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Education Reform: Is this a Joke? (Part lll of lll) April 3, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Obama.
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4 comments

Remember when Dennis Miller was a liberal and went on his truly hilarious rants.  Well those days are gone, and nothing you will read here if even remotely funny, but I’m going on a rant!

Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times: Obama to Push for Merit Pay in Education Speech: There is little doubt that Lynn Sweet is an uncritical Obama fan. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m still a strong supporter.  But I think that our friends owe it to us to tell us when they think we are off track.)  Anyway, as usual, here she quotes the president favorably, citing as a ‘key proposal from the White House’,

“The President will increase teacher quality by dramatically (italics mine) expanding successful performance pay models and rewards for effective teachers, scaling up federal support for such programs in up to an additional 150 school districts nationwide.”

What she doesn’t do is ask any questions. How will the administration determine who is an effective teacher? By standardized tests that are widely criticized by teacher after teacher and virtually every school advocate on the left as not measuring true learning, but only rote learning and memorization? Tests that are graded differently in different states so that the results are virtually meaningless? In fairness, the president did promise to revamp the tests to measure things like analysis and critical thinking and to set a national standard to get rid of regional differences. But there is still much to be done before teachers can be judged by the same criterion. I’ve spent the last week reading everything I could find about Arne Duncan, and, in doing so, I’ve read the comments of 117 school teachers in Chicago. Not one spoke favorably of Duncan, and there are common themes of which we are all already aware, but of which we do not speak. At least not in Washington, including in the current administration. One teacher, who left the profession after only a few years, tells a common story.

In Teaching’s Revolving Door, an article by Barbara Miner which appears on the Rethinking Schools website, a teacher named Eiaine moved, at her own request, from “a suburban school so well funded that she taught with science books that weren’t yet available on the market” to an urban school. She asked for the transfer because she felt a calling to help students in an African American low-income neighborhood. Here, she found that her science textbooks were more than 20 years old, that some had entire chapters missing, and that there weren’t enough, even of those, to go around.

My guess is that the students in this school aren’t performing so well – that this would probably be considered a “failing” school, and, according to President Obama’s stated approach to education reform, would be shut down. It would be shut down without ever being provided the resources that are a prerequisite for learning. Can we truly expect great success stories from schools in such dire circumstances? And a lack of books wasn’t all she found. She also reported that, because the school was so poorly funded and because her students had a late lunch period, “by the time they got to the cafeteria, sometimes the food was gone.” In the winter, she said, “the boiler routinely broke and there would be minimal heat.” And, besides a lack of resources, she reports that there was virtually no support from district administrators. Does her students’ failure to score well on standardized tests make her a “bad” teacher – one that should be fired? Are teachers to be held accountable for these indefensible injustices? With all the talk of holding teachers accountable, why no mention of accountability on the part of policy makers – on those who allocate money to schools? Why do we accept Republicans’ (and now, neoliberal Democrats’) nonsensical ramblings about liberals “just wanting to throw money at the problem.” Well, when children don’t have school books or food or heating, I would strongly argue that their school needs more money. Should we really shut down our public schools without ever giving them the opportunity to succeed? President Obama hasn’t committed himself otherwise.  He never speaks of the unjust ways in which schools are funded.  He never mentions that some kids have no books.  He never asserts that this is unfair… that it is discrimination wrapped in the ridiculous rhetoric of ‘bad’ teachers.  Why is this?  I wish I had an answer… as I’m do those who give their all, despite their lack of resources, to help our children learn and flourish.

 

 

Our Children

Our Children

 

 

Now it is true that the president has promised to provide more training for teachers, but he has not provided any details. For how many teachers? Enough to make a difference? And what teachers? How will he determine who gets training and who gets the axe? I’m sure there are bad teachers out there. There are bad workers in every field. But his assault on them is outrageous. Can we count the times he has referred to bad teachers? As if their morale wasn’t low enough already. The teachers who ask to be placed in an urban school, with all the problems that come along with the move, deserve higher pay, but their pay is lower. They deserve more training in how to deal with problems that don’t arise in many well-funded suburban schools, but they get the least. They deserve to be credited with their choice to face these conditions – the choice certainly doesn’t come from pursuing their own self-interest. Rather, they want, more than anything, to help children who need it the most. So how can we look them in the face, acknowledge their lack of books, training, institutional support, computers, even pencils and call them bad teachers because their students don’t perform as well as their counterparts in affluent areas? I am angry this week, and I think rightfully so. It is a disgrace.  President Obama speaks of past heros like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  But President Bush’s team are the ones who think highly of his Education Secretary.  I am angry.  I am hurt.  And I feel betrayed by this man who asked us to hope.  I did hope, but I never hoped for this.
In all fairness, President Obama, in making a promise to pay “well-performing” teachers more did also promise to base their evaluation on student progress, rather than basing them solely on test scores. But, even with this promise, he is attempting to put out a forest fire with a garden hose. For he has promised funding to increase teacher pay in 150 school districts. One hundred fifty! We have 14,900 school districts in this country. And by his own count, the student drop-out rate is worst in 2,000 of them. Given these numbers, I do not hold out much hope that increasing the pay of some teachers in 1% of our school districts will turn around our public schools. A far bigger commitment is necessary. But he has not made that commitment. Nor has he uttered a single word in support of equitable funding. He’s worked in these neighborhoods. He knows what’s going on. So where is his commitment to the principle of equality?
Take Elaine. After just a few years, she left teaching. And, as the author points out, multiply her decision thousands of times and you get an idea of one of the most serious problems facing schools. Her research reveals that school districts must hire about 270,000 new K-12 teachers every fall to replace those who have left the profession. And, she found that “the problem of teacher turnover is especially acute among new teachers, with as many as half of new teachers leaving within five years.” Not surprisingly, the problem is worse still in urban districts where it takes only three years for half of new teachers to leave. This is especially bad for kids in urban districts who are already less likely to have continuity in their lives. Imagine they find a teacher who inspires them, who motivates them, who simply shows that she believes in them. And then she leaves. Do we have to guess the effect this has on those students? I think not.
I have come to support the idea of charter schools under certain circumstances. But the circumstances under which Arne Duncan operated in Chicago leave me saddened and angered. First of all, he shut down small community schools rather than huge urban schools. Smaller schools, I think, provide the better environment and are most likely to be turned around with the proper tools. Adding insult to injury, reports are that the student whose schools he closes are often not the students who get to attend the new Ren10 schools, often charter schools. Rather, their neighborhood is being gentrified along with the school closures, new, more affluent families move in and send their kids to the new schools, while the children who once lived there (or even some who still live there) are often sent off to other ‘failing’ schools. I said, last week, that I would report back on his admirers and his critics. Well, critics are much easier to find. The only folks who speak well of him are corporate interests and folks from the Bush administration. Hope? I’m finding it hard.

But don’t take my word for it.  Consider this report from the Christian Science Monitor.
“Chicago students have shown some strong gains under Duncan. The percentage of elementary students meeting state standards increased from 38 percent to 65 percent during his tenure. But results at high schools give less to cheer about: Test scores have stagnated, with just under 30 percent of students meeting standards, according to Catalyst Chicago, a newsmagazine that reports on education reform. A change in testing procedures, moreover, has muddied the year-to-year comparisons…
The district closed, replaced, or overhauled the management at more than 60 low-performing schools. But Catalyst found that, early on, only a small percentage of students displaced by school closings ended up at the new and improved schools. Many landed at other schools that were on academic probation.”

Or see Obama’s Betrayal of Public Education? Arne Duncan and the Corporate Model of Schooling on the Truth Out website.

“Far from a genuine call for reform, (attacks on public schools) largely stem from an attempt to transform schools from a public investment to a private good, answerable not to the demands and values of a democratic society but to the imperatives of the marketplace. As the educational historian David Labaree rightly argues, public schools have been under attack in the last decade “not just because they are deemed ineffective but because they are public.
Right-wing efforts to disinvest in public schools as critical sites of teaching and learning and govern them according to corporate interests is obvious …. The hidden curriculum is… that always underfunded public schools fail so that they can eventually be privatized.

 
Duncan’s neoliberal ideology is on full display in the various connections he has established with the ruling political and business elite in Chicago.  He led the Renaissance 2010 plan, which was created for Mayor Daley by the Commercial Club of Chicago – an organization representing the largest businesses in the city.  Chicago’s 2010 plan targets 15 percent of the city district’s alleged underachieving schools in order to dismantle them and open 100 new experimental schools in areas slated for gentrification.  (Do we think this was accidental????)
As a result of his support of the plan, Duncan came under attack by community organizations, parents, education scholars and students. These diverse critics have denounced it as a scheme less designed to improve the quality of schooling than as a plan for privatization, union busting and the dismantling of democratically-elected local school councils. They also describe it as part of neighborhood gentrification schemes involving the privatization of public housing projects through mixed finance developments.   (Tony Rezko, an Obama and Blagojevich campaign supporter, made a fortune from these developments along with many corporate investors.) Some of the dimensions of public school privatization involve Renaissance schools being run by subcontracted for-profit companies – a shift in school governance from teachers and elected community councils to appointed administrators coming disproportionately from the ranks of business. It also establishes corporate control over the selection and model of new schools, giving the business elite and their foundations increasing influence over educational policy. No wonder that Duncan had the support of David Brooks, the conservative op-ed writer for The New York Times.
  One particularly egregious example of Duncan’s vision of education can be seen in the conference he organized with the Renaissance Schools Fund. In May 2008, the Renaissance Schools Fund, the financial wing of the Renaissance 2010 plan operating under the auspices of the Commercial Club, held a symposium, “Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market in Public Education,” at the exclusive private club atop the Aon Center. The event was held largely by and for the business sector, school privatization advocates, and others already involved in Renaissance 2010, such as corporate foundations and conservative think tanks.

SIGNIFICANTLY, NO EDUCATION SCHOLARS WERE INVITED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE PROCEEDINGS, although it was heavily attended by fellows from the pro-privatization Fordham Foundation and featured speakers from various school choice organizations and the leadership of corporations. Speakers clearly assumed the audience shared their views.
 Without irony, Arne Duncan characterized the goal of Renaissance 2010 creating the new market in public education as a “movement for social justice.” He invoked corporate investment terms to describe reforms explaining that the 100 new schools would leverage influence on the other 500 schools in Chicago. Redefining schools as stock investments he said, “I am not a manager of 600 schools. I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I’m trying to improve the portfolio.”

 
 What Duncan and other neoliberal economic advocates refuse to address is what it would mean for a viable educational policy to provide reasonable support services for all students and viable alternatives for the troubled ones. The notion that children should be viewed as a crucial social resource – one that represents, for any healthy society, important ethical and political considerations about the quality of public life, the allocation of social provisions and the role of the state as a guardian of public interests – appears to be lost in a society that refuses to invest in its youth as part of a broader commitment to a fully realized democracy.
It is difficult to understand why Obama would appoint as secretary of education someone who believes in a market-driven model that has not only failed young people, but given the current financial crisis has been thoroughly discredited. Unless Duncan is willing to reinvent himself, the national agenda he will develop for education embodies and exacerbates these problems and, as such, it will leave a lot more kids behind than it helps.”

I think this says it better than I – I hope my readers who are less radical than I return, but I feel justified in my anger, and, worst of all, helpless to do much about a situation that calls for all of us who care about educating ALL of our children to stand up and be heard.  I hope you will join me.

and, thank you condron.us

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Education Reform: Part II of ??? March 27, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Education, Obama, politics.
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2 comments

I sat down today (now, as I post,  yesterday) to edit what I intended to be the second of a two part post on education reform.  I needed only, I thought, flesh out a couple of ideas, add a few sentences to tie the sections together, make final edits, and call it a day and a project – one close to my heart – finished.  The first half of part II was to be entitled INNOVATION and would look at new teaching models – or rather a renewal of innovative teaching models of days past.  The first sub-section was to be entitled ‘Social Justice as a Learning Tool.’

I first encountered the Social Justice Teaching Method when I read about a Chicago high school called the Little Village Lawndale High School.  The school consists of four small schools on one campus, one of which is called the Social Justice School.  The Social Justice School teaches students through the lens of the struggle for justice and the hope for peace.  I was drawn to the methodology because it offers a means through which to teach poor and minority students in a way that speaks to their lives, and I thought that, given that the school was built in Chicago during Arne Duncan’s tenure,  it would also provide a lens through which to view his work.

The Social Justice Methodology aims to provide a a place where students can learn the basic and crucial skills that all our schools aim to teach, but in a different way.  For example, teachers teach critical thinking skills through projects centered around race, gender and economic equality – the things that touch these students, 98% of whom are minority students from low income families,  lives everyday.  Advocates tell stories of once alienated students becoming enthusiastic about learning, excited by the opportunity to explore concepts like their own identity, racial stereotypes, how advertising influences societal views about different groups, and what it is that makes a community.  Adam Doster tells this part of this story in his article ‘The Conscious Classroom’ in The Nation.   He tells that this concept of marrying learning to social justice and activism is being adopted by a growing number of educators across the country.  Where other reform efforts have failed, a growing number of educators and reformers say, this methodology, which grows from previous alternative methodologies of the 1960s, is engaging urban students who were previously alienated by mainstream teaching methods.  According to Stan Karp, an English teacher and editor of the Milwaukee-based education reform magazine Rethinking Schools, “Taking kids’ lives as a point of departure and bringing the world into the classroom really does seem to give a context and a purpose that is very motivating.”

While some conservatives denounce the movement as indoctrinating students with left wing ideology, advocates insist that teachers teach the same basic skills taught in mainstream schools, but do so in a way that helps students appreciate the need to learn.  Take math.  How many times have you heard students say that they don’t NEED TO KNOW MATH, that is has no impact on them. And while parents and teachers tell middle-class students that math is important in today’s technology economy, the Social Justice teachers can make clear math’s relevance to their student’s lives and do so in a way that makes the subject interesting.  One example Doster uses to illustrate the increased learning fostered by this method is that, “a math teacher can run probability simulations using real data to understand the dynamics behind income inequality or racial profiling.”  Now that brings the power of math home to students who know these evils all too well.

And the method is spreading.  Since 1992 the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has run modern freedom schools in cities nationwide, with a model curriculum focused on five components: high-quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, physical and mental health.  More than 64,000 children (and their families) have been taken part in this program in the roughly the last decade.  

Frustrated teachers of poor and minority students across the country are coming together to discuss ways to bring social justice issues to their classrooms, drawing on the works of those who have long studied the problems of urban schools, such as Johnathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace – books that bring the realities of these schools to life in a way that breaks the heart and frustrates the mind.  Teachers who are terribly frustrated with the reform efforts of the Bush years, which many believe have only heightened the inequalities in public education, feel it is necessary to ‘speak frankly’ with their students about fairness, about justice, about the hope of a peaceful life.  And these students, who see injustice and violence before them every day, appreciate that this new way of learning is relevant to them, that it takes them into account.

It all makes sense to me.  And while there remains a lack of research on the benefits of this methodology because it is so new, studies that have been conducted do show a significant increase in learning in relation to students, particularly low income students, who have not had the benefit of this new way of engaging students in real life learning.  But this methodology, while it is making inroads in several cities, hasn’t yet made its way into mainstream conversations about school reform.  And so I was excited to read about this new school in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.

Then tonight, because I didn’t have a clear view of Secretary Duncan’s thoughts on this new way of teaching some of the students under his charge who need the most help,  I did a bit more research.  And the story, I think, is worth telling.  It is a provocative story that demonstrates well some – but only some – of the challenges we face in education today.

This story began when a group of Latino mothers on the west side of Chicago came together to demand a better school for their children.  Studies illustrate time and again that given school’s educational quality often reflects the socioeconomic makeup of its district.  That unfortunate circumstance is the catalyst for this story.  Educators call for parents’ involvement in their children’s education.  This is a story of dedicated involvement.  It is also a story of racial and socio-economic discrimination – on the part not just of the powerful, but of some of the folks in every faction involved in this saga.  It is a story of a continuing struggle, an intransigent bureaucracy, an allegedly racist CEO on his way out, a story of hope even in the face of overwhelming resistance, of vision, and of a new CEO who gets the school opened.  It is a story of strong advocates, poor administration and a dishonest principal with good intentions, of symbolism and determination and belonging and not belonging and gang violence and hope and despair.  And this story all takes place before the school at the story’s center graduates its first class of students.  The school remains a place of hope, as it should, and – as much as anything – it demonstrates well the vast difference between a theoretical vision and real life implementation because, like life, it is nothing if not messy.

In 1998, parents in the Little Village neighborhood on the west side of Chicago – mostly first generation Mexican immigrants who live in the most densely populated part of the city –  came together and petitioned the local government to build a school in their neighborhood because their big city high school was overcrowded, underperforming, rife with gang violence and the accompanying metal detectors and police, a drop-out rate of nearly 40%, and students, perhaps the lucky ones, being bused all over the city.  And these parents didn’t just want any old school, rather they wanted a school that taught the students about about the struggle for justice so relevant to their lives (including the struggle that the parents had to undertake to get the school built).  The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) agreed to build the Little Village Lawndale High School.  But the school did not come into existence easily.  CPS promised to begin work on three new schools, two  ‘selective enrollment’ magnet schools in the more affluent north side of the city and the Little Village school.  Work began on the two North side schools, but CPS did not begin work on the school promised to this neighborhood, rather district representatives told the parents, when they went back to ask why their school wasn’t being built though the others had been,  that there was no longer any money to build their school.  Rather than take any responsibility, CPS advised the advocates to lobby their state legislators.

The parents didn’t give up.  After two years of struggle and broken promises, a group of community organizers, parents, grandparents, teachers and students went on a 19 day hunger strike to force the issue.  They set up a tent city, which they referred to as ‘Camp Chavez,’ on the school site and waited for Paul Vallas, then the CEO of the CPS to take them seriously. According to Jaime de Leon, one of the hunger strike organizers, when the strike began, Vallas refused to come to the site or acknowledge the strikers.  In fact, he allegedly said that he did not want to come to Little Village ‘to meet with a few women who are refusing to eat.’  But the media began telling the story and, within a few days more than 500 people were living at Camp Chavez.  CEO Vallas buckled under the scrutiny and pressure and, on the sixth day of the strike, he made a visit, but he did not commit to building the school.  The strike ended out of concerns for the strikers’s health.  Just a few months later, in August 2001, CEO Vallas resigned, Mayor Daly appointed Arne Duncan to fill the post, and Duncan pledged to fulfill CPS’s promise to build the school.  According to an article written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education on Education Week‘s website, Duncan says he would have made sure Little Village got a new high school even if there hadn’t been a hunger strike.  “It was the right thing to do,” Duncan said. “It’s a community with a growing population. I saw tremendous need.”  Duncan said, too though, that prevalent view in Little Village that the school system has discriminated against Latinos is wrong. Rather, he said, “the district constantly faces the challenge of providing new schools in areas of the city where there is overcrowding, and “that is frequently in the Latino community.”  But this doesn’t explain the building, without need for community action, of the two schools built in more affluent areas while the Latino community was shut out.  Still, he lived up to his promise and the Little Village school was built at a cost of $61 million, more than has been spent to build any other school in Chicago’s history.  The school was so expensive to build because it houses more than just a high school.  The campus is open at nights and on the weekends and offers many resources for the community, such as a health clinic, an adult education program, and a distance learning facility.  And the cost was not born solely by Chicago tax payers.  La Raza and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed generously to its construction.

As David Stovall, Assistant Professor of Policy Studies in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the design team for Little Village,  writes in an article on the ‘Rethinking Schools’ website, CPS under Duncan’s leadership included parents in the planning process (though they, of course, fought hard for this inclusion every step of the way).  The result of their collaboration is one campus containing four distinct schools, with each school operating autonomously, while sharing after-school programs and other services vital to their community.  There is a school of math, science, and technology;  a visual and performing arts school; a world languages school; and the social justice school. 

But, at the time the school was being planned and built, the then CEO of the Chicago Schools had instituted what he termed ‘Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI) guidelines, which required that all proposals from the community go through another ‘bureaucratic maze,’ the Transitional Advisory Council (TAC), which, in turn, would make recommendations to CPS.  Matters were made more complicated, he notes, as CHSRI (the redesign initiative) was incorporated into a new Renaissance 2010 Project, a project implemented by Arne Duncan that aims to close 60 Chicago public schools and reopen them as 100 new ‘performance schools,’ which are public charter schools, though many will be privately operated and will lack union representation.  As Stovall, who has been involved in the school project from the beginning, explains it,  

“Performance schools are managed and funded by the district under a five-year ‘performance agreement’ that provides ‘greater autonomy’ in exchange for meeting certain performance targets like test scores.  Under Renaissance 2010, ‘performance schools’ are funded under a different formula than the CHSRI small schools, resulting in a significant decrease in funding for programming and institutional support.”

 Pauline Lipman, Professor of Policy Studies in the College of Education, University of Illinois-Chicago, asserts that the goal of Ren10 is to “reshape the educational geography of Chicago by aiding the gentrification of particular neighborhoods and, in effect, increasing educational inequality.”  And many in Chicago agree.  The community insisted that theirs was not a Ren 10 school, that its genesis preceded the implementation of Ren10, and that their school grew out of community efforts.  CPS resisted.  The parents fought back.  Finally, concerned about the demands and funding cuts as well as a fear of gentrification, the advocates requested a meeting with the new Chicago Schools CEO, Arne Duncan.  Stovall reports that Duncan told them they were ‘misinformed about Renaissance 2010’s relationship to gentrification.’  Displeased with the meeting’s outcome, the Little Village community organized public hearings to express their concerns.  In the face of strong community opposition to their status as a Ren 10 school, CPS reinstated the Little Village school’s status as a ‘neighborhood small school,’ but the school is still listed on the CPS website and in its ‘new schools development directory’ as a Ren 10 project. 

Stovall maintains that under Duncan’s leadership, CPS continued to say one thing while doing another and, in 2005 – the year the school opened its doors, he wrote the battle on the ground is far from over. “This struggle, he said, to maintain our vision for a neighborhood school demonstrates the importance of using community action to hold school authorities accountable in the battle for quality, inclusive education.”  

Because CPS required that the school be at least 30% African American, black students from the neighboring North Lawndale neighborhood joined their Latino neighbors in the school.  Stovall argues that this inclusion will serve a catalyst for much needed cultural, ethnic and racial collaboration, but there is a darker side to the story.  Though 30% of the students come from the predominately African American North Lawndale neighborhood and the school is officially called Little Village Lawndale High School, the sign in front of the school reads simply Little Village High School, and admission controversies have changed the school’s meaning for residents of both communities.   “To those who are denied access, the impressive spire and $61 million campus represent what their children are not able to receive,” writes  Joanie Friedman in her informative essay Contested Space:  The Struggle for the Little Village Lawndale High School, which appears on the website Area Chicago: Art/Research/Education/Research, and was originally published in the summer 2007 issue of Critical Planning, the UCLA Journal of Urban Planning.  Where racial collaboration was the goal, the scarcity of educational resources has driven, instead, more racial tension.  But the goal remains, as students from the two communities come together in their new school.  

So how are things going at Little Village Lawndale High School?  Surprisingly, this information is the hardest to find.  The city’s Office of New Schools holds the school out as a shining example of success.  Student attendance and achievement are up, but I am having a hard time finding numbers.  The Social Justice School recently won an award for its work in developing a strong sense of  ‘civic engagement’  in its students, topping all the other schools in the city.  And, it seems to offer a good amount of transparency, with a website that even includes the day’s assigned homework.  

Unfortunately it has not escaped the problem of gang violence that is too prevalent in Chicago’s schools, particularly in the Lawndale community.  The new year brings bad news of more gang violence, which in February required that the police be brought in, the school be shut down for a week, after school activities cancelled, and talks will soon be underway about heightened security on campus.   There is good news, here, too, though.  The students at the Social Justice School hosted a forum attended by nearly 500 Chicago students, mostly African American students, on how to decrease gang violence in their neighborhoods.  There were few adults in attendance, and their leadership is impressive, suggesting that the Social Justice school really is training leaders.  The decision to have four separate administrations and four separate principles, though, leaves four different approaches to student discipline, which, as the recent outbursts make clear, must be addressed.  

The worst news comes from the adults in the school.  There is already too little continuity, though I have yet to find how teacher turn-over rates there compare with other schools city wide.  The principal of the Math and Science school is leaving at the end of the year to join Secretary Duncan in Washington. And Rito Martinez, the principal of  The Social Justice School is being fired because he lives outside the district, which the Inspector General’s office evidently discovered by hiring a private detective to follow him for three months (he claimed to live in the Little Village neighborhood).   

I am struggling at the moment with websites that I can’t get to load, and am frustrated because this is critical information that I want to know and to share. The CPS website offers little information about any of its schools, and I am experiencing problems with the State Department of Education’s website.   I will keep at it today and update this post this information as I find it.  It looks, though, as if the students are doing well.  

This story and others I’ve read about about Chicago schools under his leadership, leave me with a mixed opinion of Secretary Duncan.  He did uphold the school district’s promise to the Little Village community.  And he does talk of supporting social justice in learning.  But talk is just talk, and it is also clear that he favors a corporate model of schooling, preferring, among other things, private charter schools free from teacher’s unions.  He argues, first, that the role of schools is to provide employees for America’s corporations, and works hard to bring corporate methodologies into our schools.  This is at odds with my vision of excellent education that brings, in addition to business skills, a breadth of knowledge to its students and an informed citizenry to the public arena.  And I am confused by the president’s choice to surround himself with so many corporate types.  It wasn’t so long ago that, in the story I’ve tried to tell here, he would have played the role of the community organizer, fighting for the right of parents to have a school that embraced their values.  Arne Duncan is not that man and, I think, does not fully share that man’s vision.  And I question how much of what President Obama cites as Duncan success stories are really stories of success.  For example, while President Obama cites as one example of Duncan’s stellar leadership the declining drop-out rates that occurred every year Duncan ran Chicago’s schools, he does not indicate whether graduation rates rose correspondingly.  My fear is that they did not.  Many criticize Duncan for simply kicking ‘difficult’ students out of the schools,  leaving them no opportunity to quit on their own.  In a scathing article on the Truth Out website, Kenneth Saltman, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University in Chicago and author, most recently, of “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,”  who is certainly not alone in his criticism, writes that,

“Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, (and) advocated a growing police presence in the schools….  A recent report, “Education on Lockdown,” claimed that partly under Duncan’s leadership “Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has become infamous for its harsh zero tolerance policies. Although there is no verified positive impact on safety, these policies have resulted in tens of thousands of student suspensions and an exorbitant number of expulsions.”

I have so much hope for our president that it colors my vision.  Had President Bush appointed Secretary Duncan, I have no doubts that I would have quickly ripped him to shreds for abandoning our children, gotten a good night’s rest, posted my blog on time and be out shopping for a new bicycle right now. Yet, time and again I find myself searching for ways President Obama the benefit of the doubt.  The choice of Duncan is another that I do not like, yet I find myself restrained in my criticism, actively searching for indications that he will do well by our children.  President Obama is a deliberative man who does not speak in particulars until he is sure of what he wants to say.  He is undoubtedly familiar with the criticisms voiced by many Chicago residents who disdain Arne Duncan as a neoliberal reformer who will destroy our public schools as he moves toward the privitization and corporitization of schools.  Yet he chose Duncan to lead the nation’s schools.  The choice, like others he has made, leave me feeling confused and saddened.  I never thought for a moment, that as president,  Barack Obama would adopt an ultra-progressive stance.  He cannot.  He is restrained as the leader of all Americans.  But neither did I think he would embrace a capitalist model of education.  I am deeply disappointed and skeptical as I write today.  But I will be back next week, looking at other issues that we face in our efforts to improve education and educational opportunity.  And I will have looked more closely at some of the criticisms about Secretary Duncan as well at the writings of some who praise his efforts.  I hope that I have some good news to report.

President Obama Calls For Education Reform, Part I March 19, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Education, politics.
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President Obama this week announced his plans for education reform, which many in the MSM hailed as courageous, as calling for sweeping change….  Wait a minute.  I think I missed something.  While he called for some reform, like lengthening the school day and/or the school year (but maybe only for those students who ‘need’ it) and doing more to support early childhood education (for which I applaud him) his message fell well short of a transformative vision.  He wants to hold teachers accountable, link pay to performance (as measured by student testing), close failing schools, and promote charter schools.  All of this sounds like President Bush were still in office.  

He wants the ‘best and brightest’ teachers, yet he did not call for paying teachers as though they are professionals.  Average teachers’ salaries range from the mid $20s to the upper $40s, depending on regional differences in the cost of living.  That is not the pay that will attract the ‘best and brightest.’ That’s not to say that many of our teachers are not the best and brightest, but the best and brightest who choose to teach in the public school system must also be something more.  They must be strongly dedicated to giving back to their community.  The best and brightest can find their first jobs, straight out of college, that pay beyond the median American income, in the mid $50s (and even more in expensive parts of the country).  And those with advanced degrees, as many of the best and brightest teachers have, can find jobs that pay far more (or at least they could before this economic crisis was brought upon us).  In addition to the low salaries teachers receive, they are under-appreciated, and are too often blamed for every failure in education, though so many problems in our educational system are far beyond their control.  

Teachers are expected to teach classes of 25 – 30+ students, even though, as I will flesh out in more detail below, most researchers believe that providing classrooms with 20 or fewer students is the single most important reform we can make to enhance learning.  Yet President Obama uttered not one word about decreasing classroom sizes.  

The best teachers are filled with innovative ideas, but are strapped by the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind, which should be scrapped, but which he will keep.  To his credit, he did say that he wants to replace NCLB’s rigid multiple choice exams with tests that measure real learning – analytical ability, problem solving and the like.  While this will be a vast improvement, it alone is not enough.  Children must be provided with the resources they need to learn in order to score well on any test.  And too many of them aren’t.  

President Obama was elected on a platform of change, and he claims a strong commitment to education, but he failed to provide a transformative agenda about which progressive educators and advocates of reform can get excited.  

President Obama Announces Secretary of Education Pick, Arne Duncan

President Obama selected Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education, a controversial choice.  Hailing his great success in Chicago, the president said,

“For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book – it’s the cause of his life. And the results aren’t just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job…. In just seven years, he’s boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent. The dropout rate has gone down every year he’s been in charge…. He’s worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality, increasing the number of master teachers who’ve completed a rigorous national certification process from 11 to just shy of 1,200, and rewarding school leaders and teachers for gains in student achievement. He’s championed good charter schools – even when it was controversial. He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs – even when it was unpopular. 

And Duncan said, in accepting the post, 

“Whether it’s fighting poverty, strengthening the economy or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread. It is the civil rights issue of our generation and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair and just society. 

But neither the president nor the education secretary addressed the vast inequalities that exist in our educational system.

Duncan, of course, has his fans and his critics.  Rod Paigs, President Bush’s Education Secretary, whose Texas reforms were the model for the hated NCLB,  called him a “budding hero in the education business.”  Is public education a business?  I suppose it makes sense, then, that Duncan was the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ of the Chicago public school system.  

But others, like Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky think that under Duncan we will see “more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization, and the privatization of school management.”  

On the other hand, according to MSNBC’s report, Obama Education Pick Sparks Conflict, some teacher’s unions like him, saying he is willing to reach out to teachers in collaboration.

So, the jury is out.  President Obama did credit him with providing teacher training and certification on a grand scale, and he has lowered the drop out rate in Chicago schools, but I wish I’d heard more about his ideas for decreasing class sizes and ‘advancing educational opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas.’  I am skeptical, and I will keep a close watch, but for now I will try to be hopeful.

Class Size Matters.  As I mentioned above, most researchers agree that class size is an important factor in education.  Studies show that, while small reductions in class size have little effect,  students benefit substantially when class sizes are cut to around 20 students per classroom, particularly in the early grades, but also in grades 8-12.   Yet NCLB removed funding for cutting the size of classrooms. 

A consensus of research indicates that for K-3 education, class size reduction to a point somewhere between 15 and 20 students leads to higher student achievement that many believe lasts throughout the child’s education.  The Public School Parent’s Network, a resource and information website for parents, reports that the research data from The US Dept of Education’s publication Reducing Class Size, What Do We Know?,  indicate that if class size is reduced from substantially more than 20 students to below 20 students, the average student moves from the 50th percentile to above the 60th percentile.  And, for disadvantaged and minority students the effects are even larger.

A study commissioned by the US Department of Education analyzed the achievement levels of students in 2,561 schools, as measured by their performance on the national NAEP exams.  The sample included at least 50 schools in each state, including large and small, urban and rural, affluent and poor areas.  After controlling for student background, the only objective factor found to be correlated with higher student success as measured by test scores was class size. (Class Size Matters.org)  

A study from the Public Policy Institute of California shows significant improvements in test scores for all groups of students in smaller classes (with no changes in curriculum or instruction).  In California’s six largest school districts (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland and Fresno), class size reduction substantially raised the proportion of students  who exceeded the national median, after controlling for all other factors.  

                                                    Math        Reading        Language    

Los Angeles                            13.9%            9.5%            14.5%

Next 5 Largest Districts        10.5%           8.4%

LA High Needs Students        27%             19%               28%

100% Black Population         14.7%          18.4%

 

Also note that:

(1) This study looked only at 3rd graders who spent just one year in a smaller class;

(2) Gains improved the longer students remained in small classrooms;

(3) Even larger gains were found in schools with a higher percentage of poor students; and

(4) Studies show that parents are more involved in schools where their children are in small classrooms.

(Relationships Between Class Size Reduction and Student Achievement, Research Brief, Public Policy Institute of California)

These findings are consistent across states.  Studies from Tennessee, Wisconsin, and elsewhere show that students in smaller classes from grades K-3 do better in every way that can be measured: they score higher on tests, receive better grades, and improve their attendance.  And, again, students who need the most help show the most improvement.   Indeed, Alan Krueger of Princeton estimates that reducing class size in early grades shrinks the achievement gap by about 38%.

Class size reduction changes many features of the classroom which lead to higher student achievement.  Perhaps most importantly, the teacher has more time to give each student individualized attention, allowing the teacher to know each of their students better, to know how they learn, and to keep track of how each student is progressing.  As such, the teacher can intervene more rapidly and effectively to help  each student.  Furthermore, the research shows that students develop better relationships with their teacher and classmates in small class settings.  We all know that learning is enhanced by classroom participation, and in smaller classes, each student has more time to – and is more likely to – speak while others listen.  There are also fewer students to distract each other, and researchers report fewer disciplinary problems.  These findings are significant and should be a part of meaningful school reform. 

In 2007, the average class size in California (not including independent study and other self-contained courses) was 20 students in K-3 and 28 in grades 4-12.  Class sizes in Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi and many others were similar in 2006 and 2007, especially in grades 4-12, while K-3 classes were generally somewhat larger. Georgia law allows for 32 – 35 students in grades 9-12, depending on the subject matter.  

So it is unfortunate that in February, the NY Education Department issued a report that found the average number of children per class increased in nearly every grade this school year.  And now comes new that, in New York and California at least, there will soon be even more students in each classroom due to state budget gaps.  In one California district, budget shortfalls have already increased the size of kindergarten classes to 33 students per teacher.   Unless class size is made a priority and funded as such, given today’s state of affairs, the outlook here is bleak and the impact on student achievement is too great.  

 

School Financing Matters.  President Obama did not address the widespread disparity in spending among school districts and states.  Underprivileged children often attend the worst school, though they are generally the students who need the most help.

The US Department of Education reports that current expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools will be about $519 billion for the 2008-09 school year. According to the its website, he national average current expenditure per student is around $10,418, but this provides little information.  Rather, they simply tally up spending, divide it by the number of students, and voila, there you have average spending.  But this information is close to useless because we know that is not the way spending occurs.  We do not spend the same amount to educate every child.  Rather, as I outline below, there remain vast differences in spending.  The information they provide does not even tell us the mean or the median.  It doesn’t tell us how much is spent on instruction, how much on administration (we know some districts have bloated administrations, wasting taxpayer money).  It does not tell how much disparity there is among school districts.  Over the past couple of decades, many states have made gains in funding schools more equitably, but sizeable differences remain.  Yet it is difficult to find data that will allow us to be informed consumers of education.  To take an example for their reporting on class sizes, the US Department of Education website tells us that classes are much smaller than reported by the Departments of Educations in the individual states.  This lack of transparency is inexcusable, and often the information they do provide is misleading.

It is difficult to ascertain how funding is apportioned among school districts across the nation.  The data provided by the Department of Education is too broad to be useful, other available data is too old to be useful and, where financing per district is available, it is not coupled with the average income per district, leaving one only to speculate how money is apportioned among wealthy, middle class, and low income communities.  For example, according to South Carolina’s General Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2008-2009South Carolina spends an average of  $11,480 per student, but spending among districts ranges from $8,659 to $18,081.  

And according to SF Gate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s websitein 2006 funding per pupil in California schools ranged from $4,806 to 34,279.  These are vast differences that must be addressed if we are to make a commitment to all our children.  Yet neither President Obama nor Education Secretary Duncan spoke to this issue.

New York spends the most money per pupil of all the states except Alaska, but we know that many inner-city schools have crumbling infrastructure and lack basic resources.  

The Washington Post reports that while the number most widely stated as per pupil spending in the Washington D.C. is $8,322, total spending is actually closer to  $25,000, about the same as the cost of an education at Sidwell Friends, where the Obama children attend school.  It asks, then, “So why force most D.C. children into often dilapidated and underperforming public schools when we could easily offer them a choice of private schools?”  My question is, if D.C. public school districts receive equal funding as some of the most expensive private schools, why do they have dilapidated school buildings?  Where does the money go?  We know that teachers at prestigious private schools earn more than their colleagues in the public sector, that private schools offer a broader cirriculum, including art programs and physical education that have been cut at many public schools, and have more resources for the students, such as science labs and computers, so this data is hard to reconcile.  

But it gets more complicated.  The Census Bureau reports that per public spending for D.C. students is $13,446, but adds that funding per pupil from local sources is $16,195 (it adds this information to clarify that local funding is high relative to other school districts across the nation because other districts, unlike those in D.C. also receive state funding).  Add to this that D.C. schools also receive about $81 million in federal funds, and the picture is pure confusion.  How much does Washington D.C. spend per pupil?  I can’t say with any certainty.  But it is clear that transparency in public school funding and expenditures is necessary if parents are to make informed choices about where to send their children.

Making matters worse, as some states were just beginning to make gains in a more equitable distribution of funding, school budgets are now being slashed as a result of our present economy.  While, as many argue, ‘throwing money at the problem’ isn’t the entire solution, all schools must be sufficiently funded to provide the basic necessities for learning.  It is a disgrace that some students do not have text books, that some go to school in unsafe buildings, that many do not have adequate facilities to learn science.  President Obama must call for equitable funding for our public schools or we will continue to leave far too many students with enormous potential behind, depriving them of the promise of opportunity and us of the benefit of their knowledge, both as citizens and as participants in our economy.

Conclusion, Part I.  Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert on teacher quality and professor of education at Stanford and an Obama advisor writes in  The Nation   that the US should adopt some of the practices that higher-achieving countries have been using over the past twenty years “as they have left us further and further behind educationally.”  She reports that the US ranks twenty-eighth of forty countries in mathematics and graduates only about 75% of students, though other top performing countries graduate more than 95% of their students.  She tells us that most high-achieving countries fund their schools centrally and equally, then provide additional funds to the neediest schools.  They also have  better-prepared teachers whom they pay competitive salaries and provide with high-quality teacher education, mentoring and ongoing professional development. These are exactly the reforms we need if we are to recruit and keep the best and brightest teachers.  President Obama should heed her advice if we are to build and maintain an educational system that provides a world-class education for our students, all our students, even the disadvantaged who we too easily leave behind.

Education Reform, Part II.  In the second part of this piece, next week, I will discuss many other issues surrounding education, including student testing, merit pay, charter schools, innovative teaching methods, single-sex classrooms, and the US Supreme Court’s ruling on what right to education is guaranteed us by the education and the importance of that ruling’s being reexamined in light of the requirements of today’s world.  I hope it will shed even more light on what is going on in our classrooms, including the vastly different approaches some pioneers in teaching are taking.