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Posts tagged ‘school reform’

NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign

Have you heard about NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign?  You wouldn’t know it from the media, but across the country, educators are partnering with parents, communities, businesses, and their Associations to positively transform schools and NEA’s Campaign is supporting and promoting their efforts

The Priority Schools Campaign grew out of a mandate from NEA’s annual Representative Assembly, where more than 9,000 delegates voted to focus resources on informing and engaging members in collaborative work to transform lower-performing schools, our priority schools. The campaign supports:

  • School transformation approaches that involve educators, communities and policymakers in state capitols, in Congress and in the Obama administration.
  • Collaboration on innovative programs to measure student success and teacher quality.
  • Attracting and keeping the best educators and necessary resources for the schools of greatest need.

Learn more about the Campaign and watch the promo for the Priority Schools Campaign below.  It features CEA Director of Policy and Professional Practice Mary Loftus Levine.

Race to Nowhere – Watch the Film December 2

In a recent post I was critical of Davis Guggenheim’s film “Waiting for Superman” for its overly simplistic analysis of a very complex issue. Last week, I attended a showing of another documentary based on problems in public education. The film is titled “Race to Nowhere” and is produced by parent/filmmaker, Vicki Abeles, a 48-year-old lawyer. She began the project as an exploration of the various school-related pressures her own three children were experiencing.

Unlike the Guggenheim film, which has had tremendous promotional support from foundations, Race to Nowhere is growing, for the most part, by word of mouth. It is being viewed by many as a counter point to WFS, but more importantly, it raises another set of important issues and asks its audience to open up a dialogue about what our education system has become and what we would like it to be. It does so without resorting to the blame game.

Watch the film trailer and you will get a sense of what the issues are:

CEA is co-sponsoring a showing of the film with Connecticut College’s Education Department on Thursday, December 2 in Oliva Hall at 6:30pm in the Cummings Art Center. Connecticut teachers are strongly encouraged to come to the viewing.

No advance tickets are required and everyone who shows up will be accepted until the space is full. That being said, you can go on the Race to Nowhere website and “reserve” a space.  You are encouraged to “reserve” tickets on the website so we can keep a fairly accurate count. Click on “Screenings,”  scroll down to CT, click on “Ticket URL”, and make your reservation.

Finally Saw ‘Waiting for Superman’

I must confess that I recently forced myself to see the controversial film only because it would not be credible to comment on it otherwise. Just as the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, approached his task with a discernible bias, I assumed that my viewpoint regarding the film’s conclusions would be very difficult to change. I was not disappointed.

After having seen the film, it would be equally difficult to envision an audience member who would not be deeply moved by the five children and their parents featured in the film.   This compelling human drama is used by the filmmaker to put a human face on a complex problem. It provides what Guggenheim hopes will be  a compelling stage for the introduction of the major ideological themes of the film. Unfortunately, the message he imparts is that teachers’ unions are a malevolent force in American education; huge numbers of America’s teachers are incompetent louts relying upon tenure to allow them to sleepwalk through their lifetime jobs, and the system is an amorphous blob incapable of putting the needs of children first. In an increasingly polarized education reform debate this is clearly only one side.

As Dana Goldstein states in her comprehensive critique of the film, published in The Nation, it is not what you see in the film, so much as what is missing – intentionally left aside – that diminishes the credibility of the film.

Here’s what you see in Waiting for Superman, the new documentary that celebrates the charter school movement while blaming teachers unions for much of what ails American education: working- and middle-class parents desperate to get their charming, healthy, well-behaved children into successful public charter schools.

Here’s what you don’t see: the four out of five charters that are no better, on average, than traditional neighborhood public schools (and are sometimes much worse); charter school teachers, like those at the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, who are unionized and like it that way; and noncharter neighborhood public schools, like PS 83 in East Harlem and the George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, that are nationally recognized for successfully educating poor children.

You don’t see teen moms, households without an adult English speaker or headed by a drug addict, or any of the millions of children who never have a chance to enter a charter school lottery (or get help with their homework or a nice breakfast) because adults simply aren’t engaged in their education. These children, of course, are often the ones who are most difficult to educate, and the ones neighborhood public schools can’t turn away.

Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director, has bought into the Kline/Rhee agenda, and when it came time for casting calls for experts, spokespersons for the other side of the debate were not invited. Randy Weingarten, president of the AFT, is shown rallying her members in grainy black and white footage with ominous background music to remind the audience that this is the enemy. The image of teachers, other than those in the charter schools, is portrayed through insulting imagery and cartoon characters. And on and on it goes.

Most outrageous, perhaps, is the vast oversimplification of the problem in deference to diatribes about “crummy schools” and “crappy education”. This is old news now since the film has peaked, but the phenomenon is worth examining and the debate is not going away.

Let’s talk about statistics that you will not see or hear in the film or on that side of the debate. Consider, for example, the fact that the United States ranks 25th among 26 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations for percentage of children living in poverty.  The 26th is Mexico.

The data is from the Innocenti Report Card on Child Poverty in 2005, (well before the devastating impact of the global recession of 2009). Here is a summary of the current status of child poverty in the US from the National Center for Children in Poverty:

Nearly 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,050 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 42% of children live in low-income families.

Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty.

Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being. But effective public policies – to make work pay for low-income parents and to provide high-quality early care and learning experiences for their children – can make a difference. Investments in the most vulnerable children are also critical.

We are not allowed to talk about the impact of poverty on children’s development because, if we do, we are making excuses. Because, as the film, leads its audience to believe, charter schools like KIPP have proven that poor kids can learn.

Erik Hanneshek,  an economist who has studied teacher effect, suggested in the film that if we were able to remove the bottom 10% of teachers – the least effective – we could, in a very short time, surpass the achievement scores of Finland. Note the rate of child poverty in Finland in the chart above – 2.8%. Although child poverty is rising in Finland – there are now 100,000 children living in poverty – the measurement is below 60% of the median income.

While we were implementing No Child Left Behind, Britain set a different kind of goal for itself – the elimination of child poverty. When Tony Blair took office the UK had the third highest child poverty rate among industrial nations with a rate of 26% , today that is down to 12 %. They accomplished this with a comprehensive reexamination of how best to support children and families. They now provide universal free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds, while we continue to nibble at the edges, perhaps waiting for superman or Bill Gates to solve the problems by increasing test scores.

Are we incapable as a nation of coming up with a comprehensive plan to improve the lives of our most vulnerable children without constantly seeking scapegoats?


For further commentary on the film, check out the following articles.

Waiting for Substance, by LynNell Hancock.  Published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The Myth of Charter Schools, by Diane Ravitch.  Published in the New York Review of Books.

In ‘Waiting for Superman,’ a Scene Isn’t What it Seems, by Sharon Otterman.  Published in the New York Times.

Signs of A Truce in the War on Teachers?

Last week NEA, AFT, and Secretary Duncan announced plans for a joint labor-management summit early next year to talk about collaboration in pursuit of education reform.  Certainly not a tipping point, but a welcome relief from the seemingly endless focus on ineffective teachers, “jobs for life”, and the infamous “Rubber Room” in New York City.

Perhaps the expressions of outrage from teachers and others are having an impact on the administration. I am not so sure. In any event, collaborative or interest-based bargaining is not a new concept. Anyone who has been involved in it knows that the most important ingredient is trust.  And secondly, if one party or the other comes to the table with a pre-conceived agenda, the likelihood of success is severely diminished.

It will take more than a summit to earn the trust of America’s teachers after Mr. Duncan’s unchecked enthusiasm for the firing of the entire staff of Central High School in Rhode Island and the unprecedented release of a Value Added Assessment analysis ranking and naming thousands of teachers in Los Angeles.  The LA Times used teachers as a lever to push the school administration to change its teacher evaluation system and fire more teachers.

Since Arne Duncan’s appointment, the ascendant views controlling the education reform narrative have been those of a handful of billionaires and an equally small number of high-profile urban superintendents. Add to this a more than receptive media, ever willing to make a clarion call for sweeping America’s schools clean of ineffective teachers, and you have a recipe for increased alienation among America’s hard-working teachers.

It is time for teachers to rise up from the stultifying impact of an ill-conceived law and reassert their right to be at the table. The Obama administration, whether intentionally or not, has contributed to the increasingly popular notion that all of America’s current ills can be remedied within the schoolhouse walls. The recent “manifesto”, issued by Michelle Rhee and Chancellor Klein along with a number of urban superintendents in the Washington Post,  is yet the latest manifestation of the “ineffective teachers are the problem” mantra.

Consider this statement from the Manifesto:  “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.” [emphasis added]

Their proposal begins with a deeply flawed premise.

Richard Rothstein, who holds a very different view, responded to this assertion:

It has become conventional in educational policy discussion to assert that “research shows” that “teachers are the most important influence on student achievement.” There is, in fact, no serious research that shows any such thing. The assertion results from a careless glide from “teachers being the most important in-school influence,” to teachers being the most important influence overall. But because school effects on average levels of achievement are smaller than the effects of families and communities, even if teachers were the largest school effect, they would not be a very big portion of the overall effect. A child with an average teacher who comes from a literate, economically secure, and stable family environment will, on average, have better achievement than a child with a superior teacher but with none of these contextual advantages. Of course, some children from impoverished backgrounds will outperform typical children from literate and secure backgrounds, but on average, the extent to which children come to school prepared to take advantage of what school has to offer is a more important predictor than what even the best school can do.

Nicholas Lemann wrote recently in the New Yorker:

It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools.

He concludes that:

We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.

So I don’t see peace breaking out all over – far from it – but there are glimmers of hope.

And Rhee Makes Three

Michelle Rhee, controversial superintendent in Washington, DC, announced her resignation Wednesday. Just a few days ago Arne Duncan’s successor in Chicago, Ron Huberman,  announced that he will leave as well based upon Mayor Daley’s surprise decision not to stand for reelection. Also, Mark Roosevelt in Pittsburg announced his departure after five years. Both Roosevelt and Rhee will leave behind newly penned contracts both of which will dramatically change teacher evaluation and compensation.

Although both Roosevelt and Rhee describe themselves as change agents, clearly Rhee has been the darling of those who advocate that disruptive change is the only path to improvement in urban education. Joel Klein remains Chancellor of the New York district, albeit diminished by the drastic drop in test scores which emerged after New York  re-calibrated their state tests. Pittsburg is somewhat of an outlier in that the mayor does not control the schools and Roosevelt worked harder to bring the AFT local into the fold.

What is notable about Roosevelt is how he got to his position in Pittsburg. I knew Mark as a former politician from MA.  He was the House Chair of the Education Committee and I was President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association during a very stormy period of education reform politics in Massachusetts. More to the point, his pathway to the superintendency was through the Broad Superintendents Academy, which is a 10 month boot camp for business executives interested in becoming urban superintendents. Eli Broad, founder of the Academy, is one of the “Billionaire Boys” (as Diane Ravich refers to them – a small group of uber- successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, John Walton, Eli Broad, etc.) By most accounts (including his own), Roosevelt has made significant progress in Pittsburg. He is a finalist to become the president of Antioch College in Ohio, which closed its doors and was purchased by its alumni. So with Mark Roosevelt it will be “been there, done that”.

Rhee’s “take no prisoners” approach is one which sadly resonates with the media and makes her tenure even more noteworthy in its implications for the future. This approach to education reform is premised on a few notions that have most recently been mythologized by NBC with its Education Nation: tenure and teacher unions are the chief obstacles to reforming America’s schools, and monetary incentives will motivate  teachers to improve their ability to raise test scores. If you think this is not true, you need only watch this panel which was part of Education Nation. The panel was “moderated” by Steven Brill, and was ostensibly about attracting and retaining teachers.  Brill’s biases shine through almost immediately. The panel includes a teacher from New York, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada (CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone), NEA and AFT presidents, and a gentleman from the Gates Foundation.

How We Can Attract Good Apples to Education
Education Nation Panel

If you take the time to watch this, you will see how a powerful set of wrongheaded notions have taken on a life of their own.

Governor Rell Signs Sweeping Education Reform Legislation

Governor M. Jodi Rell poses with education leaders following a signing ceremony May 26 at Hockanum School in East Hartford where she signed into law a new comprehensive education reform policy bill. With the governor are (l. to r.) Connecticut Federation of School Administrators President Roch Girard, CEA President Phil Apruzzese, CEA Executive Director John Yrchik, State Commissioner of Education Mark McQuillan, Education Committee Co-Chairs Senator Thomas Gaffey and State Representative Andrew Fleischmann.

CEA leaders were among invited officials at a signing ceremony today at Hockanum School in East Hartford.  Governor M. Jodi Rell signed into law a comprehensive education reform policy bill passed in the final days of the 2010 legislative session.

The legislation, Senate Bill 438, An Act Concerning Education Reform in Connecticut, covers an array of issues designed to provide new chances to boost student achievement. The new law increases the minimum credits required for high school graduation from 20 to 25 and gives greater emphasis to math, science, and world languages, beginning with the Class of 2018. It also requires every student to complete a “capstone project” – an independent demonstration project.

The legislation was crafted by a working group that included CEA representatives and other stakeholders in the education community, including the co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Education Committee and the state commissioner of education.

“As a genuine partner, CEA tapped the knowledge and experience of teachers during this legislative process,” said CEA President Phil Apruzzese, who attended the signing ceremony. “We are pleased that teachers had a voice at the table and that CEA could make a difference in shaping the final omnibus school reform package.”

The governor called the legislation a product of “bipartisan” effort. “By having all of the interested parties – educators, teachers unions, parents, students, legislators, and others – together at the table, we ended up with a far stronger result than any individual effort could produce. This is bold, visionary reform – and we are making it happen together,” Governor Rell said.

The new law also enhances Connecticut’s chances to secure up to $175 million in federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grant funding that rewards states for taking bold steps in education reform. Connecticut will file its application for the next round of RTTT grants on June 1.

Education Reform in the News: Are Teachers Ignored?

Race to the Top finalists were announced last week and, probably not coincidentally, teachers and education have been in the news recently.  Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine, mainstream publications with a wide reach, have had features on teachers and teaching: Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers and Building a Better Teacher.

Meanwhile the education community is talking about Diane Ravitch’s new book and new take on education reform (read BlogCEA contributor Bob Murphy’s review), and Linda Darling-Hammond has a new book out too.

Scholastic issued a report with the results of a survey of 40,000 U.S. public school teachers.  “The results show many teachers feel ignored in the debate over how to improve America’s schools.”

Have you had the time to read any of these articles and discuss them with your colleagues?  Do you agree that teachers are ignored when it comes to discussions about school reform?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

Sanctions v. Incentives: False Choice for Teachers?

It is great that CEA has asked teachers why they chose to teach.  It is an important question to ask, particularly given the shroud of cynicism surrounding the profession going back to the release of A Nation at Risk, and reaching a high point in the first term of George Bush. Teachers need to share their stories to put a face back on our profession.

These are big questions. Why do people choose to teach? What are the circumstances that cause them to stay in teaching? And particularly pertinent to the current engine of reform – increasing teacher effectiveness – what motivates teachers to improve?

NCLB was, and continues to be, the “stick without the carrot” approach to motivating a workforce. Now we are embarking on what may well prove to be an excessive reliance on the “carrot,” particularly if the pay for performance crowd prevails.

In preparation for this next era of federal intrusion, we ought to be asking the next question: “What keeps you in teaching?” Not that we haven’t asked before: we have. If James Carville were writing this he’d probably say, “It’s the working conditions STUPID.”  And I’m not talking simply about “wages, hours, and conditions of employment.”  Rather, in addition to these, that complex amalgam of conditions  which enhance a teacher’s ability to become increasingly more effective. You know what I am talking about.

The merit pay narrative relies on a powerful mythology about how workers in all other sectors of the economy are paid and what motivates  them to perform.  Recent (and also not so recent) research debunks these myths.

The latest edition of Harvard Business Review offers 10 Breakthrough Ideas for 2010.  The first breakthrough idea is about motivation:  What Really Motivates Workers: Understanding the Power of Progress.  Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer “reveal what their research shows is the true key to employee motivation.” Among the findings from their analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries by knowledge workers who made daily ratings of their motivation and emotions, progress in one’s work – even incremental progress – is most frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation. The authors further indicate that “The key to motivation doesn’t depend on elaborate incentive systems. In fact, the people in our study rarely mentioned  incentives in their diaries.”

Another interesting finding that has some resonance for me is that those who manage these workers, when asked what they thought most powerfully motivated their employees, got it wrong.

Ask leaders what they think makes employees enthusiastic about work, and they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms. In a recent survey we invited more than 600 managers from dozens of companies to rank the impact on employee motivation and emotions of five workplace factors commonly considered significant: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, support for making progress, and clear goals. “Recognition for good work (either public or private)” came out number one.

In the study, the knowledge workers ranked recognition low among the factors motivating their performance. Wait a minute, didn’t President Obama and Secretary Duncan recently say that “recognizing and rewarding teachers” will be a major driver in their proposal to revamp ESEA?  In fact, they have proposed a whopping quadrupling of the monies in the Teacher Incentive Fund. Could they possibly be barking up the wrong tree in the quest to improve teacher effectiveness?  It wouldn’t be the first time.

Consider the notion of progress. What has been the biggest criticism of Adequate Yearly Progress? The goal keeps moving – making the achievement of progress increasingly difficult until it reaches a point of impossibility. Is it any wonder that gradually, over the last decade, teachers find themselves in an existential vacuum? Anthony Mullen, one of the more articulate and thoughtful National Teachers of the Year, and also a CEA member, alluded to this recently in his blog Road Diaries (see the posting Teacher Tales).

Here’s one more recommendation as you think about what it is that motivates teachers and if we are out of line with the worldview of our brothers and sisters in the private sector. Check out the recent work of Daniel Pink, who recently published a book called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motives Us.”  As Publisher’s Weekly puts it, “Pink cites a dizzying number of studies revealing that carrot and stick can actually significantly reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems.”

Below watch Dan Pink explaining some of his ideas on motivation in an interesting and entertaining presentation from

The Bully Pulpit: The Master and His Apprentice

bully pulpit (a public office of sufficiently high rank that it provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter)

Last night President Obama took back the high ground in the health care debate after an ugly August. My impression is that he likely moved public opinion with his remarks.

Last Sunday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on the airwaves as well, as Bob Shieffer’s only guest on Face the Nation.

Another scheduled event which should have been welcomed by all Americans – the president’s address to America’s students – took an ugly turn as well, but once again the president turned the tide.

These are indeed puzzling times where even the most bizarre impressions and opinions are magnified by a 24/7 news cycle and a revolution in electronic communication.  Historically, I think we have always linked the Office of President with the power of the “bully pulpit”, but could it be that the information/communication revolution has broadened the distribution of the bully pulpit?  Or do I have too much time on my hands?

I listened and watched both of the events mentioned above, and I hope you did as well.  While Barak Obama has proven to be both eloquent and persuasive, Secretary Duncan lacks the polish of his boss, but what he lacks in rhetorical skills he more than makes up for in tenacity.  He can be very persuasive because when he says “jump”, many states have asked “how high?”  – particularly when he dangles $4.3 billion in front of them. It is “pay to play” in reverse.  Already eight states have made modifications in their state laws in order to meet the pre-conditions for playing in the Race to the Top  competition.

California is a case in point. In late August, Governor Schwarzenegger decided to call a Special Session of the legislature to deal with education reform.  Here is what he said:

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Close 5000 Schools in Five Years …

This week President Obama proposed closing and reopening 1000 failing schools per year for the next five years. Where did this come from! Officially the notion was floated by Secretary Duncan while making opening remarks to an audience at the Brookings Institute in Washington this past Monday. But why now?

Is it puzzling that just as the secretary embarks on a “national listening tour” to seek the opinions of educators and parents regarding the impact of NCLB , we hear of yet another five year plan to deal with failing schools? Perhaps the timing of this may have something to do with an article published in the New Yorker last week – The Instigator: A crusader’s plan to remake failing schools – a profile of Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, California’s largest non-profit charter school operator. Read more