Monday, March 29, 2010

Washington D.C.: JM's Recommendations to the House Committee on Education & Labor

Dear Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Kline and Members of the Committee on Education and Labor:

Justice Matters appreciates the opportunity to respond to the committee’s request for comments on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The reauthorization process and outcome offer an historic opportunity to rethink the nation’s approach to public education, reclaim the purpose of the ESEA as a tool to ensure the rights of students persistently disserved by our nation’s public education system and rewrite the legislation to best meets those ends.

Justice Matters is a non-profit organization dedicated to the development, promotion and support of education policy rooted in community vision. We firmly believe that a transformed public education system must include racial justice for students of color; a growing yet consistently disenfranchised group in public education. Our analysis and recommendations will focus on identifying substantive means to meet these ends.

As the reauthorization of ESEA moves forward Justice Matters will judge and recommend policies based on the following core set of values:
  • Commitment to the development of the full human and communal potential of all students, with a distinct commitment to students of color.
  • Embracing what low-income students of color specifically bring to school – their culture, language, families and ways of being and knowing in the world. 
  • Commitment to preparing low-income students of color for meaningful work, to care for their families emotionally and financially to participate in building a more just society.  
     A New Path

In the past the power of federal education policy has been neutralized in the face of entrenched disparities in resources and achievement between students of color and their white counterparts. We need a completely new approach.

Parent and Community Engagement

Bridging the divide between the schools serving students of color and the communities in which these students reside is crucial for the development and implementation of effective school, district and state policy. Parents, caregivers, community activists, and the like provide invaluable perspective and information on the unique issues their community’s children face and on more effective strategies to value their children’s experiences and promote their children’s potential. Normally, federal policy considers provision of services to parents; including literacy, child development, etc. We encourage the expansion of these important efforts. However, these policies must be partnered with meaningful ways to empower parents and community members and include them in the governance of their local schools.  Too often such attempts lack funding, specificity and rigor, resulting in ineffective programs. We can do better.

Neither the Obama Administration’s budget proposal nor its blueprint indicate a specific requirement for parent and community engagement in school governance. Moreover, all signs point to a rollback on current requirements for Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs) , parental sign-off on district budget proposals and provisions of programming to build parent capacity for school involvement. These policies were never fully funded and lacked clarity in their mandate.

We recommend:      
  • Explicitly outline a plan for parental and community engagement that results in a mandated infrastructure at the school, district and state level. The efforts should work to engage communities and parents with thought toward language and culture, disability and socio-economic status. This program could begin anew or work to expand, fully fund, strengthen and provide clarity to the existing PIRCs. We understand the current system is flawed, however, the need for meaningful parental and community engagement persists.
  • Retain requirements for parents to sign-off on district budgets.
  • Ensure parental and community involvement programs are fully funded. For example, PIRCs have not been fully funded.
  • Provide incentives for schools and districts to partner with community-based organizations to develop and implement plans to empower parents and fully them and community members in school governance and school daily practices.
  • Fully implement an accountability system to ensure that schools, districts and states comply with parent and community engagement funding requirements and participation guidelines. 
The Blueprint

As the Obama Administration’s Blueprint for Reform promises to guide subsequent discussions on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act we recommend that the following be taken into account in legislative discussions and policy development:

Provide greater flexibility in the means for school turnaround.  Schools at the bottom 5% often face a cross cutting set of complex issues. The solution for turning around such a school likely require strategies that reach beyond the four prescribed by the blueprint. Turnaround strategies should promote flexibility and encourage techniques that make student, teacher, parent and other community voices central in devising non-traditional and locally based strategies.

Explicit and substantive inclusion of parents in turnaround school decisions. Too often parents are the last to learn about plans for school closure, charter conversion, or major restructuring.  The blueprint indicates that the selected strategy should be locally decided, however, it is silent on which local voices must be included in the decision making process.

Rethink our approach to our most difficult schools. The blueprint promotes a model that advantages schools with greater means while disadvantaging schools with the greatest struggles, where many students of color are located. Although the more successful schools will find relief from punitive No Child Left Behind (NCLB) practices, and win the right to innovate. While for the lowest rung schools, the NCLB world will persist. Although the requirement will have changed from Adequate Yearly Progress to Career and College Readiness, and from achievement to growth, the pressure will persist to teach to the test.

Explicitly Address Push-out Forces in Schools. The startlingly high drop-out rate among students of color demonstrates a need for extraordinary effort in determining its cause and developing solutions. Current proposals, the blueprint and discussion have ignored the devastating contribution zero tolerance and other harsh disciplinary policies have made toward low graduation rates and conversely high incarceration rates among students of color. Study after study shows stunning racial disparities in how these policies are enforced. Collection of data indicated in the blueprint is a start. However, schools and districts should be forced to review their discipline policies and draw on healthier and more effective approaches to improve school climate.

Promote racial and ethnic diversity among teachers. The administration recognizes the importance of teachers in creating healthy learning environments. However, it has failed to recognize the importance of greater racial and ethnic diversity among them. Beyond racial and ethnic diversity, we must promote teachers recruited from the communities they will serve.

Greater requirements for equity. As written, the blueprint offers strong ideas on the need for greater resource yet the language is soft. ‘Over time’, districts will be required to ensure their high poverty schools receive equitable state and local funding. States will be ‘asked’ to develop a plan to tackle resource disparities. Resource equity is a central problem in public education. States and districts will require mandates and timetables to ensure success.

It may all come down to values.
What may be most troubling and most difficult to pinpoint and illustrate is the lack of core values in the blueprint and in education reform discussions thus far. We have lacked a national discussion of the core values upon which a transformed educational system should be based. In its place we’ve based reform almost entirely on economic necessity and dropped the civil rights legacy upon which the ESEA is based. We’ve infused competition into government funding ensuring that some students will end up losing the competitive grant game. Through No Child Left Behind we’ve learned of the glaring disparity between students of color and their white counterparts, yet we continue to explicitly recognize this reality and create public policy accordingly. We continue to place race neutral policy solutions on problems steeped in race. Until we can have these frank and open discussions we may be faced with revisiting these same issues on the next round of ESEA reauthorization.


Justice Matters 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Washington D.C. Dispatch: Ravitch on her NCLB change of heart, but where's the race analysis in the discussion?

Amina's on the ground take on Diane Ravitch, Carmel Martin, and others discussing the Education Secondary Elementary Act (ESEA) (but avoiding race) at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC:

Diane Ravitch, toast of the town among progressives, today presented her latest book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, to a capacity crowd at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington D.C. What brought the people? Likely her scathing critique of No Child Left Behind, this made all the more interesting and oddly legitimate since she was a former member of the Bush administration and vocal proponent of the legislation. Today Ravitch outright denounces the sanctions of NCLB and high stakes testing. She’s also taken on some popular Obama administration ideas particularly charter schools and privatization of public education.

The New Blueprint

In contrast to Ravitch, the EPI panel also included Carmel Martin. Martin, of the Department of Education, was described as a principal author of the administration’s newly minted ESEA blueprint. It’s interesting as she spoke about the blueprint I got a striking feeling that we were hearing a kitchen sink approach to education policy making; they’re really throwing a bit of everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. For progressives there are some pretty nasty ingredients in the mix, but they’re laced with something sweet to make them go down a little easier. Although they may have covered all their bases, and are doing a lot of “things”, the finished product misses the mark on creating a grand idea for truly transformative change.

Standardized testing will remain, but it’s based on student progress; an improvement maybe; yet it still doesn’t answer the problem of teaching to the test. For turnaround schools they offer some unproven and harsh methods; close them, convert them to charters, fire teachers and principals; but before you want to rip your hair out in frustration; they add a fourth option of intensive planning and professional development. How many districts will really use the fourth option? They’re strong arming states to remove charter school caps; we’d say that opens the floodgates to charter school creation and mass privatization of public schools; they say they haven’t mandated the creation of these schools, they just want to make sure they’re an option for districts.

A Sad Reality

Overall the event was great but tempered by a sad reality. Where’s the racial and ethnic diversity in the voices speaking on this issue? Where are the voices of the people on the ground? But this (from what I’ve seen thus far in the DC policy world), is nothing new. The problems in the schools persists despite all this highbrow conversation; maybe they’re missing something. In fact, an actual District of Columbia Schools social worker and parent addressed the crowd bringing all the high minded dialogue to eye level. We are teaching to the test, we have extreme needs that aren’t being met, the schools are in crisis, she lamented. In response, a panel member, offering all due respect of course, proceeded to dispel and temper her reality by pointing out that test scores in DC public schools have actually been improving and perhaps, things weren’t quite as bad as she’d perceived them. Perhaps this goes a long way in telling progressives what’s sadly lacking in the present day policy making mix in Washington DC.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Death threats and gay bashing have no place in our schools

 Stella comments on The Los Angeles Times story about gay bashing and death threats at a Southern California high school:

This incident reflects the need for education in public and private schools about the history and culture of LGBTQ youth, including students of color. Postings that say "wanted dead or alive" should never be tolerated.
As more and more youth are coming out earlier they should be able to feel as safe and supported as any other student. The family uprooting and move to northern California only reflects the danger the entire family felt. It also reflects the need for school districts, teachers, and parents to engage in creating curriculum that reflects the history and culture of LGBTQ students.

Washington D.C. Dispatch: Amina reports on Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee Hearing, Washington, D.C.

Witness: Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education

The Shell Game

It feels a little like a shell game in today’s House Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the reauthorization of ESEA. Duncan’s testimony on the administration’s blueprint presents lots of attractive shells. However, when pressed it’s unclear that anything good lies under them for students of color, their families and communities.

Let’s start with equity. Finally, a proposal that says it will hold states and districts accountable for equitable distribution of resources.  However, the blueprint wording is soft. And Secretary Duncan’s explanation even softer when pressed for details by Senator Harkin. He describes the problem of funding inequity at length, but nothing more. There’s no timeline, no enforcement strategy, no real plan. The shell looks good but there may be nothing under it.

Community what?

Community engagement and parental involvement seem to be under every shell, but so dispersed and lacking in clarity it may not be worth the effort of looking. Senator Dodd asks, Where is it in the blueprint? Yes, yes, yes, this may be the single most important factor in improving schools, Duncan agrees. But clearly the blueprint is out of step with all this importance. The blueprint mentions the word ‘parents’ a total of five times!

More tellingly, community engagement has no dedicated program. It’s mixed in with a potpourri of other good policy ideas with nowhere to go and presumably no real time to dedicate to them. Nutrition, school safety, physical education, mental health, substance abuse, bullying and finally community engagement efforts are all wrapped together with the competitive grant ribbon. 

Community, well specifically community-based organizations are mentioned at length in the Promise Neighborhoods and 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs. The programs beg a distinction that Duncan tends to blur; community-based organizations and actual community engagement are different. One is a thing, the other a process. One can be relied on to provide services, as the blueprint aptly does in the Promise Neighborhoods program and others. The other requires a plan, and an underlying premise and belief that community members must be drawn into discussions of how we talk about schools, teaching and learning. Community engagement--a sprinkle here and there, but really not much anywhere.

Tango with turnarounds

Finally, and perhaps most troubling is the blueprint’s treatment of turnaround schools: schools in which students of color are overrepresented. The blueprint’s approach reminds me of my own childhood in school. There was always that kid in your classroom or grade; the hard one. The one who failed almost every test, disrupted the class at every turn, was constantly in the principal’s office, was warned, sanctioned, and finally expelled. The system just didn’t know what to do with him or her. These students are moved around but are inconsistently engaged. They need the most, but in an overburdened system can get the least. That student seems much akin to how the blueprint treats turnaround schools. Let’s close them, punish the staff and principals, convert them into charters, but not really engage them. To do that we’d have to face what these schools really are: Extreme manifestations of systemic problems. To fix them we may need to revolutionize the whole system, and it takes more than a shell game to accomplish that feat.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Don't worry, California – A Race to the Top win wouldn't have meant much anyway

In response to Sharon Noguchi's Oakland Tribune story published on March 4 "California Misses out on Race to the Top funding for schools,"  Jack's letter to the editor was published on March 15:

It’s official – California’s a loser. But before we lament missing out on the first round of Race to the Top funds, we should remember the kind of race we were running in the first place.

This $4.35 billion Federal initiative to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools springs from the notion that competition invariably fosters improved school performance. From staging a battle between states for scarce dollars to lowering barriers to charter schools, the program’s only innovation seems to be its prideful insertion of an oversimplified market model into the failed public education equation.

For the students of color served by those lowest-performing schools, a win would have been meaningless. Race to the Top fails to challenge the assumptions that have driven education policy for the last eight years – that teaching is testing, that the arts are peripheral, and that parent engagement is inessential.

We can’t send new money after bad ideas and hope real improvements materialize. With the reauthorization process of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) beginning this year, we have the chance to reshape the principles behind public education. Californians must make it clear to Congress that superficial policy change is not change at all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Washington D.C. Dispatch: Obama's Reauthorization blueprint ignores Civil Rights legacy of ESEA

Amina writes from Washington on the Dept. of Education's recent release of its blueprint for ESEA reauthorization:

A seismic shift is taking place in public education with the Obama administration’s blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the helm. Despite the shortcomings and utter failure we’ve seen from Wall Street’s values of competition, self-interest, short-term gains at long term sacrifice, we still seem sold on incorporating these ideals into education policy. The ultimate losers in this “edu-business” world may be those most in need; students of color. 

What happened to the Civil Rights Movement?

This is an ironic outcome for legislation steeped in the civil rights movement. ESEA was intended to right racial injustice and support the provision of education to those children formerly disenfranchised. Obama’s blueprint has ignored the very essence of the law they seek to reauthorize, replacing these ideals with competitive grants and competitive choice in schools. Children with civil rights become states and districts with the right to compete for funding.

Though always paltry in amount, federal funding by formula has at least been a promise of support for all children in need. As with the competitive grant process started with Race to the Top, Obama’s blueprint, converting a portion of this funding into competitive grants starts a trend to revoke that promise and once again leave some children behind. Moreover, for already cash-strapped states it creates a perverse incentive to game the system: to say and at least appear to do what’s necessary to receive funding.

Despite studies demonstrating that teachers are not primarily motivated by salary, the Obama administration introduced the unproven and self-interested business model of pay for performance into a system over-reliant on test scores.  Although they’ve tempered the language in the blueprint, allowing other factors to be considered and the use of student progress to be included, the system as it stands does not support these changes. For the foreseeable future testing remains supreme.

Turnaround Schools

To its credit the Obama administration is concentrating time, funds and effort toward turnaround schools; those at the lowest rung of achievement. However, promoting that schools be closed, or principals, teachers or other staff fired, may be short sighted at best. Although in the short run these strategies provide a short-term prize; removing the most egregious numbers. It does little to reshape the system in the long-term to ensure that the same problems don’t resurface. Turnaround strategies may also mean reopening as a charter school, a strategy that has shown mixed results. Closing schools altogether may also mean re-distributing students to schools well outside their neighborhoods that may be similarly under performing and under-resourced. Moreover, none of these strategies requires meaningful community participation in their selection and implementation, creating a fatal disconnect between the policies and students they profess to serve. We can do better.

Though the administration, policymakers and the general public may have tired of the civil rights and racial justice argument for education change, it doesn’t make it any less applicable. Civil rights doesn’t go out of style, and the persistent presence of vast racial disparities in resources and outcomes evidences its necessary inclusion in policy discussions. Let’s not let a fascination with business models and numbers out-weight the lives of the children behind them.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Washington D.C. Dispatch: The 1st Senate hearing on ESEA Reauthorization

Amina's perspective from Capitol Hill:

Economics vs. Civil Rights

The first Senate hearing on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act gives a clear indication that the civil rights imperative of educational opportunity has been discarded for arguments of economic necessity and America's standing in the global marketplace.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the committee’s chair, defined the hearing as an introduction to reauthorization, protecting the goals of the existing law while changing what hasn’t worked. For him the importance of education reform is predicated on the competitiveness of the United States in the global economy. To his credit Harkin noted serious concerns about the achievement gap. Minorities, he described, as failing in the system. Yet, most tellingly is how Harkin funneled this sad reality through an economic lens. He cited a study by the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) saying that if the nation’s high schools and colleges were to raise the graduation rates of Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans students to levels of white students by 2020, the increase in personal income across the nation would add more than $310 billion to the US economy. He noted that in the past the achievement gap has been couched as a civil rights issue and moral imperative yet that idea was quickly cast aside for the supremacy of the nation's economic concerns.

The panel’s witnesses were selected with this idea in mind, two were directly from the business community, with the third gentleman being from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. The panel members were Andreas Schleicher of the (OCED) in Paris, France, Dennis Van Roekel, President the National Education Association (NEA), Charles Butt, Chairman and CEO of H-E-B, and John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable.  (To watch and read their testimonies go to:

Congressional Concerns

The discussion and questions from the Senate members seemed less than informed and thoughtful. Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) surmised the problem as a need to improve parental participation and the need for businesses to support that participation. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), touted his teacher pay for performance scheme in Tennessee, the first state to have such a program, and wanted to see similar schemes supported at the federal level. Senator Jack Reed (R-I) emphasized the need for better principals. The more “progressive” points of view came from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) with his emphasis on how college is government funded in Europe, as is other services that assist in insuring equitable access to education for all students. Also Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) who questioned over emphasis on testing and teaching to the “bubble” (teaching to those students whose test scores can easily be raised). Senator Al Franken (D-MN) who touted his proposed legislation to recruit and train principals, interestingly expressed a belief that testing was being inappropriately used. Testing results were being released too late for teachers to use them to modify and improve curriculum. His solution: test more often and have it be progress based.

Regardless of these concerns, the responses with the exception of  VanRoekel of National Education Association (NEA), were based on an economic and business perspective. A move away from the moral imperative and toward an economic one in education reform is unsettling at best. First, it indicates a belief on the Hill that there is an overall malaise and weariness in America toward civil rights and racial justice. The message is “we’ve been there and done that with civil rights, it didn’t work, let’s use something more effective”.  More importantly, when lives and injustice are defined solely in economic terms, it narrows and warps the solutions we identify. When the benefits and costs are defined in dollars, of course the value of teaching can be reduced to test scores; improving teachers becomes a discussion on pay for performance and failing schools can be cured by school choice. Without a moral compass it’s easy to slip out of language of how the system is failing students of color and into language of how students of color are failing the nation, and are responsible for our decline in the world economy.

 More to come.