Thursday, January 25, 2007

Why We've Always Needed Public Schools

An excellent new report, "Why We Still Need Public Schools" (pdf) from the Center on Education Policy examines public education from a historical and philosophical perspective. The report provides an historical basis for the many ills our contemporary society expects schools to address, and if I may be bold, expects that schools should CURE. Of course at tension here is that not everyone expects schools to address all these ills or, more positively, needs. Many people see the schools as the nursery of industry and global competition, not an interest bearing account for good citizenship and morality.

"Why We Still Need Public Schools" suggests like so many have before it that exclusion is the likeliest outcome of privatization of education. Statistics like these speak volumes about how inclusive public education is: "Ninety-eight percent of students with disabilities are educated in public schools, while only 1% are educated in private schools" and "Forty-three percent of public school students are minority children, compared with 24% of private school students." I think the inclusiveness of public education is something most of us take for granted. It is the inclusiveness of public schools that provides its greatest strengths. The report suggests that inclusion is at peril in privatization.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Education in the State of the Union 2007 (incomplete like these sentences)

Very little in the State of the Union Address on education. A quick mention of the "raised standards" NCLB brought to bear on the education system, and a stated expectation that Congress will work to reauthorize the law. Bush did not mention when; he did not explicitly push for 2007.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bloomberg's Reforms for NYC 2.0

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is at it again proposing further reforms for New York City schools. In the works this time are more autonomy for principals and more a equitable funding scheme. The other major proposal involves pension negotiations. Currently Albany sets pensions for NYC teachers. Bloomberg would make pension decisions a part of the regular NYC contract negotiations. The New York Times quotes Bloomberg, "It’s time for Albany to stop playing Santa Claus with the city’s money."

The first two reforms in Bloomberg's package could help some. Words of caution about the first measure to grant hiring and tenure authority to building level leaders: you can give these principals a lot more power, but you better make sure they are dynamic, dynamite, and conscientious leaders who can balance the sometimes incongruous demands of providing exceptional support for their teachers, making sure student needs are being met, and responding to parents and community concerns. In short, firing and hiring of principals must happen first before the firing and hiring of teachers.

Regarding the other reform, equitable distributions of funding by factoring experienced teachers salaries into the equation. This one has been too long overlooked. A fine report by the Education Trust, California’s Hidden Teacher Spending Gap: How State and District Budgeting Practices Shortchange Poor and Minority Students and Their Schools also suggests this approach to school funding is long overdue.

As for pension negotiations set by the city, that would take some work and approval by Albany. Not going to happen, EE odds 7/2.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Affirmative Action: A Seesaw for the Ages, by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish recently published a most interesting essay on on affirmative action--a topic he has written extensively on. In "Revisiting Affirmative Action with Help from Kant" (Times' Select required for full view) Professor Fish predicts one of the finest rationalist philosopher's, Emanuel Kant's, take on a policy like Affirmative Action (AA) in light of recent events in Michigan and elsewhere. Fish reasons that the debate surrounding AA is analogous to any discourse on constitutionality--a battle for a living, breathing document, or a set of standards set in stone and applicable to any time under any circumstances.

In this essay Fish openly wrestles with himself, and former self, and uses Kant as the dartboard to catch arguments he flings at reason and morality. Scathing and supportive, intelligent and witty responses follow his remarks. My comment is that AA compels us to look in the wrong places on purpose. Rather than reach for the constitution, AA should impel us to treat it with temporal favor and reach down to redress opportunities for young people who as Kant said "must go through a long apprenticeship before he can enjoy anything for his own sustenance."Why fix a leaky roof when the floor is too splintered to walk on? Fish would do well to realize it's both the chicken and the egg, AA addresses only part of the problem. But who am I to suggest that Professor Fish should do anything? It's refreshing he would come down to our level and share his intellectual struggle.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

American Schools Get Classy

USA Today picked up a story this week, "Schools turning to wealth, not race, to integrate schools." The story focuses on class in America and using class instead of race as a means to promote diversity in schools. While not new, it's nice to see these kinds of stories gaining in the popular press. Hopefully we're at the beginning of a major push for more class consciousness in America. For good and bad, and business as usual, the classroom is the laboratory.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Petrilli's Zeitgeist: DEDSEEA (Salty)

Michael J. Petrilli, Fordham Foundation Vice President, has publicly admitted defeat on NCLB, the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Schools Act that celebrates its fifth birthday today. This is a major change in position for the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, but not out of step with Federalist-minded conservatives everywhere. Petrilli clumsily names his best two options in lieu of No Child Left Behind the "Do It Yourself or Don’t Do It At All Act."

I'd rename these two options, at least according to Petrilli's writing here in the National Review, the "Do Everything or Designate to the States Everything Education Act" or DEDSEEA, saltiness implied. As you may intuit, these two options for life after NCLB would have the Federal government taking on all the responsibility for education with national standards and a national test, or handing back all the responsibility to the states with a cracked window open for Federal involvement through grants processes.

There is a lot to digest in Petrilli's admission, but it's a solid read and interesting piece. It's tough for me not to advocate for national standards as they seem to be the holy grail of equitable education. But there is such a rich history of federalism in this country and states seem to want to hold on to their education mandate. For starters I think reauthorization should focused feverishly on educator needs re: NCLB and what doesn't work because of onerous details and what doesn't work because educators lack the tools/know how to get it done. Reauthorization activities should start in the classroom and then work hard to determine where and if states need help. For my money, today, an organic outgrowth of experience and research is necessary to determine the fate of NCLB. Congress should spend two years doing this tough work to determine if reauthorization is prudent.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

No Child Needs Design

Eduwonk gets the leaked redesign logo for NCLB and it's not pretty. Art teachers everywhere including the Eponymous Educator's mother will shriek at the sloppy blotches of red trailing downward heavy (did ED forget to take the lead out of the red paint). It's strange that a law billed to help children would suggest, however subliminally, that five years later kids need a ton of work, at least in the art department. I guess all that attention to Math, Reading, and Science has left the ED wanting in artistic skills too.
I know it's a petty post, but it's the weekend. Whimsy and play are allowed. Ugly sloppy logo indeed.

Friday, January 05, 2007

NCTQ's Bid for Transparency in Contracts and Power in Publicity

Yesterday at the Charles Sumner School in Washington, DC, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) launched to the press and public "Teacher Rules, Roles, and Rights" a database of collective bargaining agreements and employee handbooks from the top 50 largest school districts in the nation. Bill Robb wrote it up for the USA Today front page on Jan. 4, 2007 here. It's a sensationalist lede, but as featured speakers at yesterday's event cautioned Robb's lede doesn't really tell much of the story.

All the speakers promoted caution along with a side helping of kumbaya to salve the seethe that might otherwise burn between teachers unions and NCTQ. Of course tensions may boil anyway as journalists tinker and toy with the NCTQ data to construct canards like Robb's hypotheticals meant to distract the public from the real good work schools do most days and the good work schools are fully capable of doing every day, even on the worst days.

A brief script of the cautionary web spun follows:

William Taylor, President of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights expressed the challenges of turning legalese agreements between unions and districts into digestible, easily understood prose for the NCTQ site. Kate Walsh, NCTQ's president, reminded the crowd that contracts don't describe actual teacher practices, but portray a policy agreement reached by rule. John Mitchell, AFT spokesperson, suggested that the organization he represents doesn't even endorse the site, but expressed gratitude that NCTQ responded to complaints and concerns the AFT had with an earlier version of the website data. Mitchell further endorsed that the press should use these data as a starting point; they should make many calls before penning a story about a "type" of agreement. "There are fifty agreements," he said, "each is different." Julie Koppich, an education consultant, stressed the difficulty and import of understanding the context of collective bargaining agreements, and Richard Colvin, Director of the Hechinger Institute seconded Koppich's remarks adding that the NCTQ data should be used to improve reporting not repeat the same kinds of reporting that ignore coverage on student impact or teacher hiring and retention.

It is clear that NCTQ will use this database, created in the spirit of transparency (the kind of stuff Ann Florini, among others, advocates would make the world go round much smoother) as a tool to get them some serious notice among the press and education policy elites: think Jay Matthews' Challenge Index. I couldn't help but notice some wholly incredulous looks shared between a few folks sitting in front of me as the NCTQ site was being demoed (as a gotcha!) to show how some districts miscount or creatively count teacher contract days, or the ways the data could illuminate pay discrepancy, or "penalty" as an NCTQ staffer put it, between traditionally and non-traditionally certified teachers. As those eyes rolled and lips curled I couldn't help but wonder why these types of "transparency" projects that were becoming so pervasive and profitable in education weren't being promulgated in other public works sectors organized by labor or otherwise, like police, fire, and refuse.

The NCTQ site seems to hold promise. Sure there is room for abuse, and clearly not every reporter who will use the site got to sit through the lectures on how to use the site responsibly and effectively. It's not clear what the payoff of all this information will be. For some it will be more fuel for the hate game against collective bargaining and labor, for others a way to more easily compare salaries and benefits and policies, possibly even emboldening current and future professionals.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Chaotic Middle Schools: Style Over Substance in Shotgun Reform

A story in today's New York Times underscores the harsh realities of middle school life. While not especially provocative from a policy standpoint, Trying to Find Solutions in Chaotic Middle Schools treats the middle years with deference. More a bumbling portrait sketch of manufactured "middle" adolescence, the article reveals subdued afflictions troubling early teens like looking forward to high school, dating older boys, and sexual innuendo run rampant.

For me the meat of the article is in this statement: "In New York City, almost every kind of experiment is under way." It's easy to indict this shotgun approach--too many experiments with not enough attention to research and results. Elissa Gootman, the article's author, gives the grade reconfiguration strategy the most play. At first blush grade reconfiguration seems like a good idea. Middle schools and junior highs have been experimenting with reconfiguration strategies for years, but there is something compelling about keeping students in grades 6-8 in the same schools they've attended since kindergarten. Maybe that's why so many of these grade reconfiguration topics appear perennially in our newspapers.

As appealing as grade reconfiguration approaches may sound, there is enough evidence that suggests that the grades that make up a middle school matter much less than the personnel and the leadership steering the middle school. Thomas O. Erb, editor of the Middle School Journal for the National Middle School Association suggests that effective leadership is critical to improving the lives of students in physical and emotional transition. In a recent article, "Middle School Models are Working in Many Grade Configurations to Boost Student Performance" Erb extols the virtues of leadership to aid any configuration of the middle grades.

"Effective school leadership understands that real change is not something that comes easily, not something that results from the imposition of bureaucratic or mechanistic practices, and not something that will happen without careful scrutiny of the current state of mediocrity." Further, Erb suggests that clear and consistent expectations along with "common decision-making vision that [lead] to creative, inviting, supportive and safe school environments."

Erb recommends some of the reforms large city school districts are implementing--smallness and fewer transitions--but he says without specific attention to effective middle school models these reforms amount to smoke clouds that obfuscate deeper problems.

Gootman portrays the middle school affective domain well (for the educators out there think Bloom's taxonomy): what so many of us find fascinating about middle grades. Some research on successes and failures of grade reconfiguration along with a broader criticism of patchwork reforms would have helped Gootman's angle.

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