Friday, July 29, 2011

Diane "The Jackhammer" Ravitch!

Diane "The Jackhammer" Ravitch
It's Day 2 of the SOS conference! Day 1 with Jonathan Kozol was a thrill. Well Day 2 with author Diane Ravitch felt like the rush you get after knocking down a stubborn brick wall. She was clear, tough and methodical, as she drilled into the very foundation of misguided education reform strategies currently so well cemented in public discourse and policy making. One by one she hammered at all the policy proposals this administration and localities around the country have just accepted as good ideas regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Merit pay for teachers, an Obama favorite. There's no compelling evidence to say this works. The teachers say it doesn't work! BANG- went the Ravitch hammer! Even still, New York City who had a failed attempt at merit pay, persists on trying to make it happen. Evaluating teachers based on test scores; another loser. Ravitch was clear. At best it leads to teaching to the test, or in increasing incidences, it leads to cheating and gaming the test to boost scores. WHAMO! Charter schools, this is the real prom queen at the policy ballroom. Everyone seems to want them. Meanwhile at the end of the day, this prom queen's true dance partner seems to be big business. Overall their results are no better than traditional public schools, yet they introduce a profit motive, where only the easiest to serve may benefit, while the hardest to serve youth are left to languish in increasingly under resourced schools. BOOYAH! Teachers don't get fired. Nonsense, Ravitch blasted! Teachers have an attrition rate of 50% in the first five years! With these numbers, surely some are getting fired.

Ravtich cited study after study, expert after expert. She carefully chiseled away at the very foundation of what makes up the nation's current approach to education. It was both cathartic and dismal to hear. But she ended with hope. Fear not, says this Jackhammer of Policy! These misguided reformers may have all the money and power, but things change. This story is not over, we live in a democracy, she argued. "There are more of us than there are of them!" Well said!

Van Jones & Rebuilding the American Dream

For nearly a year now, Van Jones – Ella Baker Center Founder, environmental advocate, Civil Right champion, and former Obama Administration adviser – has been championing a movement to motivate and organize progressives into action. And, if media coverage is any indicator, Jones' work seems to be paying off.

The American Dream Movement is backed by an impressive array of progressive-minded organizations and action groups, but perhaps more impressive is the fact that the nascent movement boasts a rapidly-growing membership of 127,000. Even more compelling is the Dream movement's premise that most Americans actually support progressive solutions to our most daunting challenges, even if they might not know it themselves.

In a recent NPR interview, Jones is quick to point out that sixty to seventy percent of Americans think the jobs crisis is more important than the on-going debt ceiling debacle. Most even agree that tax rates on wealthy individuals and corporations should be raised in light of the failed recovery. This stands in sharp contrast to the arguments of the Tea Party (to which the Dream Movement has been compared with) that has argued over the past two years that a majority wants to protect "job creators" (AKA The Very Rich) from a modest tax increase.

The American Dream Movement is convincing. It supports strategic investment in our society over clumsy budget cuts. It works to invest in communities of color and to resolve the persistent dilemmas facing the working poor. It stands for a responsible conclusion to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Finally, it recognizes that to get our economy movement again and to effectively invest in our joint future, all members of society must pitch in their fair share.

Again, check them out!


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kozol Speaks on Segregation in Public Education

Kozol in the center, speaking with SOS attendees.

Acclaimed author Jonathan Kozol giving the introductory remarks at the SOS conference today. Jonathan Kozol’s race analysis of public education is compelling! First, it’s just great to hear a thoughtful approach on race in education. Too often we simply ignore the elephant in the clearly racially stratified room. But moreover, Kozol’s argument strikes at the heart of a major problem; our schools are more separate and unequal today than at any time since the 1960’s. Kozol recounted visiting school after school; each filled with black and brown students, and abysmally under-resourced. The numbers he gave are still startling. Per pupil spending for an inner city child is around $6,000-$7,000, while the wealthiest school are spending up to $30,000. He lamented how time and again we refuse to discuss persistent racial segregation. Whatever happened to Brown v. Board of Ed? His argument is old school but a picture of public education today can make you feel like we live in an Eyes on the Prize rerun. The re-segregation of public education is happening around the country, in the South in particular. As a society we seem quite willing to quietly surrender the idea of integration. It was just too hard. And Kozol rightly points out, that this administration has been mum on the subject.

SOS Comes to DC!

Just as the a political wave of teacher blame seemed certain to drown out their voices, the teacher backed SOS movement has come Washington DC to say, “NO!” Well not just no, but to also shine a light on a new path for education. For the next four days Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action (SOS) have descended on Washington DC, to connect education reform efforts happening around the nation and let policymakers know teachers also have a political voice. Days 1 and 2 are a conference hosted at American University. Then on Saturday, June 30th , SOS takes to the streets for a rally and march to the White House. It ends on Sunday, with a congress to plan next steps.  

On the opening day, the audience was filled with educators and their allies from across the nation. Among the capacity 450 crowd a healthy contingent came from California. They were present and energized. The event co-chair Rick Meyer, may have summed the event up best when he rallied “This is not an academic conference, we are here about action!” The workshops also fit this mold, with discussion ranging from using art for protest, to getting Congress to transform NCLB, to student/teacher organizing to change education. No one could have started things off better than the opening speaker Jonathan Kozol. See more of my blogs for more details. 

What do they demand? Well check-out their website. To sum it up, they have four things: equity in funding, end high stakes testing, inclusion of teachers and community in developing public education policy and locally developed curriculum. These demands push against the current popular policy tide stressing charter school expansion, competition for funding and connecting teacher evaluation and pay to test scores.  The event rings of teachers saying they’ve had enough of being at the center of what’s wrong with public education. To their credit, they’ve attempted to move beyond the reactionary (even though there’s much to react to) to create a proactive (albeit broad) agenda.

Could you feel Justice Matters’ racial justice platform at work? Well, somewhat. This was a majority white and female crowd, among participants and organizers. Yes, this reflects the teaching profession, but it does present an SOS challenge for making sure the voices, vision and concerns of those most effected (poor Black and Brown folks) gets into the process and outcomes of their activism. But to their credit, some of the workshops and Kozol’s rousing analysis of our “separate and unequal” education system, did show that some of our racial justice message is still in the room.

Budget Cut Fever Sweeps Detroit

For yet another example of how budgeting crises are affecting schools across the country, see Detroit. The Detroit Public Schools board decided Thursday to cut the wages of its teachers by a dramatic ten percent, saving $82 million to make up for a budget shortfall of over $300 million. Sadly, Detroit's approach seems almost light-handed when compared to recent actions on the parts of districts to close schools and even indefinitely postpone the school year.

Indeed, such evasive maneuvers are becoming commonplace during a phantom economic recovery. For all but the staunchest Keynesians, the  cut-rather-than-invest approach seems not just an acceptable, but a necessary way to adjust to a stagnant economy. Yet our failure to invest in public education at this time will have definite consequences down the line. Most tragically, the damage already extends beyond the quantifiable realm of macroeconomic policy. 

When a struggling student doesn't have a quality teacher to turn to, when a classroom is left with out of date materials and learning tools, and when whole schools are closed because of the failure of punitive, assessment-obsessed policies, investments in our communities and society are destroyed outright.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Census Report Finds Recession Widened Racial Divide

The U.S. Census Bureau released alarming data yesterday verifying something we've known all too well for the past three years: Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately hurt by the Great Recession. However, the Bureau's report reveals the extent of the damage, demonstrating that the median wealth of white households is now 18 times that of Latino families and 20 times that of black families.

These numbers are jarring and illustrate a widening income gap (the largest since the Bureau's been collecting income data) between whites and communities of color in the United States. Consider that while the median wealth of white households dropped by 16% during the recession, black households saw their median wealth drop by 53% and Latinos lost nearly 66% of their wealth. These statistics are dismal, to say the least.

Money isn't everything, as they say, but disparity and inequity levy incredibly corrosive effects upon the broader society. As the late historian Tony Judt argued, the levels of income inequality in the United States are uncommon among other wealthy nations. Such enormous income gaps, Judt noted, breed animosity, insecurity, and – most strikingly – unhappiness.

So, in a nation where we're all endowed with the right to pursue happiness, our policies and our economic attitudes are making that happiness harder and harder to find. Whole could and have been written about the causes of the recession, but what caused it is less important than how we responded to it. We didn't take steps to ensure that those who would be most financially devastated by an economic downturn (say Latino mortgage-holders in California and Florida or Blacks employed in manufacturing or the service industry) had some sort of safety net beyond a meager tax refund.

We didn't take those critical steps and now rather than building up our social safety nets, we're tearing them down. Among those social safety nets – perhaps the most critical of them all – is the promise of a quality public education to all children, free of charge. Every time we close a struggling school rather than coming to its aid,  every time we cut an after school program to "protect our job creators," and every time we push out a high school student we destroy a  safety net and widen the disparity. And yet, this is exactly how we have responded to the Great Recession.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Feds Eye Cuts to Black & Latino Programs in Absence of ESEA Reauth

As the 112th Congress seals its disastrous legacy this month, the once simmering discussion of a reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has evaporated in the summer heat.While it's all but certain that this session of Congress will not seriously address our nation's pressing public education concerns, the Department of Education is hard at work.Unfortunately, the plan that's taking shape in Washington appears to be based on strategy that could hurt countless Black and Latino students as the new school year gets underway.

If It Ain't Broke, Defund It
Two days ago, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) released an urgent plea, published by The Hill. Hastings' piece focused on a Dept. of Ed. plan to grant waivers to school districts that want to circumvent certain No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements and programs. One such requirement that districts could apply to ignore is a stipulation that they spend a small percentage of the federal funds they receive on tutoring programs for low-income students.

The program, called Supplementary Education Services (SES), serves about 650,000 mainly Black and Latino students each year by providing them with free tutoring to supplement their classroom instructions. What's worse is that the Dept. of Ed.'s own research (confirmed by studies by the right-leaning Rand Corporation) shows that free tutoring for low income students actually works! It improves their test scores, brings up their grades, and, most importantly, it gives them the extra attention that they simply can't get in overcrowded classroom.

Save This Program!
If you've already read Hastings' letter, go back and check out the comments sections. It's a sad display of deep antipathy, and indeed hatred, toward students stuck in low performing schools. While many who've been fixated with the debt ceiling issue are eager to dismiss any federal programs as "hand-outs" and cut them away with relish, again THIS PROGRAM WORKS.

It's cheap, too – only a small percentage of the federal cash distributed to low-income districts. No taxpayer will feel any financial pain if SES stays in place, but at least 650,000 students and their families will certainly feel the difference if this essential provision is waived away.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bronx Charter Punished for Questionable Practices

A charter school in the Bronx has been placed on probation for breaking New York state laws that require charter admissions to be random. The Academic Leadership Charter School serves students from Pre-K through second grade and has been charged with selectively choosing applicants who are more likely to out-perform their peers.

"Weeding Out" Students
Anna Phillips of The New York Times, reports that students were quietly admitted to the school on the basis of their previous report cards and disciplinary history and not through a lottery process required in charter schools receiving public funding. Such lotteries are typically overseen by an independent third party and are blind to student demographics and previous academic performance. An anonymous teacher at the school has even accused administrators of testing students prior to entry, a practice clearly prohibited by law.

These allegations get right to the heart of the charter schools debate. The school in question appears to have violated a number of laws designed to keep access to publicly-funded charters open and fair. Yet, this is only one case in which unethical activity has occurred. How many other schools are employing similar practices to boost their test scores and disciplinary records? How many other students are being brought into charter schools, not because the school wants to do good for them, but because their performance will do good for the school?

Clearly No Cure-All
Such questions are unanswerable, and perhaps that's the most troubling aspect of the situation in the Bronx. We can't know how many other publicly-funded charter schools are engaged in exactly the same practices, because our states and local education agencies have thus far been ineffective in ensuring compliance with the law. We have been too quick to hand resources and legitimacy over to charter schools in general, hailing them as a panacea for public education. 

We can't wait for intrepid reporters to break such stories. Instead, the education reform community must do the mature work of recognizing that not all charters are created equal. It must also ensure that all charters –independent though they may be – must have their admissions processes and practices rigorously monitored by higher legal authorities. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In Memphis: School's Out Forever!

It’s not just a line in an Alice Cooper song anymore. This August, Memphis, TN students will not return to classrooms, at least not until a funding dispute between Memphis City Schools (MCS) and the city council. The MCS school board voted last Tuesday to delay the start of the school year until the city of Memphis pays the $78 million it owes to fund the upcoming school year.

President Obama attends graduation ceremonies at Memphis' historically black Booker T. Washington H.S. in May. The high performing school will not be opening in August unless a city-wide funding dispute is resolved. Source: AFP/Getty Images
Playing Games With Education
The day following the vote, the city scrounged up  $3 million of the $8 million it owes the school district from last school year (2010-2011). However, all signs from the city council indicate that the MCS will not receive an upfront payment for coming school year anytime soon. The mayor and council members have insisted that Memphis simply doesn’t have the cash on hand and will pay up after September 1st when tax revenues are due.
The dispute comes as a result of the city of Memphis consistently failing to meet its financial obligations to its schools over the past three years. School board members have justified their decision, citing that the city has delayed its payment of legally required funds each year since 2008. Furthermore, the city came up short when it did pay, accumulating over $150 million in IOU’s over the years.
Attacking Public Schools
City officials are calling out the school board’s move as unnecessarily dramatic, but consider the debt the city owes its school system. Also consider the fact that school board members have been quietly telling reporters that they fear a pending court decision to merge the city of Memphis with Shelby County would essentially cancel the city’s obligation to pay its debts to the school system.
So we have a city that might be trying to wait out its financial obligations to public education after having cut property taxes in 2008, depriving schools of $57 million in funding. Exactly how is this not a concerted effort to defund and kill a public school system? What’s more criminal about these fiscals games is that these delays will be hurting an extremely successful school system serving a Black community that makes up two-thirds of the city’s population.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Students Protest Chicago's Police Approach to Education

"What is wrong with Chicago’s public school system?"
It’s a question that perplexes policy commentators and school administrators alike. Yet, students and parents know the answer. Yesterday, they made their voices heard at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters in a protest headed by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE). Their message: Stop suspending and arresting students for minor offenses and invest more heavily in college and career preparation rather than in security and police forces. They’re policy failures in school districts across the country, but the problem is particularly acute in Chicago.

Money for Career-Training, Not Policing
CPS currently spends a whopping fifteen times as much on campus security guards than on college and career coaches ($51 million vs. $3.5 million). VOYCE reports that students have arrested for relatively innocuous offenses such as scribbling graffiti on school desks and suspended for crimes like carrying cell phones or wearing jeans. Parents and students rightly argue that such a heavy-handed approach to discipline matters is both counterproductive and expensive.

Not only do such practices derail the educational progress of already struggling students, they also divert vast resources from teaching and learning toward policing. And that’s just it – Chicago runs its school system the same way it polices its streets. CPS maintains an archaic school bureaucracy that’s essentially managed out of the mayor’s office and not directly by the communities it serves.

A Community-Led Solution
Simply consider the fact that the former CEO of the CPS was a career police officer appointed to the position by Mayor Daley. Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was been quick to put a career educator in the role of CEO, but Chicago shouldn’t have to rely on the off chance of good mayoral judgment to ensure that its school system is focused on educating and not policing its students. Beyond failed draconian policies, the system itself is the cause of many of Chicago’s woes.

Poverty is inevitably a problem and tensions within the community itself certainly aggravate the situation, but – to borrow a phrase – there’s nothing wrong with Chicago that can’t be fixed by what’s right with Chicago. Parents and students are making their voices heard, now CPS needs to get out of the way and give the communities served by the school system the greater role they deserve in shaping effective policies. 

Students and parents already have the right answers and only they can reverse the policies, practices, and attitudes that have kept too many of Chicago’s students of color from thriving.