing) gone up, down, or stayed the same?  If up or down, by how much?

- Overall proficiency over the past five years has increased by about 8 percentage points, from 33% to 41% (note that this is not a weighted average by grade population.)
Source: CDE CSAP scores (although one has to do the math)

3. In 2010, what percentage of 3rd graders were proficient in core subjects? What percentage of 10th graders were proficient in core subjects?

- Third grade proficiency in core subjects was 45%; 10th grade proficiency was 32%.
Source: CDE CSAP scores via schoolview

4. What is the remediation rate for DPS high school graduates who go to college?

- Fifty-nine percent of DPS graduates who go on to college require remediation.
Source: Denver Post

5. What is the average teacher salary?  What is the starting teacher salary? How many days per year do teachers work?

- Average teacher salary is $52,845; starting teacher salary is $37,551; there are 184 contract days for DPS teachers.

- If one were to “normalize” teacher salaries over a full year, using a comparison of 245 working days for full-time, year-round employees, the average teacher salary would be $70,460 and the starting salary would be $50,068.
Source: DPS website, DCTA Master Agreement 8-1

6. What percentage of DPS students “choice-out” of their assigned school?

- Roughly 45% of DPS students choice out of their school of assignment.
Locating Quality and Access (IFF Report)

7. What is the “on-time” graduation rate (the percentage of 9th graders who graduate four years later)  for DPS high schools?

- On-time graduation rate is 53%.
Source: DPS website

8. What percentage of DPS students dropped out of school last year?

- The DPS drop-out rate is 7.4%, or roughly 5,800 students each year.
Source: DPS website

9. What is the overall percentage of free and reduced lunch (“FRL” – a measure of poverty) students in Denver?  In 2010, what what was the percentage of FRL students in the top-ranked category (“Distinguished”) on the School Performance Framework?

- Seventy-two percent of DPS students qualify for the federal Free ad Reduced Lunch program; about 25% of students in DPS’s “Distinguished” schools qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch.
Source: DPS website, my analysis of the SPF

Popularity: 13% [?]

On, Wisconsin!

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Cross-posted from the Failing Schools blog

Some people just don’t know when to quit.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is one of those people.

In the wake of the state’s recent budget shortfall, Walker could have done the humble, fiscally-sound thing: admit that the tax breaks and conservative health care experiment he championed had worsened the state’s budget situation, and asked lawmakers to correct the problem. He could also have done the tough but responsible thing: negotiate fairly with public sector workers, who have expressed their willingness to pay a greater share of their pension and benefits to ease that burden on the state’s budget.

But no. Like the glutton who eats until his buttons give way, Walker and his allies have decided to keep their pet policies intact and try to grab evenmore power for themselves by trying to eliminate some public employees’ rights to collective bargaining. (I’m not sure how they plan to continue spinning the mere having of rights as too expensive for the state to afford, but I’m sure theirwealthy friendsthink tank pals, and buddies in Murdoch’s Media Misinformation Machine will continue funding and broadcasting their efforts.) While completely ignoring the self-serving actions that have caused much of the state’s financial distress, they are trying to:

  • Adopt a proposal that clearly punishes members of certain unions (teachers, nurses, social workers, etc.) and not others (police, firefighters). We’ve a number of choices regarding how to interpret this disparate treatment, but one is particularly clear: it’s a naked attempt to limit the power of unions that didn’t support Walker & Co during election season, and protect those that did.
  • Obscure the true origins of the budget shortfall, appealing to a troubling nationwide narrative thatblames public sector workers for budget problems, instead of the toxic economic mess created by greedy and under-regulated Wall Street financiers
  • Pretend there is no choice but to make cuts and restrict rights that overwhelmingly affect middle and low-income people—instead of correcting the tax structures and other policies that enrich the wealthy at everyone else’s expense
  • Cultivate and capitalize on the current fiscal situation and whatever resentment exists between privately-employed taxpayers and unionized public employees to break their unions permanently.

Threatened with the outrageous theft of hard-won workers’ rights—many won right there in Wisconsin—fourteen state senators left the state to avoid having to vote on the bill, and tens of thousands of citizens are demonstrating in the streets and the capitol building, including thousands of teachers and students.

As a result, some in the “news” media and elsewhere have whined about “self-serving” teachers staging a sick-out to protest these attacks on their rights. They’ve accused teachers of being liars for calling in they’re sick when they’re not (I guess being sick of injustice doesn’t qualify!), while completely ignoring by the self-serving, multi-million dollar lies on which this entire bill is based. Others are “concerned” about kids who are missing school. These people are completely missing the point.

One: Our public school system exists in large part to prepare students for their future roles as citizens. Students who watch and participate in peaceful demonstrations are getting an important lesson on how to exercise their First Amendment rights, and why we have such rights in the first place. And if there are any adults in Wisconsin, or anywhere in the US, who aren’t using these current events as teachable moments for the children in their care, then our democratic republic faces much larger threats than a budget crisis!

Two: Like this post, most of what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t just, or even primarily, about teachers and schools. But it does further expose an ugly truth about national conversations over austerity measures and public policy reform: some people aren’t in these discussions to “repair budgets,” orimprove schools, or shore up Social Security, or any of that. Some people try to exploit our hysteria and ignorance to coerce us into making policy decisions that benefit themselves (or their ideologies) at our expense. These are decisions we wouldn’t otherwise make if we felt we had other options, or enough time to stop and deliberate.

Fortunately for proponents of responsible public policy, the brazen nature of Walker’s bill has awakened many to the need to think critically when political and economic elites use the words “crisis” and “reform” in close succession. However this all turns out in Wisconsin, there’s no turning back that awareness. Here’s hoping more of us greet this moment with courage: the courage to stand up for ourselves and our fellow men and women who’ve been unfairly attacked, and the courage to take an honest, fair-minded approach to solving our social and economic problems.

Popularity: 10% [?]

Hyperbolic rhetoric distorts Wisconsin facts

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.

Plenty of pixels have been expended in the past five days to report and discuss the momentous happenings in Madison, Wisc. Whoever thought the Badger State would receive even more national spotlight so soon after Aaron Rodgers and the Packers secured Super Bowl champion prestige? But it’s worth all the coverage. The significance of unfolding events in Wisconsin’s capital is hard to overestimate.

Start with the fact that Wisconsin was the first state to grant government workers collective bargaining rights (in 1959). Just over half a century later, and the unsustainable trend unleashed is about to get seriously reined in. Ignored was the wisdom of reliably pro-labor Democratic Party icon Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his presidency FDR strenuously resisted the notion of public-sector unionism, famously asserting:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service….The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.

Government worker unions are a different breed than their private-sector counterparts. Commenting on the affair, Time Magazine editor and liberal stalwart Joe Klein ably catches the vital distinction:

Public employees unions are an interesting hybrid. Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed…of the public?

The events unfolding in Wisconsin are highly relevant to these pages because teachers unions are among the largest and strongest labor organizations in America. The degree of unions’ political influence can be exaggerated (slightly), but their collective ability to block unwanted policy changes is almost unrivaled.

If you don’t believe me, what other group could get an entire party caucus to flee their legislative duties and hide across state lines in order to forestall a vote that would weaken its legally-protected privileges? As for the unions themselves, they aren’t winning political sympathies from staging sick-outs (“by all means, defend your right to collectively bargain an agreement that you can flout at your convenience”) or getting fake doctors’ notes to cover for them.

But so it goes in Wisconsin. What is it about Senate Bill 11′s attempt to fix a looming $3.6 billion budget hole that drives the protests and the political posturing of opponents? It didn’t take long for Democratic legislators in exile to offer capitulation on the modest and eminently reasonable proposals to increase government workers’ retirement and health insurance contributions.

What else is at stake? A lot of hyperbolic rhetoric has flown around, including some National Education Association talking points that have floated into many Colorado teachers’ email inboxes (e.g., the claim that “educators will have no say in school quality issues,” an irresponsible and self-serving distortion of reality). Amid all the confusion, the other key points of the budget-repair legislation are not precisely understood:

  1. Limiting the scope of collective bargaining to worker salaries, with total negotiated increases above the inflation rate subject to local voter referendum, which would enhance public accountability to one of the largest drivers of government cost and neutralizing the power of arbitrators to reward unions for lavish proposals;
  2. Requiring an annual affirmative opt-in to continue a union’s status as exclusive bargaining representative through a simple majority vote of affected workers, which simply would ensure greater accountability in unions’ claims that they operate democratically; and
  3. Prohibiting government agencies from collecting union dues through member payroll deductions, which would end the cycle of using government resources to raise funds that are used to reward political candidates and perpetuate union power.

Since last week I’ve already been asked more than once: Could or should something like Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 11 be done in Colorado? First of all, apart from the lack of symbolism here, a smaller and less militant government union sector would make such a legislative dispute less dramatic. But more fundamentally, it wouldn’t all work in the Colorado context.

Wisconsin has a long-established and recognized body of public-sector labor law that simply does not exist here. For Colorado state legislators to have some mandated public school (or other) collective bargaining procedures to alter or remove, there would have to be something enshrined in state statute in the first place. Since there isn’t, agenda items 1 and 2 would make very little sense for a Colorado lawmaker to introduce. The third item, on the other hand, is not inextricably linked to the union negotiating process. A repeat of 2008′s citizen-initiated Amendment 49 (sponsored by the Independence Institute where I work) doubtless still would draw more dues funds spent on outrageous and misleading advertising.

The proposals championed by Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans would not wash away workers’ rights. Rather, they would open the door to fiscal sustainability by providing greater flexibility to elected government officials and restoring some power and accountability to taxpaying citizens. Wisconsin is receiving a large share of attention for good reason: A few states are following suit, and others soon may jump in.

Driven by the overwhelming fiscal crisis facing most state governments, what’s taking place in the Badger State looks to be a watershed. The Tea Parties are flexing their muscles, while politically-reinforced government employee unions are making a Waterloo-like stand. An identical repeat in Colorado is off the table, but local school boards may be impelled to take a closer look at negotiated policies that empower union interests over the public interest.

Popularity: 17% [?]

A DPS board warning from two years ago

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

On April 1, 2009, former San Diego Schools Superintendent (and curent border czar) Alan Bersin visited Denver. This was before the November 2009 school board elections and before bitter disagreements cleaved the board. Bersin, who had been fired by his school board after an election flipped the board against him, had a lot to say that night.

Given the current recall effort against board President Nate Easley and the coming November elections, in which three seats are up and the board could flip, nothing seems as relevant to the realities of Denver’s school board today as the following 60-second excerpt (click on the arrow below to listen).

[Click arrow]

Popularity: 8% [?]

Dueling views of DPS board, recall

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

The two blog posts that follow take very different views of the current effort to recall Denver Public Schools board President Nate Easley, Jr. Theresa Peña, a veteran school board member and strong supporter of the district’s current direction, strongly critizes the actions of some of her colleagues. Former Denver teacher Sabrina Stevens Shupe, writing on her Failing Schools blog, looks at the issues from a decidedly different perspective.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Easley recall effort just the latest attack

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Theresa Peña is in her eighth and final year as a member of the Denver school board.

When I first joined the Denver Public Schools Board of Education eight years ago we had a tremendous group of school board members representing the interests and needs of students and teachers, working with multiple superintendents with a single goal in mind:  Improved student achievement.

A shared goal does not mean there wasn’t vigorous debate. We publicly talked and even argued about the best way to move the district forward, but regardless of the differences in opinion we worked together.

We have made great progress and sustained improvements in DPS.  Some of those positive indicators include: Five-year increase in number of high school graduates; double-digit increase in number of AP tests taken and passed; five-year growth in proficiency outpacing the state performance on CSAP; three consecutive years of enrollment growth.  Yet there is much more to do.

That progress and the future of our students are now at risk due to the actions of three current school board members. Through their direct involvement or the work of their surrogates, they are trying to recall Nate Easley, fire Superintendent Tom Boasberg and undo the initiatives of the Denver Plan, all of which would damage the academic interests of our kids, our teachers, and the Denver community.

How we got here

In November 2009, Denver elected three new school board members and one incumbent. Since then Jeanne Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida have established voting records that clearly demonstrate their allegiance to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association first and foremost:

  • Kaplan and Jimenez voted against granting innovation status to Montclair Elementary, despite the overwhelming support of parents, teachers and community members.  Montclair is currently rated as a green school, meets expectations, in the district performance framework. (February 2009)
  • Merida and Jimenez voted against the approval of alternative education programs in southwest and far northeast Denver.  (November 2009) This despite the fact that the two high schools in southwest graduating only about two-thirds of their students and in far northeast the high school graduates only about 60 percent of its kids.
  • Kaplan, Jimenez and Merida voted against the placement of West Denver Prep, the district’s highest performing middle school, at Lake Middle School.  At the same meeting all three also voted against the turnaround strategies for Lake, the lowest performing middle schools in the district.  (November 2009)  Despite their objection to these decisions both school programs are already improving the capture rate in northwest Denver.
  • All three voted against a comprehensive plan for Far Northeast Denver, a plan intended to improve student achievement and close the achievement gaps; to ensure the effectiveness of our teachers and our principals; to ensure all students have access to rigorous standards-based curricula and assessments; and to provide coordinated and comprehensive systems of support for the whole child.  Instead they preferred to disrupt the community process and not to allow the creation of high performing schools for a neighborhood that suffers from a lack of high-performing schools; particularly in the feeder pattern for Montbello High School, where just 6 out of every 100 freshmen go on to college without needing remediation and where more than 1000 students currently attend a Denver Public School outside of the Far Northeast community, often riding more than an hour on a bus to and from school in an other part of the city.  (November 2010)
  • Merida and Jimenez voted against Race to the Top which would have brought millions of dollars to Denver Public Schools.  (January 2010)
  • All three issued a press release challenging the refinancing of pension certificates of participation (PCOPs), a deal Kaplan and Jimenez had previously supported, that facilitated the merger of the Denver Public Schools retirement system with the state’s retirement system, PERA; a deal that improved the financial position of the district and resulted in millions of dollars going to schools.  (March 2010)
  • Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez voted against board support of SB191, a bill which promoted the principle of mutual consent in hiring and accountability for the performance of principals and teachers as fundamental to the success of schools and its students. (April 2010)
  • All three voted against a resolution by the board in support of effective teaching.  The intent of the resolution was to direct the superintendent to work with DCTA to develop a plan in support of mutual consent hiring and to eliminate forced placements in our lowest performing schools and school that have the highest levels of poverty.  (April 2010)
  • At the end of every school year principals make a decision to grant tenure to teachers who have taught in the DPS for three years or to non-renew their contract.  Annually fewer than 5 percent of these teachers are non-renewed.  Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez selected four teachers who were recommended by their principals for non-renewal and voted against the decision.  (May 2010)
  • Jimenez introduced a resolution to halt the new school process, a process designed to increase the number of high performing schools in Denver, but especially in neighborhoods with a preponderance of low performing schools.  After much public outrage he settled for a year long community process in Northwest Denver to identify the needs of our kids in that section of the city.  (June 2010)  In the meantime almost 25 percent of elementary kids choice out of Northwest Denver schools and 55 percent choice out of the high school.
  • All three voted against the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report in June 2010 (CAFR).  A failure of the board to accept the CAFR would have resulted in a loss or delay of future funding to the district. (November 2010)
  • Merida helped form DeFENSE, an organization apparently created to criticize the current regime.
  • Kaplan is a cohost, along with the DCTA, of an event (a Diane Ravitch speech), proceeds of which will support a 527 committee, Friends of Education, that has been silent about its specific aims, but is spearheaded by Easley recall supporters.

So what’s the point?  Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez have publicly and/or privately demonstrated a desire to fire Tom Boasberg.  Boasberg was hired to continue implementation of the Denver Plan; the district is currently in year four of a 10-year implementation plan.  All three voted in March 2010 to support the ongoing work in the Denver Plan.  And as I mentioned earlier the district is seeing sustained, albeit slow, growth in academic performance.

The district has attracted over $80 million in grants to support our work, so clearly there is local, state and national support for our approach, although not necessarily from the three board members in question. They represent the minority view of public education in Denver: Spend more money, keep chronically low performing schools open and ensure that the teachers union leads the charge to transform our schools.

The Easley recall effort

So why are they so mad at Nate Easley? Jimenez recruited him to run for the office, and he had the support of all three and the DCTA during the campaign.

Recall supporters allege a conflict of interest between his job as deputy director for the Denver Scholarship Foundation and his board duties, but he had that job when they recruited him, so clearly that’s not the real reason. Easley was threatened with recall if he did not vote against the Far Northeast plan. He ignored those threats and the recall was launched.

Easley represents the best of Denver Public Schools.  He is a graduate of Montbello High School, has a Ph.D in education and has spent his entire career working in support of kids, especially the most disadvantaged, and for public education.

Nate’s mother raised five kids and sent all onto college; Nate was a teenage father by the time he graduated from high school. He not only has walked in the shoes of the kids he represents he has aspirations for them to achieve well beyond what he was able.

Since Nate was elected to the school board his district has seen many positive changes for kids and their families.

  • Five of the districts top 20 growth schools in 2010 are in northeast Denver.
  • 23 percent of the district’s highest performing schools (those rated as distinguished or meets expectations) are in northeast Denver.
  • Using savings from the 2008 bond program, the district is building a new $5.5 million Early Childhood Center in Far Northeast Denver which will serve approximately 300 three-, four- and five-year old students.
  • From fall 2009 to fall 2011 the number of neighborhood middle and high school options in far northeast Denver will nearly double, from nine to 17 schools.
  • Beginning in the fall of 2011 every family in near and far northeast Denver will have access to bus transportation through their neighborhood.  Previously only 10 percent of families were eligible to receive transportation.
  • An 8 percent increase in enrollment, equal to 2,000 students, from 2008 to 2010, including an increase of 3 percent since 2009.  If enrollment growth is a surrogate indicator of satisfaction then the families in northeast Denver is demonstrating support of the Denver Public Schools.

So if they flip Nate’s seat then they can finally claim the majority on the board.  Then they can fire Boasberg, undo all the foundational work of the Denver Plan, and the window of opportunity that has existed in Denver will close and our 80,000 kids will once again exist in the mediocre quagmire of a failing urban school district.

As a parent, a DPS graduate and a member honored to serve on the Denver school board, I am outraged by their behavior.  I am stunned they have the audacity to try to undo the work and rewind the gains that our teachers, parents and students have worked so hard to achieve.

I am saddened that Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez have tarnished the reputation of a board that has been nationally recognized for our commitment to kids and achievement for all.  Mostly I am disheartened for our kids. They will be the ones to suffer the greatest harm if this recall is successful.

In April 2007 then Superintendent Bennet and a united board wrote of our vision for a 21st century school district.  We closed the editorial with the following statement:

“Rather than shrink from this inevitable change, Denver – its community, business, civic and religious leaders and all of its citizens – must seize this opportunity and make it their first cause. Ten years from now, let them say that Denver was the vanguard for reform in public education. Let them say, 10 years from now, that in Denver we saw what others could not, and laid down our adult burdens to lift up our children. Let them say that a spark flew in Denver that ignited a generation of educators, children, parents and communities and gave them courage to abandon the status quo for a shimmering future. We can do this in Denver; it is simply a matter of imagination and will.”

During the 2009 school board election there were many pledges of support and promises to mobilize for continued reforms in DPS.  The truth is many avowed reformers did not come through during that election.

If people do not fight against the recall of Nate Easley and do not fight this November to make sure Denver has a school board committed to reform, our city will be changed forever.

This fight is about Nate.  It is about a majority of a board and a superintendent who believe that all Denver kids deserve to attend high-performing neighborhood schools, it is about turning around low graduation and high remediation rates. This is about making tough, wrenching, courageous decisions so that all kids in Denver have a school district worthy of their dreams.

Popularity: 23% [?]

No laughing matter

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Cross-posted from the Failing Schools blog

On Jan. 23, The Denver Post published an editorial condemning a community effort to recall Northeast Denver school board member Nate Easley, Jr. After deriding the recall attempt as “a joke,” they (once again) over-simplified the conflict it represents as being one between those who “want reform” and those who seek to “thwart change.” Revealing its lack of interest in nuance, the editorial board paints everyone who disapproves of Dr. Easley’s job performance as an opponent of charter and magnet schools, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Frequent readers and folks who know me are by now familiar with the story of my separation from the district, and why I’ve become such a vocal critic of its administration. But this incident was also the first time that I became familiar with Dr. Easley, and the dysfunctional nature of Denver’s school board.

After preparing and submitting a ten-page letter about my situation (and a collection of documents to back up my claims) to each board member and Superintendent Boasberg, I made several attempts to contact Dr. Easley because he represents the section of the district where I taught. (If you’re thinking this sounds crazy, remember that there is no established process for probationary teachers to appeal an unfair non-renewal, outside of a long and expensive legal battle.)

The contents of my letter, combined with all of the teacher and community presentations to the Board on May 20, 2010, should have been enough to give the Board pause. That this many talented and committed teachers related similar stories of unexplained and/or retaliatory non-renewals by principals (a number that doesn’t include those who faced similar situations but—rightly—assumed that addressing the Board wouldn’t help their situation) points to a serious issue, where good leadership is concerned.

A sensible organization would have seen this situation for the red flag it is, and would have made some kind of effort to understand whether the decisions that had been made were just or logical. (Notably,Andrea Mérida did, though her interventions and the occasional support of the other members of the “board minority” were unsuccessful.) Instead, the Board took the easy way out, instead of the right way. Likely recognizing that meaningfully examining the claims of teachers who may have been wrongfully non-renewed could set a precedent for doing the same in the future, the majority dismissed the countervailing evidence we presented and voted to uphold the principals’ recommendations.

Now, the Board as a whole has earned some ill-will in the community for its tendency to rubber stamp District decisions instead of examining them. But it’s especially disturbing when the Board’s presidentacts this way. Responding to the teacher non-renewal votes last spring, Easley said to the Denver Post that (emphasis mine):

The idea that the board would question the process that has gone through a principal, an instructional superintendent, human resources and the superintendent is to me dumbfounding…

I don’t necessarily need to supervise 4,000 teachers as a volunteer. … We want the principal to make difficult decisions. On the other hand, to come back and reverse that decision without having the kind of detail we need because it’s a personnel issue, I don’t think we should do that.

Both quotes reveal a misunderstanding of the function an elected school board is meant to serve. Part of the logic behind having a school board is to vest power in a group of people who are directly accountable to the public, thereby protecting the public’s interests in the event that appointed district officials do sloppy work or make bad decisions. In this case, the “process”– an inflated term for one administrator making a choice, then having his or her superiors blindly sign off on it– did not work, resulting in the loss of some very talented teachers to other districts, and to the profession as a whole.

The latter quote also points to a disturbing attitude Easley seems to hold for his position. When confronted by constituents who feel he isn’t living up to his responsibilities–by missing meetings, ignoring their calls, etc.–  his typical defense is that being a school board member is a volunteer role.

For instance, after a meeting last fall, I asked him why he never answered my letter, phone calls, or emails. In the presence of a constituent and a representative from the US Department of Education, he responded, “Well, you know this is a volunteer position, right? You’re pretty articulate; if you think you could do a better job, maybe you should run next time…” Most elected officials would at least pretend to care and apologize; that he didn’t speaks volumes to me. (Is he actually interested in continuing to serve?) And taken at face value, his statement suggests that he doesn’t care enough to be thoughtful about work he does for free– not exactly what you want to hear from someone serving in an important, but unpaid, role.

All communities deserve representatives who care enough about them and their values to listen to them and take their concerns seriously. That doesn’t mean that they will always agree– there are certainly times when leaders need to speak uncomfortable truths, and push the boundaries of what has become their community’s “conventional wisdom.” But when that’s necessary, good leaders make sure to stay connected to those they serve, to make a case for why change is necessary, and to do their best to ensure that the final decision reflects the whole community’s interests, not just those of its most powerful members, or those with whom they already agree. By contrast, Dr. Easley has allowed himself to be a mascot for a certain kind of reform, that is being done to certain communities instead of with them. He has traded his responsibility to represent his community in order to gain the favor of Denver’s social and political Establishment.

For a community that has gone without an effective, responsive representative, and the students, teachers, parents, and schools who have suffered as a result, that is no joke.

Popularity: 7% [?]

A step back for CEA customer service

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you may have noticed that the state’s largest teachers union has overhauled its online digs. Kudos for a new web design that’s both attractive and functional. (It can’t be said that I never write anything nice about CEA.) But customer service has taken a step backward.

I’ve written here before about the Colorado Education Association (CEA)’s opt-out political contribution scheme, known as the Every Member Option (EMO), so I won’t rehash the details. In fact, I once noted that CEA did a somewhat better job of notification than did their building-mates at the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA). CEA at least put up a webpage explaining the EMO and an online form for members who wanted to exercise the right to opt out.

Somewhere along CEA’s bridge to Web 2.0, however, both the page and the form vanished. Presumably, some sort of oversight occurred. The deadline for asking back the 2010-11 school year’s automatic $39 political contribution passed in December. Any teacher or other member who doesn’t want their funds collected along with dues to influence elections will have to ask all over again in 2011-12.

So maybe union officials just are waiting for August or September to roll around to put up the EMO information and refund request form. Even better if CEA were planning to implement an opt-in political system, but there’s no evidence to give that notion a second thought. Whatever the case, I’d like to think the disappearance did not occur because the EMO refund has become too popular and too convenient for union members.

Because posting the political refund info online is just one small part of needed union transparency — a topic I wrote about in depth a couple years ago. Take my advice for what it’s worth: Transparency is a cornerstone of good 21st century customer service. Especially for organizations with roughly 35,000 member employees, growing competition, and a deck that’s grown slightly less stacked in its favor.

A blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account are nice features. Yet if CEA uses neither these tools nor its new and improved website to make known basic important information, they less resemble customer service than corporate-style PR. While that approach may be more functional for union leaders, it’s not more attractive to the broader base of potential members.

Popularity: 12% [?]

Some concerns about the commissioner search

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Van Schoales is executive director of Education Reform Now, a national advocacy group based in Denver.

Colorado’s next education commissioner will help determine whether the state focuses only on implementing what’s on the books, takes a step back or, ideally, accelerates and deepens reform as states including New York, Indiana, Florida and New Jersey are poised to do. Dwight Jones will be a tough act to follow given his reform orientation, political skill, and rich education accomplishments.

The Colorado State Board of Education will no doubt keep a tight lid on potential and real search candidates to ensure that they end up with the best pool and ultimately the best finalist.

While I know that the state board is generally committed to either staying the course or even accelerating reform, I have some concerns about the decision to hire Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a very experienced but traditional superintendent search firm.

The firm is highly regarded by many in traditional education circles but has a fairly poor record placing non-traditional and strong reform-minded candidates in district or state leadership roles. There were by my count 268 searches listed on the Hazard website. Of those, 17, or 6 percent, were filled either by noted reformers or people who had not already been district assistant superintendents or superintendents. That’s a pretty low number.

Michael Bennet’s placement in Denver was one of their few exceptions but he was not found or recruited by Hazard.   Carl Cohn, a highly accomplished superintendent from Long Beach who was placed in San Diego is another exception (interestingly, he was hired by a San Diego board committed to rolling back the bold effective Alan Bersin reforms which are similar to what Colorado is doing. Cohn did not last long).

I realize that this is as much a product of what the districts wanted as any failings on the part of the firm. But I worry that a firm of this nature does not have the necessary contacts within leading reform organizations like McKinsey, Aspire, Teach for America, New Schools Venture Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, New Leaders for New Schools, the New Teacher Project, the Broad Foundation or other sector leaders in law and business.

Without such contacts, how can the firm provide the kinds of candidates that the state board will want to consider?

The good news is that Rick O’Connell, the former Douglas County superintendent (who did promote a variety of innovative reforms including an early embrace of charters) will lead the Hazard team. But I remain concerned that Hazard’s network will not provide a quality candidate pool.  I know Rick will do a great job with the process but a good outcome will depend on a deep search and recruitment effort.

There is an ever-growing number of effective national potential candidates including Commissioner Deborah Gist in Rhode Island (who may not have a job much longer because the new Rhode Island governor is indicating he wants to ditch her reform efforts), another several top-flight state commissioners and another 20 or so leading national reformers.

And lets not forget a few Colorado leaders, like Mike Miles, who would make great Colorado commissioners.   While the list of effective system reformers has been growing, it is still small compared to the thousand or so folks that might be qualified under the traditional “old boy” standards for state commissioner.

I’m holding out hope for the best given Colorado State Board Chairman Bob Schaffer and the rest of the state board’s expectations for reform, but they will have to push hard on Hazard to deliver a quality pool of reform minded candidates.  If Los Angeles can find a great new reform orientated superintendent given all of that district’s challenges, along with California being on the brink of bankruptcy, Colorado should be able to find a new national leader to take us to the next level.

Popularity: 16% [?]

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