Taking it Easy on the 4th

For most Americans, the 4th of July means fireworks, backyard BBQs, and desserts shaped like American flags. For education-y types, it means all these things–and also the NEA’s Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly, held this year in New Orleans. (The American Federation of Teachers holds their annual convention in Seattle starting July 7).

The NEA meeting has been getting some press for a divide seemingly on display between the union and the Obama administration’s education policies: No major Obama administration officials spoke at the meeting, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s speech strongly criticized the administration’s education approach–going so far as to say Van Roekel and NEA members felt “betrayed,” and on Sunday, the assembly passed a “no confidence” vote on Race to the Top. All against the backdrop of both the upcoming November elections and conflict in Congress over efforts–opposed by an administration SAP and backed by both NEA and AFT–to transfer funding from Obama-supported reform initiatives RTT, TIF, and the federal charter schools program to teacher layoff prevention.

But the story’s actually a bit more complicated than some press accounts suggest: As EdWeek’s Stephen Sawchuck notes, the “no confidence” vote passed by only a “razor-thin” margin, and the contingent from Colorado introduced a new business item calling on the NEA to ““offer technical and expert assistance to continue to support state affiliates participating in the Race to the Top process to ensure a positive implementation that protects education employee rights and jobs, guarantees educator and affiliate participation, and promotes the best practices in education to guarantee that all children have access to a great public education.”

Both Sawchuck and long-time teachers union watcher Mike Antonucci are reporting live on the NEA meeting on their respective blogs (Sawchuck will also be in Seattle with AFT later this week–not sure about Antonucci), providing strong reporting–in very different styles and flavors–well worth reading for nuance and details both substantive and silly.

–guestblogger Sara Mead

Signing Off

It’s the end of my week guest-blogging. Thanks to Andy for inviting me to blog, and to everyone who sent me stories or links, or linked to or commented on the posts. If you’re interested in hearing more from me, please follow me on twitter @saramead.

Rick Hess Not Feeling “Emotionally Safe” about Admin Proposal

I don’t know exactly what it is about the Obama administration that seems to send the normally clear-eyed Rick Hess into tinfoil hat territory. This week, Rick reads an interview with Safe and Drug-Free Schools head Kevin Jennings and concludes the Common Core standards effort is a “Trojan Horse” for “social agendas.”

To be fair to Rick, some of the comments from Jennings–who has a history of saying things that might be better left unsaid–are a bit inartful and confusing. But, if you read the entire interview, Jennings appears to be talking about replacing ESEA’s current definition of “persistently dangerous schools,” (which basically allows states to set their own standards so lax they claim no persistently unsafe schools) with a common definition across states that would look beyond whether or not students in the school had been victims of violent incidents at school to include other indicators from student, faculty, and parent surveys. That sounds pretty tame.

While I don’t share Rick’s paranoia here, I’m still skeptical of this endeavor. The “persistently dangerous school” thing was always a bit of a gimmick, and the federal role in “Safe and Drug Free Schools” has never been very effective. I’d rather just see the feds get out of that particular business altogether, and instead beef up funding for programs at HHS and NIH that deal with youth mental health and substance abuse. I also think there are reasons to be concerned that inclusion of “school climate” surveys in ESEA’s accountability mechanism could water down accountability for academic outcomes. We can already see the emerging push to replace AYP with more “comprehensive” accountability systems based on”opportunity to learn” and  “multiple measures” that throw in everything including the kitchen sink and would allow student academic outcomes to get lost in the shuffle.

–Sara Mead

More Pre-K and Choice

Per below, a case in point. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie want more school choice in his state–vouchers and charters. He also hasn’t been the biggest fan of the state’s Abbott Preschool program, which is widely regarded as the nation’s highest-quality state pre-k program and has produced strong evidence that it improves children’s learning through at least the end of second grade. During his gubernatorial campaign, Christie dismissed preschool as “baby-sitting,” and led some to think he’d consider putting it on the chopping block in dealing with the state’s budget crisis. Christie seems to have come around a bit there, but he’s also indicated he won’t carry out his predecessor’s plans to expand preschool statewide. If Christie’s really serious about advancing choice in his state, though, I think he’s making a mistake in not more fully embracing Abbott Preschool as part of his case for school choice. If I were Christie, I’d say something along these lines: (Note: I, Sara, do not actually agree with all these things or think they accurately characterize the situation in New Jersey.)

New Jersey doesn’t have a lot to be proud of when it comes to education. We spend more than any state in the country on our schools, but we’re not getting what we should for it. Many of our urban districts are a chronic and complete mess, squandering our children’s potential. Most of what comes out of Trenton on education does more harm than good. But there’s one thing we do have to be proud of: Our Abbott Preschool programs. Abbott Preschool is the best–possibly the only–good thing to come out of Trenton on education. Research shows that Abbott Preschool programs consistently deliver very high-quality education to our poorest kids–better than any other such program in the country–and that kids who attend these programs learn more for years afterward than those who don’t.

Why is Abbott Preschool such a contrast to our record on K-12 education in Trenton and in our big urban districts? In large part because it bypassed the chronic dysfunction of our urban districts to use outside, community-based providers to deliver high-quality preschool–Organizations like [example high-quality community-based provider]. Abbott Preschool built on the richness and resources that exist in our communities, outside our troubled school districts, to build a new system of quality educational options for our most disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds. I want to extend this same model upward into the K-12 system, by opening the doors to allow a wider array of organizations  in our communities–as well as high-quality charter school networks and other education providers from across the country–to educate our children. I want to give children in our most troubled urban districts options to escape from them. The Abbott Preschool program shows that diverse delivery–not school district monopolies on educational delivery–is the best way to get results for our kids.

–by Sara Mead

Two on Teachers

Denver is moving to end forced assignments of teachers to high-poverty and low-performing schools. Because tenured teachers are guaranteed a job, those who can’t hold or find assignments on their own are assigned to schools where neither they nor the principals in that school necessarily want them to be. Often, these are high-poverty, high-minority schools. Requiring assignment by mutual consent in those schools should help them to attract and retain more effective teachers.

And the Wall Street Journal reports that the economic situation and budget pressures facing schools are provoking growing opposition to purely seniority-based “last in, first out” layoff policies in place in most school districts. UPDATE: And NCTQ has a policy brief on this!

–by Sara Mead

Why All This Matters

emp-1from the Economic Data blog, via Matt Yglesias.

The details of education policy debates should never distract us from the fundamental truth that your economic and life opportunities vary tremendously based your level of education and the skills and knowledge you acquire. I’m not a big fan of using this kind of language, but at some point there’s no getting around the fact that improving educational attainment–particularly for historically underserved young people–is both an economic and a social justice issue.

–Sara Mead

Why Don’t More School Choice Supporters Support Pre-K?

At the risk of getting all Carrie Bradshaw on you: I couldn’t help wondering why more folks who support increased choice in K-12 education–whether through charters, as I do, or vouchers–aren’t more bullish about publicly funded pre-k.

Why? As states across the country have built pre-k systems over the past decade, by and large they’ve done so using diverse delivery models that incorporate community-based providers, Head Start, and other non-public school providers, along with school districts, into their publicly funded pre-k systems. To be sure, there’s variation among states in the extent to which non-district providers are delivering pre-k, but in some states, such as Georgia, Florida, and New Jersey, they account for the majority of slots. In other words, publicly funded pre-k systems across the country look a lot more like the type of diverse delivery system that supporters of increased school choice (whether through charters, vouchers, or a combination thereof) would like to see in the K-12 system. Pre-k programs like New Jersey‘s Abbott pre-k demonstrate that community providers can do just as good a job as the public schools in delivering high-quality educational services to young children.

Moreover, unlike in K-12, this inclusion of non-school district providers in state pre-k systems is widely accepted, and evokes none of the controversy that accompanies charters or private school choice in K-12 land. Heck, it’s the more lefty folks, they type of folks who are traditionally wary of charters and vouchers, who are most likely to be adamant about the need to include community-based providers in publicly funded pre-k systems (and sometimes it’s the conservative folks arguing against including community providers–sometimes early childhood policy can seem a bit like a Bizarro World version of K-12).

All that leads me to think that it would be smart for folks who support more choice in K-12 public education to be promoting pre-k as a foot in the door and proof point in the case for much greater diversity of delivery in the K-12 system, too. In particular, they should be supporting universal pre-k, which would much more clearly than targeted programs establish diverse delivery pre-k systems as part of the state’s system of public education for all kids–and the precedent that diverse provision of public education for little kids is totally cool and therefore shouldn’t be nearly so controversial in K-12, either.

But as far as I can tell, it ain’t happening. To be sure, a lot of charter school supporters, particularly those of a progressive bent (there are lots!), also support publicly funded pre-k programs. And a growing number of charter schools are actually becoming pre-k providers themselves, where state policies permit it and provide sufficient funding to deliver high-quality programs. But I don’t know of many efforts to explicitly link those two agendas.

And I don’t hear a lot of voucher proponents supporting publicly funded pre-k or citing it in their arguments for vouchers. In fact, some of the folks who are the biggest voucher advocates also tend to be pretty intense critics of pre-k.

I can think of a few reasons for this: First, some voucher proponents really aren’t convinced of the evidence for the value of pre-k–although I’d say it stands up any day against the evidence for vouchers. Second, many voucher proponents generally support a reduced government role in education, and see publicly funded pre-k as creeping government control. Finally (and this is my most cynical hat on), some voucher supporters really want to cut taxes and government spending, including spending on education and poor kids, and therefore view public pre-k as anathema because it costs money.

Obviously, I’m not going to convince folks in the second and third camps–those are deep-seated ideological issues–though I do think people in the first camp can be won over, particularly as the research base on effective state pre-k program’s, like New Jersey’s Abbott program and Oklahoma’s universal pre-k, grows.

But I do think people who sincerely believe in expanding educational choice because they care about providing more opportunities for poor kids should let down their assumptions for a moment and try to think about the potential of public pre-k programs to 1) help the kids they claim to be advocating for and 2) help them redefine public education not as “schools run by districts” but as “a diverse array of education providers who serve kids, using public funds, consistent with open access to all and common, high-quality standards across all providers.” That’s what good diverse delivery pre-k systems are, and it’s what good diverse delivery systems in K-12 could be, too.

–by Sara Mead

ESEA Reauth Watch

Statement from Chairman Miller’s office announces plans for “a bipartisan, open, and transparent” effort to reauthorize ESEA, working with ranking member John Kline, and Reps. Dale Kildee and Michael Castle, the chair and ranking Republican of the subcommittee that deals with elementary and secondary education. First hearing, scheduled for March 26, will be on charter schools. I’m all for reauthorizing ESEA in a bipartisan fashion–it’s one of the few important policy areas today that don’t break down on increasingly polarized political lines, and given the intra-party divides here, a productive ESEA reauthorization is probably possible only with support from both sides of the aisle–but given the fairly significant challenges and track record of Republicans working with the Democratic majority on anything in this Congress, I’m not holding my breath.

UPDATE : Andy Smarick has some good additional thoughts and Eduflack has more.

-Sara Mead

The Poor You Will Have Always With You? (Not in Some Public Schools)

A nifty new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute identifies some 2,800 public schools nationally that serve virtually no poor students. That’s a small percentage of schools nationally–but in some metro areas it means that as many as 1 in 4 white public school students attend schools with virtually no poor (and often few non-white) students.

This report is a valuable counterpoint to the recent debate over rates of racial segregation in charter schools–reminding us that in many metro areas, district-run schools are highly segregated and public policy choices systematically deny poor and minority kids opportunities to attend some of the highest performing “elite” district-run public schools in these areas.

The Fordham folks also deserve kudos for drawing attention to the extent that residential, zoning, and other non-education policies support or even exacerbate socio-economic residential segregation in ways that effectively keep “good” public schools in some neighborhoods entirely devoid of poor and minority students. As I noted yesterday, education policy debates often suffer from a lack of meaningful conversation and exchange of ideas that cuts across policy areas–and the lack of education policy attention to the role of urban planning, zoning, housing, transit and other policies that have real impact on educational options for poor kids is a case in point.

That said, a couple of complaints: First, I wish they’d taken their analysis beyond the idea that it’s hypocritical for parents who send their kids to “elite” public schools to opposed vouchers and tax credits (of which I think there are valid reasons to be highly skeptical, regardless). As the authors note, there a real variations across states and metro areas in the extent to which “exclusive” public schools exist, and it would be worthwhile to know more about the policy conditions that underlie that. I’m particularly interested in the question of how the size and definition of school districts affect this—I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, say, New Jersey, with its 500+ tiny, highly localized school districts, has the highest rates of exclusive public schools. And I wish they’d given at least a nod to policies that promote socio-economic integration through public school choice–policies of which Fordham authors have expressed skepticism in the past–as well as policies that address the underlying residential segregation issues here (which should be considered as part of the pro-equity education policy agenda, because of the close linkages between residential/housing policy, school funding, and access to quality schools for poor kids).

Second, I’m not crazy about Fordham’s choice of “Private Public Schools” to describe these schools: It’s rather slanderous to the many private, particularly but not only Catholic, schools that do valuable work serving primarily poor students, as Fordham well knows. And I think it commits a similar sin to some charter and voucher opponents in oversimplifying the complex question of “what makes a public school, public?”

For instance, when I first saw the report title, I thought it was going to be about the undernoted phenomenon that many affluent public schools raise significant funds from private donations and other fundraising. Ed Writers Association’s Linda Perlstein earlier this week urged reporters to look more closely at the private funds that charters receive. But in fact, a lot of district-run schools also raise significant private funding, which often exacerbates inequities. For instance, I know that one D.C. school on Fordham’s list, Lafeyette Elementary, has an extremely active parent fundraising apparatus that, among other things, pays salaries for teachers at the school. The fact that growing numbers of affluent public schools do this–and federal tax policies give families a tax break for contributing to these organizations–undermines policy efforts to enhance equity for disadvantaged youngsters.

-Sara Mead

UPDATE: My former colleague Jenny Cohen offers some interesting analysis of this in re: Title I funding to some of the states with the highest numbers of “exclusive” public schools.

UPDATE: Full list of 2,800 schools now available on Fordham site. FWIW, no schools I attended as a child on this list.

Does the U.S. Need an Agricultural Extension Service for Education?

Back in December, the New Yorker published a really great article by Atul Gawande on reforming the health care system and reigning in health care cost growth over time. Gawande drew lessons from the activities of the USDA’s Agricultural Extension Service in the early 1900s, which, in combination with a variety of other relatively small-bore initiatives, succeeded in transforming American agriculture to be much more productive–paving the way for further economic growth.  Even though the article’s been out there a while, I’m posting about it now, because I think it has tremendous relevance to our current debates about education reform that has been under-recognized and discussed. Key grafs:

There are, in human affairs, two kinds of problems: those which are amenable to a technical solution and those which are not. Universal health-care coverage belongs to the first category: you can pick one of several possible solutions, pass a bill, and (allowing for some tinkering around the edges) it will happen. Problems of the second kind, by contrast, are never solved, exactly; they are managed. Reforming the agricultural system so that it serves the country’s needs has been a process, involving millions of farmers pursuing their individual interests. This could not happen by fiat. There was no one-time fix. The same goes for reforming the health-care system so that it serves the country’s needs. No nation has escaped the cost problem: the expenditure curves have outpaced inflation around the world. Nobody has found a master switch that you can flip to make the problem go away. If we want to start solving it, we first need to recognize that there is no technical solution.

Much like farming, medicine involves hundreds of thousands of local entities across the country—hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, home-health agencies, drug and device suppliers. They provide complex services for the thousands of diseases, conditions, and injuries that afflict us. They want to provide good care, but they also measure their success by the amount of revenue they take in, and, as each pursues its individual interests, the net result has been disastrous. Our fee-for-service system, doling out separate payments for everything and everyone involved in a patient’s care, has all the wrong incentives: it rewards doing more over doing right, it increases paperwork and the duplication of efforts, and it discourages clinicians from working together for the best possible results. Knowledge diffuses too slowly. Our information systems are primitive. The malpractice system is wasteful and counterproductive. And the best way to fix all this is—well, plenty of people have plenty of ideas. It’s just that nobody knows for sure.

A few of these issues are unique to health care, but most could also be said about our education system. Generating improvement in educational outcomes requires changing the behavior of thousands of local entities that provide complex services. Knowledge about effective practices diffuses too slowly. Information and other critical systems are primitive. Education spending, like health spending, has  increased dramatically in recent decades, and given current state and federal fiscal challenges, and the fact that we no longer have rising property values fueling predictable increases in state and local property tax revenues, education, like health, is going to need to identify ways to become more productive with relatively flat resources. Perhaps most important, while some of our educational challenges are amenable to technical solutions, many are not.

Some further thoughts on this:

First, the Agricultural Extension Service model that Gawande is talking about here is worth looking at as a potential model for efforts to improve education. One of the things we’ve learned from the past half century’s experience in education reform is that neither input regulation nor incentives/accountability focused on outcomes are, on their own, sufficient to get results in many of the biggest problems facing our education system. We need something more complex that combines both better incentives (as Gawande notes the agricultural improvements of the early 1900s also required) and new strategies that actually help and persuade practitioners to change their behavior in ways that produce greater results. Secretary Duncan has talked about creating a more collaborative partnership between the feds and state and local school districts to improve achievement–the history of the agricultural extension service may offer some useful models here.

Second, it’s worth noting that the dramatic improvements in agricultural productivity in the early 1900s did not come without a significant degree of displacement and pain for some producers. People in education tend to want to be nice and look for solutions that don’t require anyone to suffer–but getting to a much better system is going to require changes that do threaten the interests, privileges and prerogatives of some current participants in the system.

Third, I think it’s important to recognize that there’s actually tremendous similarity between some of the challenges facing health care right now, and those facing education. Both the health and education sectors face shared challenges of reigning in costs and persuading practitioners to change behavior and implement effective practices. In both sectors, change cannot be imposed by fiat but requires using rather oblique policy levers to shift the behavior of thousands of local providers. And both sectors deliver complex services to people–students and patients–who ultimately need to participate themselves in producing desirable health and education outcomes. There are interesting things going on in both the education and health sectors that the other sector could learn from, but policy wonks and practitioners in both sectors are often unaware of what’s going on in the other. Health and education policymaking, in particular, would benefit from much more robust and deep exchange of ideas, lessons, and best practices across the two sectors.

Finally, I think the notion that certain types of challenges are never solved, but managed in ways that generate ongoing improvement, is particularly important to keep in mind in thinking about education reform.

Of late, some folks in the education policy space have been grappling with the question of “what next”–what will be the driving ideas and focuses in education policy in a post-NCLB world. To date, I haven’t heard a lot of compelling answers there. But I think the ideas in Gawande’s article provide a useful starting point for thinking about some of what the “what next” should look like.

–by Sara Mead