Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Public education for me but not for thee

Although he has since quasi-apologized, Arne Duncan put his foot in his mouth, saying that,
It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.” 
Overcoming that will require communicating to parents that competition is now global, not local, he said.

This was a wrong (as in incorrect) and stupid (as in politically dense) thing to say. As Sabrina Joy Stevens explains here, the low-poverty, suburban demographic does fairly well on international comparisons. Suburban moms were a key constituency for Obama in 2012 and telling them that some Common Core aligned test being promoted by the feds knows their child better than they do is a huge political mistake (this is why people hate Democrats). Finally, it's unfair to boil down public school parents' objections to the Common Core to, "you think your kids are brilliant, but they're not." Duncan reinforced the hubris so endemic in so many modern school reformers: if you are critical of our policies, you're deluded or lying to your kids and yourselves, you're a status quo defender or you don't like children or you think poor children can't learn.

Certainly, more affluent school districts coast on their reputations and are probably not doing as good a job as they should be, but I would hardly chalk this up to delusional suburban moms. I would chalk it up to the same things everyone else is suffering from: a broken accountability structure, too much emphasis on (too many and poorly designed) standardized tests and not enough rich and meaningful curriculum, plus the same budget cuts everyone else is experiencing. In short, more affluent school districts are suffering from what less affluent ones are: modern education reform.

Unlike Secretary Duncan, I don't agree that the Common Core and its accompanying tests will cure public education's ills. To the contrary, it will be more of the same. I've said over and over again that the substance of the Common Core standards are not worth debating when the way they were made and and the rigid accountability structure they will be filtered through are so problematic and will result in more of the same.

Another important piece in this is what Sherman Dorn brings up here: That maybe more people in whose favor the current system works, including suburban white families, would support more shifts, say in curriculum or assessment, if they didn't have to sacrifice their children's success to them. This goes back to the idea that slow and steady (with plenty of time for reflection and tweaking and input from all stakeholders) wins the race. 

Current hullabaloo aside, it's taken an awfully long while for ed reform fatigue to trickle up to the more affluent. It's upsetting to consider that only now that they have been offended, that suburban white moms might pay attention to what's going on with school reform. I won't repeat what Jose Vilson has written already about this or what Paul Thomas said but I can vouch for it given my current access to white suburbanites. I've heard plenty of parents of students in low-poverty schools say things like, Isn't Michelle Rhee wonderful? I like what she's doing. Um, would you want someone steamrolling through your school district talking about "collaboration and consensus-building are overrated? Oh, that doesn't work for you? I didn't think so. I've also heard, TFA. What a fabulous organization. Um, do you want TFAers teaching in your district? Because I've noticed that when one of your child's teachers goes on maternity leave you demand an actual licensed and vetted teacher just to sub in their long-term absence. Another example: when I tried to alert other Virginians to the dangers of the Opportunity Education Institution in Virginia, I heard so things like, Well, in Petersburg, they need that help or Well, that's because Richmond is a mess. Richmond and Petersburg are majority black cities with high levels of poverty, so yes, such comments are code for those poor black people just can't get it together.

My response is usually some or all of: a) There are historical conditions and policies that have contributed to the poverty of those communities; it's not endemic; b) No, democracy and local control is not just for the affluent; and c) It's a slippery slope, or as Jose Vilson said, "First, they came for the Urban Black and Latina moms." With the SOL tests getting more tricky rigorous, some schools in more affluent districts may find themselves under OEI's control (should OEI be found constitutional) and whatcha gonna do then? Are you going to want to be disenfranchised? I didn't think so.

Some reactions to Duncan's comments haven't been much different. Now that kids who don't usually fail standardized tests are failing, then it matters--it's okay for kids that are supposed to fail but not my kids. While he definitely misspoke, I wince at the Now, I'm mad. Now you've pissed off the wrong people comments. Why were you not mad before? "The wrong people"? What's that supposed to mean? That just reinforces the idea that non-suburban white moms don't care as much about their kids' education and reinforces Duncan's implication that non-suburban-white moms support his policies.

The reformers have decided that they speak for poor people of color, that they should be happy that they're there to fix their dysfunctional systems, that the answer to dysfunction is disempowerment. White suburban folks have seemed largely to accept that. Remember that Michelle Rhee's supporters (and Arne Duncan is certainly among them--he all but endorsed her and Fenty in DC's mayoral election) have claimed that one reason Adrian Fenty lost in DC is because Rhee is Korean-American and that black people in DC were too full of race pride and too busy shielding their incompetence to admit that she was right. And who's been buying copies of the Bee Eater and Radical? My guess is: yes, suburban white people.

As I've learned in the activism work I have been doing locally, the truth of the matter is that, indeed, many parents only start to get worked up when something affects their kids. And while I wish that were different, maybe we should go with the better-late-than-never attitude and hope that suburban white moms' political muscle trickles down. Maybe this will open the eyes of parents of children in more affluent schools to the reformy fiasco their peers in many U.S. cities have already been subjected to. Maybe they'll realize that there's no "I' in public education, that the attitude of democracy and public education for me but not for thee may cost all of us both.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

TFA comes to RVA

With a vote of 5-2 (with two members absent) the Richmond School Board has decided to contract with Teach for America to hire up to 30 teachers. I've already written in great detail about how the Teach for America model is problematic here and then here and about why TFA is not right for the K-12 public school students of Virginia here, so I won't repeat what I said there.

In the meantime, here is the reporting out of RPS leadership:

“It’s another tool in our recruitment tool box,” said Kristen Larson, 4th District, who voted in favor of the program during a School Board work session Monday. “We know we have a hard time hiring, and we need to look at all paths.” 
In Richmond, they will fill as-yet-determined hard-to-staff positions. 
The school system typically has to fill 200 to 300 teacher positions a year, but in recent years it has had a hard time finding enough qualified candidates. This school year began with about three dozen positions open. Some have been filled by long-term substitutes while others remain unfilled. 
“We have a lot of work to do in how we attract and retain teachers,” said School Board Chairman Jeffrey Bourne, 3rd District. “Teach for America is injecting some creativity and some new thinking into the hiring process. 
“I don’t think this is an ‘either/or’ situation. It’s an all of the above. There’s room here for different approaches.”

This is very disappointing, especially after the RPS School Board has seemed to be on the right track in so many other ways. They are trying to strengthen and diversify opportunities for Richmond children while staying under the umbrella of the public, democratic system and while involving leaders with expertise in education. Unfortunately, in this case a majority of the School Board has decided come out from under the umbrella and fork over $150,000 ($5,000 per corps member = $150,000) to TFA to hire inexperienced and untrained people to be teachers.

However, this is not surprising since TFA's chief lobbyist in Richmond has been diligently working the RPS School Board as well as Governor McDonnell's administration for quite a while. Furthermore, at least one School Board member in particular has been eager to hire TFA. And I don't live in Richmond proper and can't say how many residents have protested the idea of having TFA corps members teaching in Richmond. Perhaps parents have stood up and asked for them.

I do question, however, the nature of their recruitment problem and the extent to which TFA can aid that or ameliorate their retention problems. RPS should really find out how and why they have a recruitment and retention problem first and then propose solutions. If your car is not working for some reason, bringing in a rental car for a few weeks is not going to fix it. If the School Board  wants help with retention, TFA is not the organization to turn to. TFA leadership states unabashedly that they are fine with their corps members only staying two or three years, that getting them exposure to challenging classrooms is step one on a ladder to working in the education reform industry. And according to TFA watchdog and former corps member Gary Rubinstein, about 10% of TFAers don't even make it through their very first year of teaching

There also have been questions raised about the process by which this decision has been made. According to RPS parent and Alliance for Progressive Values member Kirsten Gray, there was no public hearing on the matter, almost no effort to publicize the matter, no review of research on TFA's effectiveness or lack thereof, and no evidence that there is a shortage and no positions open on the website. However also according to Gray, TFA was voted in with an amendment that caps the TFAers to 10% of the hard to staff schools and the amendment also requires the Richmond School Board to come up with a policy on how to use and place corps members. The way I see it, that's at least one way to pilot TFA and to minimize potential damage at least. But two School Board members, Kristen Larson and Glen Sturtevant, voted against the amendment and perhaps they'll work to remove it.

Finally, I also have my own personal experience to share which makes me question if there's a true shortage and how TFA will help with RPS's human resources issues. In Spring 2011, I was at a social function and I happened to be seated at the same table with a very high ranking RPS administrator. When I mentioned that I was a Social Studies and ESOL teacher and that I would be applying to area school systems including RPS, they told me the market was fairly tight and that my best bet, if anything, was to apply for an ESOL positions. I did, in fact, apply to RPS later that spring. However, I never heard anything back, not even to receive an e-mail confirming my application had been received, until September 19th when I got an e-mail letting me know they might need an ESOL teacher. Well, by then, I had already taken another job (and I had been contacted by two other area school systems with no shortages)--it was nearly a month after school had started. 

Now, I'm no super star of a teacher but I do have a B.A. from a highly-ranked liberal arts college, I have a master's degree in education, and a current Virginia license. I am dual-certified including in a hard-to-staff area, I have strong references, and several years of teaching experience, including five in ESOL in Virginia. I wonder how many other people with qualifications such as mine have applied to RPS in recent years. The problem there is not lack of "creativity" or lack of qualified applicants; it's lack of competence, disorder, and a lack of, um, hiring. TFA's presence won't change that. 

Those concerned about the impending contract between TFA and RPS should ask for information and for more transparency about the contracting process. They should also ask that citizens get the same access to public officials that TFA has had. They should also ask for a hearing where evidence both of the shortage and rationale behind hiring TFA would be presented. Finally, they should sign this petition which states opposition RPS's contracting with TFA (and make sure you read the comments there, too).

UPDATE I: This post has been cross-posted chez Diane Ravitch.

UPDATE II: Style Weekly, a Richmond publication just published an article on TFA in Richmond. Apparently there have been other well-qualified candidates who haven't been hired by RPS during the "shortage."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Testing & School Grading in Virginia: The Time to Act is Now

There are some major happenings at the state level with public education in Virginia and if you're a supporter of public education in Virginia, there's a few things you can do about them right now.

1. What's happening: Almost every Virginia parent and every Virginia educator I talk to is concerned about the amount of SOL testing, what its results are used for, and how it negatively impacts curriculum and instruction. Communities across the Commonwealth are starting to come together to publicly question and discuss the role of high-stakes testing. They are in the Virginia legislature, they are in Roanokethey are in Chesterfield County, and they are in Richmond

What you can do: Please urge your County Council of PTAs, your school board members, your state and local elected officials, and your school district administration to facilitate public conversations about testing. 

2. What's happening: Apparently, some school boards in Virginia are listening to those citizens concerned about testing. "Resolution Concerning High Stakes, Standardized Testing of Virginia Public School Students" is making its way through the Virginia School Boards Association. So far, thirty school boards from all over the state have signed it. I have urged my school board to sign it (as of yet, they have not but I am told they will discuss it). 

What you can do: Contact your school board and either thank them for signing it if they have already done so or urge them to if they haven't done so yet.

3. What's happening: The Virginia Board of Education is going to do a final review on Thursday, October 24th of the criteria for grading schools. I've already explained that grading schools in this way is an awful idea and will likely end up rewarding affluent schools and punishing low-income schools. Since I wrote my school grading post, Oklahoma's school grading system has been put under the microscope and has been found to be majorly flawed. The Virginia Board of Ed should not do any final review now. First of all, they don't have to. Second of all, in light of flaws and misuse in other states, this process, this concept needs to be examined more thoroughly. This is not in best interest of Virginia--as I noted above, thirty school boards (and more will sign in the near future) have already passed a resolution in opposition to the state testing program upon which the school grades will be based. 

What you can do: Contact the Virginia Board of Education (e-mail: BOE@doe.virginia.gov) and ask them to postpone making any final decisions about the school grading criteria until the legitimacy of school grading schemes have been established and until after changes are made to our state testing program. Do this ASAP as the final review of A-F criteria is set for Thursday, October 24th. Then contact your state delegate and senator and let them know you'd like the school grading bill to be taken off the books.

If we want our public democratic institutions to work for us, we must engage as members of the public in the democratic process.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Virginia's School Grading Plan Gets an N/A

In my most recent posts, I talked about the Tony Bennett (Indiana) school grading fiasco. I talked about how unbridled "disruption" in education reform can cause more harm than good. I posted a letter asking for more Virginia education stakeholder participation and input into our state government's education reform process. Finally, I wrote about how TFA was not right for Virginia (speaking of stakeholder input, you'll notice that stakeholder groups opposed placing TFA corps members in teaching positions in our schools.)

This post is going to bring together all of those prior posts. What do all the posts above have in common: the school grading bill.

The Virginia General assembly passed a school grading bill this past legislative session. As with the TFA legislation, this legislation was not supported by any education stakeholder groups that I know of. The VEA, VSBA, VASS and the VA PTA are all opposed to it. But, um, Jeb Bush is in favor of it. I am increasingly concerned  by the level of influence people from out-of-state are having on our education legislation. Does Jeb Bush pay taxes here? Is he registered to vote in Virginia? Does he represent any Virginia education stakeholders? No. School grading, like TFA and elimination of citizen and democratic oversight of charter schools (more about this in a later post) are also ALEC-favored legislation. If you've never heard of ALEC, here's a primer.

So, why do people who support public education in Virginia oppose the school grading legislation? Because it's not a comprehensive or accurate way of providing information about schools. In fact, if other states' school grading systems are any indication, school grades are highly misleading. When partnered with other education reforms, such as state and charter chain takeovers of struggling schools and loosening of charter laws, such laws are ripe for exercises in crony capitalism.

Matt DiCarlo of the Shanker Institute has done several analyses of the Florida school grading program and has found it lacking. He also explained that Indiana's school grading mechanism tells us a lot about the students who are taking Indiana's standardized test but not much about the quality of the schools themselves. See:

The wide-spread opposition to adopting such a policy in Virginia is shared by Virginia superintendents. They've shown, as Matt DiCarlo did, that such a metric would only prove that schools with poorer students would get lower grades:
[The Bristol Schools' Superintendent, Mark] Lineburg, with help from some university researchers, analyzed an initial formula that lawmakers considered, which was based largely on how well students perform on state tests. They found that 85 percent of the schools that would score a C or below had poverty ratings over 50 percent.
This group produced a lengthy, evidence-based report  which showed why such a grading system would not accurately convey the quality of the schools rated. For example:
. . . Governor McDonnell’s A-F scale accounts only for overall achievement examination scores and creates a nearly insurmountable obstacle for school divisions that serve high percentages of economically-disadvantaged students. Educating students in poverty is one of the nation’s greatest challenges; and this challenge increases with every percent point increase in free and reduced price lunches. Yet, in affluent school divisions where it should be easier to differentiate instruction specifically for fewer numbers of poor children, most achieve no better or even worse for economically-disadvantaged children than high poverty school divisions. Yet the more affluent school divisions will consistently receive A’s and B’s on the new rating scale.
The data displayed in Tables 1 and 2, are found on each school division’s state report card and clearly demonstrate that overall achievement disparities among school divisions are almost solely based on the percent of economically-disadvantaged students served by the school division. It is discouraging that our elected officials, including our Governor supported legislation that so glaringly fails to recognize the inherent challenges faced by high poverty schools. To be more succinct, Governor McDonnell’s signature education legislation will punish high poverty schools and divisions even where significant gains toward increasing achievement for economically-disadvantaged students have been attained. More discouraging, assigning a low grade to a high poverty school division will decrease  its ability to attract and retain top teaching candidates who could have a significantly positive impact on the students, school, and the entire school community. 
The educators in high poverty schools are equally competent and are not bashful to ask for assistance. What our high poverty school divisions need is additional assistance and support, not punishment in the form of awarding a simplistic singular grade and the threat of school takeover. We need more preschool programs, lower pupil-teacher ratios, mathematics specialists, financial support for physical education and wellness programs, and we need the ability to extend learning opportunities during summers, holiday vacations, and after school hours. The scores in this document clearly demonstrate that the achievement gap between high poverty school divisions and those that are more affluent is not always as great as it appears. In fact, data gleaned from the Virginia DOE school report cards prove that many high-poverty divisions are tightening achievement gaps with greater success than their more affluent neighbors. 

Roger Jones a , the chairman of Leadership Studies at Lynchburg College and director of the Virginia Association of Secondary Schools Principals Center for Education Leadership wrote an impassioned essay echoing his skepticism of the efficacy of the Virginia A-F grading plan.

The grades won't go into effect until 2014 and the Virginia Board of Education has been charged with coming up with the formula by October. So far, the school grading formula they're considering is almost totally based on test scores. There aren't multiple measures, just multiple test scores and different ways of looking at them.

Why would Virginia want to adopt such a system when the ones in Florida and Indiana are so flawed? Furthermore, why would the General Assembly pass such legislation without any understanding of how such a metric would work? Isn't it better policy-making practice in such cases to come up with and pilot the metric first, to see, how it works, and then make it law or not? This returns to the reformy propensity to act first and think later, if at all. How irresponsible.

But it also returns to a more cynical possibility. The schools likely to get Fs in Virginia would then be forced under state takeover and put under the newly formed bureaucracy, the Opportunity Education Institution. The communities where these schools are located are stripped of democratic governance of their own schools, though they'd still have to provide the money for the schools. As I said when I wrote about the OEI:
According to this post, the OEI would take over schools that were denied accreditation, which is done in accordance with "federal accountability data," also known as standardized test scores. The Institution will be run by a board of gubernatorial appointees, which includes the executive director. There is no guarantee that the board would include any people who know anything about education. The board would contract with non-profits, corporations, or education organizations to operate the schools. Funding for the new bureaucracy would be provided by federal, state, and local taxpayers. The "failing" schools' local governing bodies would be represented on the board in some way, but they would lose decision-making power and would not be able to vote or, from what I can tell, have much meaningful input, besides providing the same share of local funding and being responsible for maintenance of the school building. As for staffing, current faculty at the schools being taken over could apply for a position as a new employee with the OEI or apply for a transfer.
First of all, elimination of democratic oversight and disenfranchisement is never a good solution to poverty or dysfunction, not to mention the OEI bill appears to be unconstitutional. Second, what happened in Indiana also smells of politics and crony capitalism. Though one may have nothing to do with the other, it looks bad that the grade was changed for the charter school owned by a prominent GOP donor who gave to Bennett's campaign. Second of all, when schools get forced into a state takeover after receiving too many Fs, they are then open by the state to takeover by charter school companies. Again, maybe one thing has nothing to do with another but Bennett's wife works for a for-profit Florida-based charter school company (Florida is where Bennett was most recently Education Commissioner) that Bennett chose to takeover Indianapolis Public Schools (Bennett was formerly education commissioner in Indiana).

Governor McDonnell and his allies are seeking similar changes for Virginia--school grading and charter expansion and charter via state takeover of high-poverty schools with low test scores. What happens when Imagine gets to takeover some of these "F" schools? Dennis Bakke, the CEO of Imagine Schools, the largest commercial manager of charter schools in the Unites States, gave $10,000 to McDonnell's campaign when he ran for governor. What happens when the likes of Johnnie Williams opens his own health and nutrition charter school and it doesn't do as well as expected? Would McDonnell give the school the grade it earned under Virginia's A-F metric system?

A-F school grading systems are bad metrics, they're unfair, they'll encourage poor practice and corruption, and they're bad for public education in Virginia.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Reforminess: 120, Content-rich Curriculum: 45

I saw this article in the Washington Post about DCPS's cutting the minimum recess for elementary students to 20 minutes day. It goes without saying that twenty minutes per day of recess for younger students is ridiculously inadequate. But here's what really caught my eye (emphasis mine):
Recess time varies in the District. Some schools saw a reduction this year as Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson implemented new requirements meant to ensure that all elementary students get a minimum amount of time in each subject each day: two hours of literacy, 90 minutes of math, and 45 minutes of science or social studies. An additional 45 minutes is required for an elective, such as art, music or physical education.
What? Isn't DC a Common Core adopter? Isn't the Common Core supposed the second coming of curricular education reform?

If you're spending two hours a day on "literacy" and forty-five minutes a day on non-math content (social studies or science) and if you consider art, music, physical education, or foreign language to be an "elective" rather than crucial content, then the Common Core will not help your students because you're not getting the Common Core's supposed intent. In this case, the assumption is that literacy is a skill that must be mastered before children learn content. "Literacy" is primary and content is an after thought.

So what do Common Core advocates, especially those who also support current education reforms, think of this? Just as I find their silence on expansion of central bureaucracy and spending thereon baffling, I find their silence on this topic baffling, and troubling, as well.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review: First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School

The following guest post is written by Jeff Tignor. Jeff has undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and Duke University, respectively. He lives in Washington, DC, where he is a telecommunications lawyer and fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, researching how local communities can use the internet and wireless technologies to foster civic engagement. 

In the excellent new book First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School, Alison Stewart tells the story of one of the best and most important American high schools of the 20th century. The stories that Ms. Stewart shares of the tight-knit African-American community in Washington, DC with high school teachers with master’s degrees and PhDs sending students from a segregated high school to the best colleges and universities in the country amplify stories I’ve heard throughout my life. My father, paternal grandparents, two uncles, a great aunt and a cousin all attended Dunbar. After receiving his master’s degree from Columbia, my grandfather returned to Dunbar to teach English. My father and one of my uncles both left Dunbar for Yale and went on, respectively, to become a professor at Yale’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health and a surgeon in Kokomo, Indiana and part-time professor at Indiana University. My Dunbar family tree is filled with educators. The legacy of Dunbar has deeply influenced and affected me, even though I did not grow up in Washington, DC. For example, a few years after I moved to DC as an adult, I decided to run for Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for my neighborhood. On election day, as I stood in the rain handing out flyers, a woman said, as my opponent attempted to reach out to her, “Sorry, but I’m voting for Mr. Tignor’s Grandson.” I won.

Dunbar was a groundbreaking educational institution born in Washington, DC, as a result of a unique set of circumstances and later hobbled by home rule politics, social class conflicts, and racial desegregation without integration. In the first half of the 20th century  this public school produced numerous leaders in medicine, science, education, law, politics, and the military. With the end of segregation, the conditions that resulted in Dunbar’s creation ceased to exist. Ms. Stewart, an award-winning journalist who has worked as an anchor and reporter for several major commercial TV networks, as well as NPR and PBS, and whose parents graduated from Dunbar in the 1940s, uses Dunbar as a lens for examining the history of education in Washington, DC. The book covers three distinct eras:  First, from 1807-1954, a detailed history of African-American education in Washington, DC, and of how Dunbar became America’s first African-American public high school; second, beginning with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe decisions, a transitional period in the years surrounding school integration; and third, Dunbar’s post-1960 full transformation to the neighborhood school it is today, struggling with the challenges of urban education. As someone whose family history in Washington, DC, dates to the post-civil war 1800s, I learned new facts about DC’s history and was struck by the irony of Dunbar alums arguing for desegregation at the Supreme Court and then seeing their prestigious and beloved alma mater fray as the unconstitutional system of segregation was dismantled. I was moved by the heartbreaking stories of students and educators trying to honor Dunbar’s past and simultaneously create a present and future that will allow the school to once again become a launching pad for great careers.

Dunbar came to be because unlike in much of the South, there were no laws restricting the education of free blacks in Washington, DC.  Small schools such as the Bell School and the Normal School for Colored Girls begat the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, M Street High School, and ultimately in 1916, Dunbar High School. As the only academic high school for African-Americans in Washington, DC, Dunbar effectively became a magnet school. Students from DC had to pass an 8 to enroll and students transferring into Dunbar as part of the Great Migration had to take an entrance exam. Dunbar’s curriculum focused on English, math, the sciences, ancient history, music, Latin, French and German. Many of Dunbar’s teachers and administrators, like my grandfather, had advanced degrees and included doctors, lawyers, and two of the first three African-American women to receive PhDs. Dunbar sent students to prestigious colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Amherst, Williams, Dartmouth, Wellesley, and the University of Michigan. Notable alums include Edward Brooke, the first black US Senator elected by popular vote; Charles Drew, the creator of the blood bank; William Hastie, the first African-American Federal judge; and, Wesley Brown, the first African-American graduate of the Naval Academy.

In 1954, Charles Hamilton Houston and two of his fellow alums from the M Street School, Dunbar’s forerunner, were key members of the team that successfully argued for outlawing legally segregated schools in the states in Brown v. Board of Education and in the District of Columbia in Bolling v. Sharpe. From 1955 onward, Dunbar became a neighborhood school, with attendance solely based on the boundaries within which a child resided. One educator commented at the time that First & O, NW, was infamous as a gathering place for young men who were unemployed, out of school and “indecent in their public conduct.” Ms. Stewart writes: “It is bitterly ironic that three of the key players in dismantling legal segregation…learned their lessons at a school that became an unintended casualty of necessary civil rights action.” In a July NPR interview, Ms. Stewart described Dunbar's benefitting from the glass ceiling segregation placed on Dunbar’s highly educated teachers as a “perversity.”

By the mid-1960s, Dunbar and several of its alumni and former teachers, who had moved on to other leadership positions in education in the city, found students not nearly as interested in the tradition-bound lessons that began in 1807. My grandfather, Madison Tignor, found himself having to answer tough questions from students such as: Why doesn’t Eastern High School have an Afrocentric curriculum? Architect of school desegregation, now Howard University President James Nabrit was asked: Why is Howard Law School no longer serving the needs of African-Americans seeking equality? Marion Barry came to prominence. Dunbar never did integrate. From the 1970s forward, “the economic and social woes of DC were Dunbar’s woes.”

Over the years, there have been periodic signs of hope; a pre-engineering magnet program focused heavily on the sciences and partially financed by corporate sponsors, a Dunbar graduate becoming a Stanford graduate, and most recently, the track coach who will pick up girls at home as early as 3:30 am to get them to practice and who can point to every girl in a team photo and name where she is in college. Ms. Stewart ends on a positive note suggesting that given the demographic changes in the neighborhood maybe Dunbar will make history again, as its founders would have wished, “as the first truly, organically integrated school in Washington, DC.” Here's to hoping she's right.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Shortages or not, TFA is not the way for VA

Just a quick TFA post.

Today as I was watching & tweeting Governor McDonnell's K-12 Education Reform Summit, I got into some conversations with a TFA advocate (update: I have confirmed with Aaron that he is a TFA employee), W. Aaron French and Eva Colen who is the Managing Director, Community Engagement at Teach for America--she is based in Richmond.

I'm not going to repeat what I've already written, so if you want to see my previous thoughts on TFA, please read here and here. As TFA pertains to Virginia and the legislation that just passed, I wrote about that here:
You probably already know what I think. I have written about TFA before. It's my most popular piece. 
The only thing new I have to say is: Why does Virginia need TFA? There are budget and teaching positions being cut across the state and I hear it's hard for our college graduates to get teaching positions. Where is the evidence that there's a teacher shortage anywhere in Virginia? And if there is one, why don't we have a Teach for Virginia instead? Teachers who are being laid off could be given incentives to go and teach in hard to staff areas. Top students at Virginia colleges and universities, especially ones seeking a teacher's license, could also be granted incentives to start their careers in these supposedly "hard to staff" places. 
Otherwise, it doesn't seem like anyone's fighting it, so meh.
Aaron and Eva both claimed that in fact there was a shortage and cited this page from a VADOE website. Now, I don't know if that means these will likely filled with subs or worse-qualified candidates than TFA corps members. I do know that "shortages" like this are complex in explanation. Sometimes, it doesn't mean there aren't any qualified candidates to fill the shortages. Sometimes it only means that that's where the needs are greatest, where there are fewer applicants. But someone more knowledgeable than I am would have to address this. If you're reading this and you have some insights, please comment below.

If someone can demonstrate a clear and definite shortage in Virginia, if I am mistaken that there isn't one, then I apologize for misleading my readers and followers and I am glad to have been called on it by Aaron and Eva.

But I still don't think TFA in its current incarnation is a good model.

The shortages would likely be in high-poverty schools and in areas such as special education. I don't think that a TFA corps member, with very little training and no experience is equipped to do a good job in such positions. I also don't think it gets to the root of the problem. Why is there a shortage? Why are those positions hard to fill? Why don't adequately trained and/or experienced teachers want those jobs? Why are the students in schools with these shortages coming to school presenting such challenges?

If TFA changed so that their corps members would commit beyond two years and so they had more training, education, and something akin a year long apprenticeship first and/or if they worked to change the root of the problems in the American education system and those behind high teacher turnover and shortages, I would sing their praises, too.

UPDATE: Aaron also said that the TFA legislation passed unanimously in both houses, with major support across the state. Now, I know, as I said in my blog post cited above, that no one seemed to be fighting it and I know that the bill passed handily, but I'm not sure that it had "major support across the state" from the public and from Virginia education stakeholder groups. But maybe I'm wrong. Any thoughts, readers?

On Governor McDonnell's Education Reform Summit

Dear Governor McDonnell,

I got the news only a few days ago that you were holding a K-12 Education Reform Summit on Monday August 5th. I am disappointed by the "agenda" of the agenda and by the who's missing from the panels.

At the summit, are you mentioning that Virginia's public education system is ranked in the top ten? Are you discussing the fact that the teachers in our state are among the lowest paid in the country relative to our affluence? How about discussing reforms such as lowering class sizes, de-emphasizing high-stakes standardized testing and test-narrowed curricula in favor of more rich and varied curricula? What about classroom practice--is that being discussed? How about discussion of developing and retaining the great teachers we already have? What of the massive cuts to public education in this state? I don't see any of those items on the agenda. But I do see charters, privatization, disempowerment of local school boards, virtual education, and non-professional teachers--a reform agenda of ALEC's and one that most parents have said they reject.

And who is serving on the panels? 

Well, first, let me applaud you on including two Virginia Superintendents and several Virginia college presidents. Also, kudos to you for including a former Virginia public school principal and someone who is both a former teacher and current state legislator (way to kill two birds with one stone!). I'm glad that some Virginia education scholars and leaders from Virginia's Department of Education will be there, too. Hopefully, these folks can bring knowledge and expertise to the discussion.You have also included many people and private interests from out of state, like the Governor of Tennessee, several charter school advocates, representatives from for-fee organizations that place non-professional and un-credentialed people in the classroom to work as teachers and administrators, as well as some consultants from the private education industry sector. 

But you know who is not included on the panels? Most other Virginia K-12 education stakeholders. You have not included any current K-12 teachers or principals. I don't see any school counselors, school nurses, school social workers or school safety officers on the panels. There are no school board members or other local decision makers. Not one representative from a Virginia-based charter school will be there. Most glaringly, there is not one person there representing Virginia's families. Not one. There are no parents or parent representatives there, and there are no students. 

I suppose those excluded stakeholders could go on their own and watch from the audience. But most working people can't afford to drive across the state on a weekday and then pay for lodging and the Summit fee. Why is this Summit not open and free to the public? Why is it not on a weekend? Public education is for the public and paid for by the taxpayers. Where are our representatives and the representatives of our co-stakeholders at your Education Reform Summit, Mr. Governor? 

Rachel Levy
Ashland, Virgnia

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Turtles and Hares in Modern School Reform

I ended my last post with a larger point about the problem of "disruption" in modern education reform:
"This is exactly what happens when you rush into big, 'disruptive' changes without thinking about them or fully understanding what you're doing. You break things that weren't already broken and you make messes."
This is not an original thought to me. For one, it's been said over and over again by many more knowledgeable about education than I am. For example, look at Larry Cuban's recent post about turning around urban schools and Paul Vallas, comparing wiser marathon turnaround superintendents to the more impetuous sprinters:
In many instances, sprinter superintendents follow a recipe: reorganize district administrators, take on teacher unions, and create new schools in their rush for better student achievement. They take dramatic and swift actions that will attract high media attention. But they also believe—here is where ideological myopia enters the picture—that low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities are due in large part to reluctant (or inept) district bureaucrats, recalcitrant principals, and knuckle-dragging union leaders defending contracts that protect lousy teachers from pay-for-performance incentives. 
Such beliefs, however, seriously misread why urban district students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate high school. As important as it is to reorganize district offices, alter salary schedules, get rid of incompetent teachers and intractable principals, such actions in of themselves will not turn around a broken district. While there is both research and experiential evidence to support each of these beliefs as factors in hindering students’ academic performance, what undercuts sprinter-driven reforms in these arenas is the simple fact that fast-moving CEOs fast-track their solutions to these problems, get spent from their exertions or create too much turmoil, and soon exit leaving the debris of their reforms next to the skid marks in the parking lot. Swift actions certainly garner attention but sprinters quickly lose steam after completing 100 meters.

Exactly. So where else did I come around to this way of thinking? Because, let me tell you, it does not come naturally to me.

1) I learned this from my parents. My father is a very cautious and thorough person who doesn't buy a toothbrush without researching it first in Consumer Reports. My mother has worked for thirty plus years as a civil rights lawyer and school finance expert in DC. She has witnessed change and disruption over and over again in the DC Public Schools--so much so that she's seen some of the same changes tried two times, sometimes by the same crop of people. It's not that some changes aren't needed, but first we must ask: How they might these changes work? Have they been tried before? If yes, to what effect? What do the affected communities think about these changes? People like her try to say:Yes, we tried that in nineteen such and such and it was a disaster. Um, yes, that needs to be changed but what are you going to change it with that hasn't been tried before? The school communities were really upset the last time that happened. The reformy response: History? Who needs it? Democracy is over-rated.

2) From the great school leaders I have worked for. This is why I don't argue when reformers (of any stripe) point out how much school leadership is crucial. The best principals and administrative leaders I worked for went about making changes carefully and deliberately with the input of their faculty and staff. I remember my first year at one high school was also the new principal's first year. The ESL teachers there (including me) were really pushing him to make some changes right away and he said, "No, I'm going to observe and learn about how things work already and then I'll see what needs to be changed." He was right. The next year he did make some changes. I didn't agree with all of them and they weren't immune to political considerations, but the transition was so much smoother than it would have been otherwise.

I remember when DC mayor Adrian Fenty came in and hastily replaced Clifford Janey with Rhee. The local community was jarred by the way Fenty did this (locking him out of his office, freezing his e-mail account, not getting input from the public or the City Council, etc.) but not one person said to me that it wasn't time for him to go. I remember saying, well, even so, shouldn't Fenty observe and see how things are working first before he makes such drastic changes? I was thinking of that school principal I had worked for.

3) I live in a very conservative area of Virginia. Sometimes, it's like a foreign country. There are many  things that don't jibe with me, but sometimes there are advantages. They are ssslllooooowww. Which means in education that they haven't instituted big changes without taking their time, though this is changing as the Tea Party slash and burn mentality is alive and well here right now. They didn't do whatever's trendy just to do it--they skipped the whole ed tech boom and invested in what has been thus far a very successful technical and trade high school instead (not that we don't desperately need updated technology and textbooks now, but that's a different story). They don't throw money at problems (although now they seem to be with-holding money at problems). All of this has prevented the hasty, "disruptive" thoughtlessness that pervades so much modern school reform, though as I said that is changing somewhat with the similarly minded "break everything" Tea Party presence.

Before I end, I do want to acknowledge that there is something invaluable in the urgency of a we-can't-wait-for-change-we-have-to-do-it-now modus operandi. There's certainly urgency to move, but just because you're not sprinting doesn't mean you're standing still. The problem is that in modern education reform, as with the Tea Party, there's not much slowing the sprinters down, especially when they are fueled by gobs of dollar bills.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tony Bennett: Songs in the Key of C, No Wait, A

Here's my two cents about the Tony Bennett grade changing story that Tom LoBianco broke. This was hard to write--with blogging there can be so much pressure to be timely that conflicts with my wanting to read and carefully consider everything on the subject. I'll do my best here.

My initial concern was that the liberal media would treat this merely as a "bad actor" case, you know: Look how corrupt this GOP guy is! Republicans are corrupt! I mean, look at the headline of the original story: "GOP Donor's School Grade Changed." I don't share most Republican ways of thinking, but corruption is political party-blind. In turn, I was concerned that conservatives would treat this as a "political hit job" conspiracy on the part of the liberal media or "opponents of reform." Like this.

Looking at all of the coverage--the journalistic coverage, the analyses, and the defenses (the list in the link doesn't include the Fordham Institute's Mike Petriili's defense, Rick Hess's of AEI interview with Bennett, or this article about the context of Bennett's decision)--there's a real disconnect. Many skeptics of current education reforms such as test-based accountability are saying this is corruption and by design. Many accountability hawks say there's a reasonable explanation for this and that there's little to nothing wrong with what Bennett did. If you read the defenses and the interview, they are earnest.

Now, don't get me wrong, the whole campaign donation business is shady and certainly the charter sector is ripe for crony capitalism and hucksterism--just look at what goes with the charter sector in Florida (speak of the devil) and the White Hat charter school company in Ohio. But I have no evidence that the donation influenced Bennett's thinking or that he's particularly corrupt. What he does seem to suffer from is a deep certainty that he's right about his education reform policies and that the statistics must be on his side, even if that means having them fixed. I've heard it said about Michelle Rhee when she was in DC that it was almost like she wasn't telling mis-truths when she did. She was so convinced of her own rightness that she couldn't hear herself saying one thing one day and a different thing the next. It was all the truth to her. I'm afraid that Tony Bennett seems to be suffering from this malady, as well.

How it worked in Bennett's office seems to be how it works in the work places of reformers. "Choice" and charters as a model are always better. It's okay if we lose a few neighborhood or comprehensive schools because those are probably failing or close enough to failing anyway. How many times have we heard that it's okay to sacrifice a few good teachers here and a few decent schools there in the service of "objective" evaluations system? Systems that will largely weed out the bad and identify the good. So, you lose a few good teachers. So you close some decent neighborhood schools. Oh well. No use crying over a little spilled milk. In the face of schools like this one being labeled failing, and teachers like this one getting a fire-ably low evaluation, how many times have the proponents of such systems said, Well, the evaluations are not perfect but they're better than what we had before.  (Um, who has demanded perfection?)

And so two things happened. First, a double standard: a well, it's not perfect, sorry was not issued in the case of Christel House Charter (and does anyone else find it unseemly that the school is named after it's director and maybe biggest donor? Is that what a public school should be?) Then, the formula was fixed so the appropriate grade would come through. The math was done in such a way that it didn't maintain the integrity of the formula. Sherman Dorn's analysis shows why this was unethical while Anne Hyslop explains how the math doesn't add up.

Surprisingly, most of my thoughts mirror the thoughts given at this Fordham forum published today, which is not to say I agree with all of the thoughts expressed--I especially think the word "flap" in the title is a pretty glaring understatement. But otherwise it is the most frank, humble, and thoughtful  discussion of the limits of school grading I think I've ever heard from accountability hawks. I found myself nodding in agreement. This particular process was unfair and showed favoritism. These processes need to be more science than art. We need an objective measure that everyone adheres to and this can provide that. These grading systems aren't ready for prime time. Schools shouldn't be boiled down to a single grade. Please read the whole thing.

But I was still left wanting.

1) Where in this conversation is the statistician to discuss the validity of the school grading process? First of all, I'm pretty sure these metrics--school grading metrics as well as teacher evaluation metrics--are being used in ways they were never intended to be used. I admit when I'm in huff, I refer to them as "junk science," but as Matt DiCarlo points out here, they're not junk science even if they're just being used in junky ways. If these metrics were being used as thermometers that would be one thing, but they're being used as a hammers. Second of all,  I'm not at all convinced that there is such a metric system out there somewhere waiting to be formulated that would ever work well as a school grading or teacher evaluation system. And I'm not going to take Fordham's or New America's or Tony Bennett's word for it that there is, any more than I would take my own word for it that there isn't. I want to hear from an expert. If anything, the stats people in the Bennett e-mails show that Indiana's school grading process is not valid. Having to "run different options" to arrive at a desired outcome shows that. What went on in Indiana seems to me at best an exercise in statistical gymnastics and at worst, one in statistical fraud. I have yet to be convinced by anyone with any statistics expertise that these systems are valid. In general, the people with expertise in statistics that I trust the most have been lukewarm at best on their efficacy.

2) Not ready for prime time?! Shouldn't be used for high stakes decisions?! Maybe this isn't a science yet?! There shouldn't be stakes attached to these?! I agree but isn't it a little late to be saying this? What rock have you people been under? All of these metrics ARE prime time. They've been prime time! Remember when Fordham crowned Indiana as its Education Reform Idol? Was the school grading plan not one of the criteria for judging the winner? These metrics have done been high-stakes. That ship has sailed. They've been used to evaluate teachers and schools, to fire teachers, to unfairly label schools, close down schools, to allow for burdensome federal interventions and harsh state takeovers. Lots of people have been saying these metrics are not ready for prime time, if they're appropriate at all. Why wasn't this thoughtful discussion had before spending so much money, before making high-stakes decisions, before making such a mess. Where was the humility and thoughtfulness then?

3) Where was the stakeholder from Indiana in the forum? A superintendent maybe. A parent or two. Why not ask them what they think of school grading in Indiana? There was talk of transparency. Isn't this an accountability measure that's being discussed? Isn't the premise behind these school grading systems to help parents and the public? Aren't such systems produced on the public dime? Isn't someone like Tony Bennett a public servant, accountable to the public? Okay, so no parent on the panel--maybe no one was available. Look at the public's "accountability moment" then. Didn't the public speak loud and clear when they failed to re-elect Tony Bennett? As Kombiz Lavasany tweeted: " Two Republicans lost in Indiana last year. One was Richard Mourdock for his rape comments. The other was this guy [Bennett]." The school grading plan was the center of his policy platform. And he lost. What do you think the public, who ostensibly this metric was to benefit, then thought of that policy?

This is exactly what happens when you rush into big, "disruptive" changes without thinking about them or fully understanding what you're doing. You break things that weren't already broken and you make messes. And it's what has happened over and over again with education reform in this country. It's time to call a moratorium on school grading and teacher evaluation metrics and maybe on some other stuff, too.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My GRE Experience

This summer I am spending some time getting ready to take the GREs, in case I want to go back to school for something or other. Despite some misgivings, I have decided to "go public" with my experiences preparing for and taking the test. Since I write so much about high stakes testing and since it has had such an effect on the educational lives of my children and on my life as a teacher, I figured writing about it was too good an opportunity to pass up-- like when Katie Couric broadcast her colonoscopy live on public television. Not, mind you, that I am Katie Couric and not that I wish to increase the incidences of GRE test prep, nor will I broadcast live my review or examination sessions (can you imagine?).

So, other than this introductory post, I will also write posts about each of the sections: verbal, quantitative, and analytical. I am reluctant to submit to this test, but I can't get into graduate school without it, so I don't have much choice. If anything, the place I find myself in will authenticate (that sounds like one of those words that isn't a real word, doesn't it?) my experience. Despite other and superior means of demonstrating my qualifications for entry into graduate school, I am stuck taking this test. Am I a hypocrite for deciding to prepare when I deride test prep so much? Maybe--you'll have to see how much and in what ways I've decided to prepare before you judge that.

I took the GREs once right after I graduated from college. I was told this was the best time to take it when everything, especially test taking, is still "fresh." I actually found it was a horrible time to take it because I was burnt out and had no thoughts of going back to school anytime soon. Also, the GREs were nothing like the tests I had in college, thank god. I did not prepare, I did not take it seriously, and I scored poorly. The second time I took it was a few year later-- fifteen years ago (fifteen!) when I was applying to masters and teacher certification programs. (In case you're interested, I wrote about my experience in ed school here.) I reviewed a little--I was motivated to have a strong application--and then just took the plunge. I did surprisingly well--not like Merit Finalist well but well enough, for me--I'm not a good test taker.

For this time, I checked out a GRE book from the library and I'm currently plugging my way through it. The verbal section is really not something I can practice for. The best I can do is be familiar with the format and stick to the format. I will probably write the most about this section--it's the most problematic as far as I'm concerned. The quantitative sections, I do need to review for. Most of the math is rattling around in my brain somewhere but I wouldn't be able to access it without reviewing first, especially with the math I don't use on a regular basis. There's also some types of questions that I don't remember being on the versions of the SATs and GREs I took long ago. Preparing for the writing section will probably just mean familiarization with the format. I think the biggest hardship will be losing the ability to sleep on what I wrote and edit it later. My usual writing process is to think and read for days or even weeks or months about something, then vomit out a draft and then leave it for a bit, think more, and then clean up the mess in stages. Can't do that on the GRE.

Now, it's been very hard for me to accept that I have to take this god foresaken test. Though it's kind of fun to re-learn the math and I know that at least some of it will be helpful in certain graduate programs (and in understanding what the heck Bruce Baker is talking about), I resent having to take the test and I resent the time I have to spend reviewing for it. I feel like once you reach a certain age, you should be excused from the GREs, like age out of it or something. To be honest, I think about it (or actively avoid thinking about it) every day: I need to to study. I'm going to bomb it. The admissions folks are going to think I'm an idiot. I can't believe I missed that question. I feel so stupid. I wonder if there are any pickles left. And then when I start to resent it: Isn't there a lot more than these test scores that would show I'd be a good graduate student? I mean, I practically am a graduate student. I read and write all of the time and make no money! What a waste of time! 

And then I start to understand how so many American children must feel during every testing season, or even every school day.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

TFA: Yup, still an Industry

A little over two years ago, I published a long form commentary about TFA based on the work of other TFA critics and researchers, such as Barbara Miner, Julian Vasquez Heilig, and Su Jin Jez. I had initially hoped to get it published elsewhere, and I submitted it widely. Since I had no takers, I went ahead and posted it myself. Its popularity surprised me--with close to 10,500 hits it is my most popular post. I still share it and it's a strong part of my education writing portfolio, but I moved on after a while. I felt like I had said my piece and I didn't want "TFA critic" to become my identity, or my obsession.

While I would likely write the piece differently now, in the two plus years since I published that post, TFA hasn't seemed to change much. Most of what I wrote is still relevant. TFA continues to grow and accumulate great wealth. It is particularly hard to see TFA in a flattering light now given sequestration, severe post-stimulus budget cuts, and the amount that TFA charges school districts despite their own robust financial health. Finally, TFA continues to refuse to remake themselves in ways that would make them more palatable to their critics. Here were, for example, some of my suggestions:
People work as paralegals before deciding to go to law school, why not have TFA candidates work as teachers’ aides and then fund their further education if they pledge to go on to teach in high-poverty schools? Why doesn't TFA start programs for top students such as this amazing one that is being phased out by Yale University? Why not have alternative certification programs that allow credit for non-traditional but still relevant and substantial experience? Why don’t we stop speaking disparagingly of our teachers from state and public universities, start recruiting them to teach in their home or high-poverty districts, and fund their teacher education and apprenticeships with loan forgiveness programs such as is offered by Sallie Mae?

I am, however, pleased to see more critical pieces about TFA popping up in the liberal media. Although there were several pieces before that, some of the most recent coverage has been spurred by a group of TFA alumni who met in Chicago around the idea of pushing back against the organization. James Cersonsky wrote about this in The American Prospect and even the Atlantic featured a decent piece about it.

Unfortunately, a response from Justin Fong, an employee of TFA's "internal communications" department who attended the conference in Chicago reflects, well, a lack of real reflection on TFA's part. While Fong expressed heartfelt appreciation of the criticism, the nuts and bolts of TFA skeptics' concerns about TFA just didn't sink in. For example, Fong opined (bolded emphasis mine):
Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s not. For me personally, I can’t wait for the day that TFA closes its doors and is no longer relevant. That is a day when our education system finally works for everyone, not just for those with privilege and power. The ultimate victory for the organization is to become obsolete, to become no longer necessary
Teach For America has financial and political support because many people understand the value that it brings in creating a force for change of an education system that’s not working. It’s not spin. There’s a great deal of good that comes out of Teach For America—you have to settle with that.
Mr. Fong and TFA see themselves as necessary, not potentially or possibly helpful but necessary. That is quite a presumption. TFA critics believe that not only is TFA not necessary but that it's harmful. That's the whole point. And would TFA really pack up shop "when our education system finally works for everyone, not just those with privilege and power"? As I pointed out in the opening paragraph of my original piece (and I am not alone in this), this statement represents a change in TFA's mission. It began with "we help in areas with teacher shortages." Now it is "the educational system is broken, we're here to help fix it."  And increasingly, "fix it" means replacing, not complementing experienced teachers--isn't TFA in its current incarnation expanding into places where there are adequate numbers of professional teachers? Isn't the KIPP model touted as highly successful within pro-TFA circles? Wouldn't it follow, then, that TFA would no longer be necessary there?

Mr. Fong and TFA believe they are "a force for change of an educational system that's not working" and that this "brings value." There are many troubling assumptions here. First of all, is TFA a force for positive change? Does it "bring value"? TFA critics and their research would argue, no. Again, that's the point of their criticism. Second of all, while many TFA critics agree that reforms are needed, they don't agree that "the system is not working" is a useful starting point for productive reform. Reformers who begin with "the system is broken" often use that as an excuse to ignore their responsibility to find whatever is working and not break that, too. Furthermore,"you have to settle with that" does not sound as if it is in the spirit of collaboration, or like working together; it sounds like you have to believe that TFA is necessary and great, period.

If Justin Fong is meant to emblemize TFA 2.0, a kinder, gentler TFA, well, not much seems to have changed.Though not without good intentions, it's the same patronizing ideology masked in reformy teamwork! speak. You can't "peacefully co-exist" with an organization that says that you're not good at what you do and we're going to do it for you and "you have to settle with that." That's not what teamwork looks like. Alas, the more things change. . .

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gifted and Prepped

Gary Rubinstein, one of my most favorite education bloggers, has written a fantastically interesting post about his own experience with the kindergarten lottery/enrollment process in New York City. Anyone who's interested in the whether-where-high-profile-education-people-send-their-children-to-school-matters conversation should read this, as well as advocates of lottery or "choice" systems, gifted educators, and people who study school accountability and ratings. Gary has given his readers a real and honest window into all of this.

The New York City Public School lottery system, which I have read a lot about, just seems crazy. Calling it a choice system is a joke, unless you mean that the schools choose the students, not the reverse. And even for families, it's so complicated. I can't imagine most people can navigate it. And even many savvy parents don't navigate it on their own--they pay someone to help them navigate it. I remember reading an argument that this system is more fair than the previous system, and that may be so, but I don't know if that's saying much.

I also want to address the twenty children with a mediocre or bad teacher vs. forty children with a great teacher debate. I think that's a false dichotomy. First of all, as I've said here, I don't really believe in inherently great teachers (teachers are made not born) and I think that circumstances such as class size or total student load can help to make or break great teaching. Yes, some teachers are just bad at their jobs, no matter what, but good teaching is highly dependent on working conditions and other circumstances.

And then there is something Gary totally left out: curriculum. He says for his child, peer group is more important than the teacher to him, that
 I’d want my daughter, ideally, in an ethnically diverse class where all the students are functioning above grade level. 
And I totally agree with him about the peer group effect and honesty and charter schools (bolded emphasis is mine):
Here I want my daughter to be in a ‘peer group’ with kids, like her, who come to kindergarten already able to read while I seem to have a problem with charter schools excluding the toughest to educate kids and then kicking out the few that make it through their initial defenses, thus creating a peer group of motivated low-income students with motivated parents.  The truth is, though, that I wouldn’t have such a problem with charters creating this enhanced peer group if they would not lie about doing more with the ‘same kids’ as the nearby ‘failing’ school.  What this has caused is those ‘failing’ schools getting starved of resources, their schools shut down, and their teachers fired.  All because they did not try to game the system.
But for me, while the teacher and the peer group are important neither is as important as the curriculum, what my children are being being taught. Now, I do acknowledge that math curriculum works differently--after a certain point, it's very hard to differentiate a subject that is so heavily dependent on sequence, on mastering a previous skill, concept, or even set of math facts. I say this as a language and social studies teacher, though I guess I should be careful in asserting myself with too much confidence here because Gary is a maestro of math teaching. But anyway, I don't see what good it does my child if they're in a room full of above-grade level peers with or without a "great" teacher if they're learning gibberish.

Finally, I want to address the gifted identification and placement process he discusses. I have to admit though I don't advocate against it and I am relatively uninformed about it, that I have some reservations, generally, about gifted education. I think there are very few truly gifted people in the world. Hence, I am deeply skeptical of any gifted assessment(s) that would find as many as 40% of any population gifted, as the assessments do in NYC. That's not gifted-ness that being identified, it's something else. Second of all, I am deeply skeptical that you can prep for gifted diagnostic tests without invalidating their results. I understand that most people of means get their children prepped for these tests in New York City--this is not about judging Gary for following suit (and I deeply respect him for his honesty about it); the system only works as it should if no one preps their kid. As for the Hunter School and the playdates and the clipboards, that's mostly a matter of luck--what any four-year-old happened to say in that time and what the clipboard-wielder happened to denote is random. There has to be some way of choosing, but I don't see this way as being any more scientific than a lottery is.

In response to the question at the end of his post, I do not think Gary is a hypocrite for wanting the best place for his children, but I do not envy his having to be a part of a such a rat race. Most people prep for gate-keeping tests (I will write a series about my recent personal experiences with the GRE soon), but there's something obscene about preparing and assessing four-year-olds in this way--it makes it almost totally about the parents and their resources.

My father, a native New Yorker and (Gary should appreciate this) a Stuyvesant grad, often repeats this quote which he attributes to Norman Mailer, "New York has the best of everything: the best restaurants, the best plays, the best criminals. . ." and the best gifted and talented program, and the best ways to game it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On being an active (local) citizen

Being an active citizen is important. This is our community, these are our schools, and our local government is supposed to, within reason, work for us. But we need to work for us, too. We have to do what I call, “earning our right to complain.” Issues of local government often get the least attention and local election often have the lowest turn-out, but these issues and elections actually affect our everyday lives the most. They are not glamorous, but they matter.

First of all: Get informed. This will take some work. But the good news is, there is a learning curve. If you invest some time up front, it will save you a lot of time later. Subscribe to your local paper. Read publicly available government documents. Watch your local news reports. Observe. Ask questions and listen.

Second, be present at meetings. This will take a lot of time. But it’s part of getting informed and it’s also a signal to your local decision makers that you are watching and that you care.

Next, speak up. This will take courage. One place to speak up is at the meetings of local governance I just mentioned. You can also write your local appointed and elected officials letters, e-mails, and you can call them on the phone. You can write letters to the editor or post your thoughts on a local on-line publication. Your local decision makers want to know what you think and if you don’t speak, they will act upon what everyone else who speaks tells them to do. If you do speak and they don’t listen then help get someone else elected who will listen and who will act. As much as possible, include anecdotes, data, research, and evidence to help support the case you’re making.

Finally, be respectful and don’t burn bridges. This will take perseverance and it will take diplomacy. You will not make one phone call or write one letter and get your problem fixed. You have to keep at it. Also, you will not get everything you want. These issues are often complex and democracy means that we have to compromise. For democracy to work, we have to accept that we live in a society of “we,” not a society of “me.” On that note I will leave with a quote from the English writer, R.H. Blyth:
Perfect does not mean perfect actions in a perfect world, but appropriate actions in an imperfect one.