Archive for July, 2012

“Michelle Rhee Is Shameless” – Diane Ravitch

July 26, 2012 Comments off

Michelle Rhee Is Shameless. This title of this post from Diane Ravitch bluntly characterizes the darling of the business oriented “reformers”  who want to see public schools fail in the same way Mitch McConnell wants to see Baarack Obama become a one term president. The one data point that jumped out at me was the fact that the US was 11th out of 12 when the first international tests were administered in 1964, the glory days when the baby boomers were emerging from high school after receiving that wonderful education provided to students in the 1950s. As I’ve written in several previous blog posts, if either party acknowledges that poverty is the problem behind public education’s so-called “failure”, then the only solution is to address that issue head on… and neither party wants to tackle an issue that is so complicated.

Categories: Uncategorized

Markets: The Vicious Cycle in Urban Schools

July 24, 2012 Comments off

In her book written last year, The Death and Life if the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch describes the vicious cycle charter schools set into motion in some urban districts. Todays NYTimes has an article by Motoko Rich that describes how this cycle is playing out in several cities. The clearest example is in Cleveland, OH:

In Cleveland, where enrollment fell by nearly a fifth between 2005 and 2010, the number of students requiring special education services has risen from 17 percent of the student body to 23 percent, up from just under 14 percent a decade ago, according to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

Here’s the likely back story:

  1. Charter schools open and those engaged parents who want a solid education for their children, the great majority of whom do not need special education services, enroll their children and the State and local money follow the child.
  2. Public schools lose enrollment, lose revenue that goes along with it, and lose part of the core of students of engaged parents who help set and maintain the academic tone in the classroom.
  3. Squeezed for funding because of the enrollment drop, the district is forced to make budget cuts, starting with the most youthful teachers and focussing on those programs that re not tested like art, music, and PE.
  4. Because the students lost are among the most engaged and the classes are larger, it becomes more challenging to maintain an atmosphere of academic push in the classroom and becomes more challenging to meet the needs of each child.
  5. Because teachers have more students in their classroom, want their students to experience success, and need more support to help them, they begin seeking special education services for more students. Parents who want more attention for their children quickly learn that special needs services will achieve that goal and they, too, seek those services.
  6. Because class sizes are larger, classes are more unruly, the proportion of students receiving special education services is higher, and elective programs are eliminated, the overall quality of the public schools is eroded.
  7. An increasing number of parents seek enrollment in charter schools…. and the spiral continues until public schools predominantly serve children of disengaged parents, more than 25% of who require special education services.
  8. Because these parents are disengaged and dispirited, they don’t possess political clout and the de-funding of public education continues, accelerating the spiral.

The Times article describes districts in various stages of this death spiral without attributing it solely to the advent of charter schools… and yet it is clear from the article that the charters are headed in the opposite direction. By skimming the children of engaged parents, operating on lower overhead because they can compensate teachers on lower pay scales with fewer benefits, augmenting their start-up costs by receiving grants from foundations, the charters can offer more programs for lower costs. Moreover, because they operate as quasi-private schools, if a student is disruptive or a parent does not stay engaged, many charter schools will expel the child and send them back to their public school, who will be required to take them back.

The bottom line on all of this is money. The founders of the charter school movement  wanted to apply market principles to public education even though the market is ultimately Darwinian: it drives out the businesses that can’t succeed and presumably replaces it with ones that can. But “the market” results in a lack of grocery stores in some sections of the city, results in remote areas having no cell reception or internet connectivity, and results in having many Americans consume way too much cheap, unwholesome food. All of this is morally acceptable to those who believe in the market, because the market operates on the principle that the consumer will seek out better products if they want them. The market, though, doesn’t help those who can’t help themselves… and five-year old children born into poverty can’t help themselves. The market mentality is eroding the quality of our public schools. It  is the most vicious cycle of all.

$1,000,000,000 for Master Teachers: A Bad Idea

July 23, 2012 Comments off

Late last week there was much media fanfare over President Obama’s proposal to include $1,000,000,000 to provide $20,000 per year stipends for 10,000 “elite” teachers in science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM as the education media calls these topics). Slate reported that “…the ultimate goal that the elite group of teachers will pass their knowledge and skills on to their colleagues to help bolster the quality of teaching nationwide.”

This is a bad idea for several reasons:

  1. It assumes that STEM teachers merit a substantial pay differential based solely on the content they teach. A good Kindergarten teacher is every bit as valuable as an “elite STEM teacher”.
  2. It assumes that there is some national objective criteria that can be used to differentiate “elite” STEM teachers from “non-elite” STEM teachers. My hunch is that the USED will use student performance on some kind of standardized achievement test as the “objective basis” for identifying STEM teachers… or maybe a variant of the rubric used for National Board certification. If it is standardized tests, my guess is that with $20,000 at stake STEM teachers might teach to the test. If it is National Board Certification, see #1 above and imagine how a Board Certified elementary teacher of English teacher will feel about the STEM teacher getting $20,000.
  3. It assumes there is a mechanism in place for these “elite STEM teachers” to pass their knowledge and skills to their less elite colleagues in other districts. The notion of spreading “best practice” across diverse school districts is part of the business model for schools that has not succeeded to date. A STEM teacher in Scarsdale has access to far more technology resources that a teacher in, say, rural New Hampshire.
  4. It fails the “next dollar” test: For most of the 29 years that I worked as a Superintendent, we explicitly or implicitly invited Principals to submit proposals for programs they might launch if they were given an extra dollar to spend. In this way, we could pit an initiative against an existing practice. In those years, differentiated pay never made the list. My hunch is that if you asked 10,000 districts how they would spend an extra $100,000 that most would look at ways to intervene early with at-risk students. Paying their 5 best STEM teachers an extra $20,000 would fall to the bottom of the list unless they were losing STEM teachers to neighboring districts. Oh… and one little detail, I think virtually every school district in America would like to see full funding for Special Education before additional funds are poured on projects like this one!
  5. It seems redundant: The Slate article reported that: Republican Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workplace Committee, pointed out to the AP that there are already more than 80 quality teacher programs supported by the federal government. 80 might be an overstatement, but even if there are “only” 10 quality teacher programs it would be helpful to those in schools to know what they are, how they relate to each other, and why another one for STEM teachers is needed.

This proposal might excite a few businessmen and will likely garner applause when it is added to a list of education initiatives the Obama administration has championed, but it is unlikely to gain traction without answers to the questions implied in the five points listed above. I’ll be eager to hear why STEM teachers deserve more money; how “elite” STEM teachers will be identified; how this “elite” squad will transfer their knowledge; why this is the best use of another $1,000,000,000; and how this fits with the other “quality teacher programs”.