Monthly Archives: February 2014

Guest Post – 50CAN’s Marc Porter Magee on his Education Roadtrip

Marc Porter Magee, president and founder of 50CAN, just launched a national look at what people think about education. In this guest post he describes some of what they found. 50Can is a nonprofit organization advocating for a high-quality education for all kids.

Ever wonder if people in New England think differently about education than people in the South? The West vs. the Midwest?

We did and the result is 50CAN’s Education Roadtrip, an interactive journey through the education views of 6,400 Americans across the eight major regions of the country.

The idea for this project came out of the work we’ve done over the past three years advocating for education policies in seven different states. After running 32 legislative campaigns that have helped enact 28 state policies, we got this sense that Americans are much more united on education issues than we might have thought.

That’s why we decided to conduct this 8-region poll. We needed hard data to help us really understand both the regional nuances and the areas of national consensus.

Here are a few highlights of what we found:

Character is king

Ed reformers love to talk about economic competitiveness. And more often than not, the economy is the first thing we cite when making the case for change. But that’s thinking like a president, not a parent.

When we asked voters to cite the long-term value of education, they chose “building character” over “healthy economy” by a 2 to 1 margin.

This viewpoint does vary a bit by region. For example, twice as many people in the Midwest picked “building character” compared to the mid-Atlantic, just next door. But overall, we see that education matters to people in large part because of the kind of person it helps children become.

Trusting teachers the most

When it comes to who the public trusts to determine how best to improve our schools, no matter what region you’re in, teachers come out on top. Following closely behind this trust in teachers (78%) is trust in parents (68%) and principals (67%).

Now teachers unions aren’t shy about saying they speak for teachers. But regardless of what people think about unions or where they live, it’s clear that voters see a big difference between ordinary teachers and teachers unions, who were trusted by only 40% of voters.

If teachers are tops, which group was trusted the least? Whatever region you’re in the answer is the same: elected officials in D.C. These results underscore why it’s so important for local leaders—particularly teachers, parents and principals—to be the ones pushing for changes in our schools.

And the gold goes to …

The past two weeks we’ve been watching athletes compete for the gold in Sochi and we wondered: which states would win in an education Olympics?

When we asked voters to give states in their region gold, silver and bronze medals for their education system, they jumped at the chance. In fact, despite the deeply rooted localness of American education, most people chose to give the gold to a state other than their own.

What’s particularly exciting is the number of “gold medal” states that have distinguished themselves by enacting the groundbreaking policies. In the Midwest, gold medal winner Minnesota has been a leader on public charter schools. In the Mountain states, Colorado has distinguished itself on its teacher quality laws. In New England, Massachusetts has long championed rigorous standards. In the South, Florida has led the way on accountability systems. One big take away from these results is the tremendous power of local role models to help lead the way for change.

But don’t take my word for it. Go on the roadtrip, explore the data yourself, and then share what you think with us on Twitter and Facebook. I found the geography of American public opinion on education pretty fascinating, and I can’t wait to find out if you do, too.

Ethan Gray Guest Post: Kansas City Power Politics

Ethan Gray is CEO of the CEE-Trust and someone I’ve known since he was a graduate student and Ted Sizer told me I should hire him (he was right).  CEE-Trust (an organization that Bellwether provided strategic advice to as it was organizing) is working with the state of Missouri on school improvement work there – with a focus on the Kansas City Schools. Not surprisingly the debate is contentious and below Ethan lays out in a guest post his take on what’s going on:

Earlier this year my organization CEE-Trust was tasked by the Missouri Board of Education to develop a plan to transform failed school districts with a special emphasis on Kansas City Public Schools. For context, KCPS is a system where 70 percent of students are below proficient and the average ACT score is a tick above 16. You can read our executive summary for a detailed overview of the plan.

Earlier this week, we released an open letter to KCPS teachers because, as we say in the letter, “those who benefit by keeping the current system in place have consistently misrepresented our beliefs and what our plan would mean” for the district’s teachers.

During our research phase, our first focus group was with the Kansas City Federation of Teachers. We were surprised when we arrived at union headquarters and saw an inaccurate American Federation of Teachers anti-CEE-Trust flier sitting on the waiting room table.

Around Christmas, before a draft of the plan had even come out, union leaders organized a public event to sing anti-CEE-Trust Christmas carols, falsely accusing us of wanting to privatize the district. Then, when the report draft came out, they put a page on their website with misleading anti-CEE-Trust talking points.

What has genuinely struck me about Kansas City is the extent to which power politics have obscured an honest debate of ideas, despite the common ground between our proposal and what teachers told us they wanted.

For example, teachers told us they wanted more autonomy, better pay, universal pre-k, and the budgetary flexibility to provide wrap around services to better meet the needs of students living in poverty. We were able to address all of those priorities in our plan.

Under our plan, educators run schools and make all key programmatic decisions at the school level, while the system focuses on accountability and a few common services.

Unlike those who want to charter-ize everything, we maintain a central system because it helps guarantee equity and access. Our system sets common enrollment and expulsion policies, ensuring that schools serve all students – especially those who charters have sometimes neglected or counseled out. Our system also provides universal pre-k and citywide transportation.

We preserve collective bargaining rights but shift them to the school level since the district no longer employs teachers directly. Yes, that makes unions work harder to organize. But what is more important, maintaining a one-size-fits-all contract or successfully addressing other important teacher priorities like pay, working conditions, and autonomy?

For example, our plan’s Appendix C shows that a sample elementary school could increase average teacher pay by 20 percent; lower class sizes by 20 percent from state guidelines; hire a full time social worker and part time nurse; hire art, music, and PE teachers; and still have money left over to purchase additional wrap around services. It is possible to meet all of the teachers’ priorities while staying within the budget of the current system.

Take a look at our plan, then take a look at this page from the AFT’s website. We could have put most of that page in the middle of our report and it would have fit right in. Unfortunately, rather then see common ground, interest groups have retreated to their political talking points, even when they don’t fit the actual debate.

We’ve developed a plan for a school system that empowers educators and pays them more, gives parents more meaningful choices, and provides pre-k and wrap around services to address the issues of poverty. We believe that such a school system better meets teachers’ needs and will produce vastly better results for children.

Yet we’ve been opposed at every turn by groups that would benefit under our proposals. Unfortunately, the debate in Kansas City has been shaped more by fear mongering and conspiracy theories than the free exchange of ideas. That’s too bad, because if one thing is clear, it’s that our cities are in desperate need of strategies that can make teaching more attractive and sustainable, while delivering better results for students than the current top-down districts of today.

More On School Composition

Following on Tuesday’s post about residential segregation and school segregation it’s worth mentioning the recent regulatory change at the Department of Education allowing charter schools receiving federal funding to weight their admissions lotteries to recruit more low-income students. Basically it brings federal policy more into alignment with state policy. The change is a response to the increasing gentrification of some successful public charter schools (although this mostly happens when there is an underlying scarcity of good schools in the public sector, for instance in Washington, D.C.).  It’s a change I’ve supported for a while but it’s not one without risk.  The case for helping low-income students seems obvious but critics of  this move have a point when they argue that once the door is open all sorts of preferences could follow. Why not for gifted students or STEM, for instance?   You can raise a slippery slope argument to just about anything, yes, and one reason we have elected officials is to make decisions about where to draw the line. But given the established tendency in education to favor higher-achievers and the affluent it’s something to keep an eye on.

Also, if you follow these issues, check out this Chalkbeat article about NYC.

Guest Post – Gates Foundation’s Vicki Phillips On Common Core Momentum II

Vicki Phillips is Director of Education, College Ready at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (a foundation that funds Bellwether).  In a guest post last month she discussed Common Core implementation and sparked a lively debate. She’s back today to discuss the issue further:

Stick-to-itiveness. Determination. Tenacity. Grit. These are concepts that every teacher tries to impart to his or her students – the importance of not giving up when the going gets tough. In fact, according to Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist and a 2013 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, grit – that potent combination of passion, perseverance and stamina – is the true key to achieving success.

But if that’s the case, I wonder why we are now hearing calls to pause, halt and even reverse the Common Core State Standards – one of the most important U.S. education initiatives in decades. During this time of implementation, being able and willing to adjust and recalibrate is certainly a necessary part of the process, but going backwards is not the answer. As I recently wrote, realizing success for all students is within our reach, and instead of quitting, we must focus on giving teachers and students the support they need as they adjust to the new standards. Equally, we must ensure that teachers and students are truly prepared before consequences for not meeting the standards are implemented.

So, how do we do this?

First, teachers must play a key role in the Common Core implementation process. We’ve seen fantastic results in districts where teachers are already involved in implementation, and the momentum is only growing. For example, in Cleveland, several teachers worked together to create high-quality curriculum units aligned to the Common Core standards. These lessons are now available to all teachers in the district via School Net, Cleveland’s district-wide resource database, and are being taught in classrooms every day.

At the same time, teachers are already working together and with other education practitioners around the country to co-create English Language Arts and math lessons and tools. In states around the country, including Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, Georgia, Pennsylvania and others, the state departments of education have partnered with school leaders and teachers in several districts to ensure teachers have access to the high-quality resources and tools they need as the Common Core State Standards are implemented.

Similarly, the NEA’s Master Teacher initiative has brought together 95 teachers to develop a full year’s worth of Common Core-aligned lessons. Once final, these lessons will be available online to all teachers, and the Master Teachers will also develop an associated toolkit, including instructional strategies and classroom management practices, to help teachers use the lessons as effectively as possible. These kinds of collaboration are made possible by having consistent standards across the states.

Second, we need to make sure teachers have the time they need to collaborate and prepare for these changes. The fact is, most teachers just don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done. But districts have the ability to give teachers the time they need to get a feel for the new standards and to ensure professional development opportunities for teachers are aligned to the demands of the Common Core. For instance, in both Bridgeport, CT and Fresno, CA, the districts changed teachers’ schedules to give them more on-the-job learning time – which amounted to dozens of extra hours throughout the year that teachers are able to devote to their own professional development without losing valuable instructional time for students. These sorts of fixes may sound simple, but they are meaningful and help ensure that the Common Core is being taught by teachers who are intimately familiar with the material.

The examples I’ve mentioned above are incredible programs that are already succeeding in preparing teachers to teach the Common Core. But now we must ensure that every teacher in the 45 states implementing the Common Core has access to similar resources and opportunities. For the Common Core to achieve its mission to ensure all students graduate from high school prepared to succeed, it is absolutely vital for all teachers to not only have access to the resources, training, tools and time they need, but also to be partners and co-leaders of the implementation process.

I hear all the time from teachers and parents about the value of Common Core. A mother recently reminded me of why we must maintain the momentum in education right now. She shared through an online comment that her son was struggling in school following a move between states, because he was suddenly being held to different standards. “We can do better to give all students a fair shot,” she wrote. “The CCSS facilitates this. Let us not forget our reason for taking on this challenge: students. Let us take a real step in leveling the playing field.”

Great teachers are also speaking out about how their students are already benefiting from Common Core. One teacher in Kentucky recently wrote in a blog that the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, which are aligned to Common Core, “have transformed my instruction and given my students the opportunities they deserve to be prepared for high school when they leave my classroom.” He continued, “I feel far more confident that I am teaching my students to think for themselves, graduate high school, and be college or career ready when they do so.”

This is what we need to remember every time we hear calls to roll back Common Core. We cannot give up. We owe it to our children to continue to move forward and ensure that every child in this country has a chance to pursue his or her dreams. After all, if we expect our children to show grit in the face of adversity, how can we possibly ask any less of ourselves?

Boundaries And/To Integration

In School Administrator Richard Rothstein takes a look at housing segregation and schools making two important points.  First, some residential segregation is a result of deliberate public policy choices – for instance the siting of housing projects.  And, second, we don’t do a very good job talking about or teaching this history. Yet while the issues he raises are important there are a few problems that complicate a simple narrative and really make any remedies challenging.

1) For starters, while there is certainly much to dislike about housing policy (and many other public policies where race is concerned) even in places where progressive housing ideas were tried and the schools ended up more integrated on the surface there is still a great deal of segregation within the schools. There is plenty of data on this but DC area wonks need only jump in their car. Reston, Virginia the famed planned community (disc – where I grew up) offers an example of this issue. Housing projects in Reston were integrated within the rest of the planned community (although all the usual politics existed as this was being done) and still all the standard challenges around underrepresentation of low-income and minority students in gifted or AP classes and overrepresentation elsewhere persisted. This points up two issues. First, the debate about what happens within schools versus what happens outside of schools is a false one. It’s generally both although most advocates tend to address one or the other and interest groups have a vested interest in only focusing on one aspect of a complicated problem.  Second, any remedies here have to involve more than just moving kids around. What happens in school is instrumental. That’s where school reform comes in.

2) This conversation frequently ignores that residential segregation is not only a result of whites moving to segregated areas.  Many cities have prosperous and largely black suburbs bordering them that are the result of capital flight.  The end result is the same in terms of residential patterns and racial isolation but the causes are different – and not as convenient for a binary narrative about this.  The bottom line is that while Rothstein is right housing is not all de facto as the result of individual choices, it’s also not the case that this is merely an outgrowth of public policies that can be unwound. It’s both and that’s why it’s such a knotty problem.

3) That’s why undoing or addressing all this is not easy. Regardless of the causes, voters are lukewarm – on a good day – about the remedies and the courts are not favorably disposed toward coercive plans insofar as race is involved. Advocates turn then to economic integration of schools as a remedy – using income as a proxy to create more mixed schools. But these plans have not proven especially popular with parents  either. Advocates, the most vocal amongst them Richard Khalenberg of the Century Foundation, tend to wish this away but on the ground the resistance is a real problem.  There is a reason you don’t see school board candidates making this a cornerstone of their campaigns.  Khalenberg engages in some sleight of hand by adding up all the kids in school districts with some sort of economic integration program and then essentially saying, look how big this is, it’s only the policymakers who don’t get it.  But that’s like adding up all the people in any city with an NFL franchise and then counting them all as football fans.  In practice these programs remain small, marginal, and voters have not demonstrated much appetite for having them any other way. Until we deal honestly about the political realities here we’re dealing in wisholutions.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve the situation – and Rothstein is right in my view that the country struggles to have an honest reckoning about race (and poverty, too) – but the politics to support public policy remedies of any real magnitude are generally not there right now.  Which in addition to the question of how to change that through the political or judicial process raises the more immediate and obvious question: What to do for all the kids who are not well-served by their current schools in the meantime?  There are many plausible answers from across the political spectrum, but telling them to just wait for a large political shift in the country or suggesting we shouldn’t demand a lot more from their schools in the meantime do not seem satisfactory ones.

Posted on Feb 11, 2014 @ 2:12pm