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.