Monday, August 15, 2011

Battling Re-Segregation (and the Koch Brothers) in North Carolina

An excellent piece by Trymaine Lee posted today in the Huffington Post chronicles recent moves by the Wake County, North Carolina school board to end a long-standing, successful integration program. The story reveals just how far ultra-conservative groups (i.e. Americans for Prosperity) are willing to go to turn back the clock on all forms of social progress in the United States.

Behind the Curtain
As Lee reports, Americans for Prosperity – funded by the multibillionaire Koch brothers who brought us the Tea Party movement – fueled a campaign to pack the Raleigh-area school board with right-wing activists. As their first order of business, the board members pushed through a proposal to establish a "neighborhood schools" program in the district, effectively re-segregating Wake County.

Standing Up to Racism
While parents, community members, Department of Education, and the NAACP admirably fought back and postponed the implementation of the plan, it could still be put into effect in the coming school year. However, what's clear is that the "neighborhood schools" plan is nothing but a thinly-veiled attempt at returning to a schooling system that embraces de facto segregation.

It's also painfully obvious that this ultra-conservative movement backed by big money isn't afraid to openly pursue a racist policy agenda.

It's just up to us to have the courage to call them out.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Bad Idea Blooms

The New Republic reports today that the Department of Education's new NCLB compliance waivers program may very well be illegal. It's unclear whether the Secretary of Education has the authority to bypass Congress completely and his own set of new requirements for states to adhere to if they still want to receive federal dollars.

Something just feels wrong about this approach. It seems like it's destined to raise at least a few eyebrows among Congressional Republicans and might end up stymieing the Obama Administration during an election year. Strategically, it's a big risk. On one hand, something must be done to nix the ridiculous 2014 proficiency deadline. On the other, forcing states to implement largely untested reforms in exchange for coveted waivers might tempt a protracted court battle at a very bad time in the political cycle.

Is it legal? We don't know. Is it going to be fair to students and teachers? Probably not. Were these reform policies forged democratically and informed by the low-income communities of color they most directly affect? Not by a long shot.

There. It's got all the makings of a bad idea.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Waive to the Top (Yes, That's the Best DC Can Do.)

So here we are in August 2011. It's been half a year since the Republican-led Education & Workforce Committee took their seats on Capitol Hill, nineteen months since the Obama Administration's A Blueprint for Reform hit the presses, and nine years and seven months since the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was last reauthorized by Congress.

Nine years and seven months and counting. That means we're about to enter the fifth school year that an ESEA reauthorization has been woefully overdue. Yet, as we've stumbled past watermarks and sign posts with No Child Left Behind's bad policies still hanging over us, Washington lawmakers – Democratic and Republican alike – have made no serious attempts to redesign and reauthorize this critical legislation.

Waiving Away Failed Policies
However, with the Department of Education moving to issue compliance waivers, we have at least an attempt to address the nightmarish effects of NCLB. Just how serious or effective this action will be remains to be seen.

Monty Neill of Fair Test argues in today's Washington Post that these waivers could compel states to exchange one basket of failed policies for another, with the same punitive approach that has proved disastrous over the past nine years. Fair Test's Neill suspects that the Obama Administration will use the NCLB waivers as an incentives for getting states to implement Race to the Top (RttT) style reforms.

Here We Go Again...
As we've seen it played out in two nationwide installments, the RttT approach uses students' standardized test scores to make critical staffing decisions. In other words, rather than directly punishing students for their poor performance on bogus tests, the Administration's best idea was to simply redirect the punishment toward teachers and school communities. It's spelled out pretty clearly in the four turnaround models featured in A Blueprint for Reform.

School closures and comprehensive staff shake-ups are disruptive. They are expensive, sloppy, and (worst of all) they hurt students. If Monty Neill is right – and there's no reason to think that anything innovative and truly community-powered will come out of the Department of Education – this NCLB waiver program will prove just as half-baked as policies it's attempting to fix.

Boycott the Tests?
Neill suggest that we can solve this problem by embracing other forms of school and teacher accountability while simultaneously boycotting test-and-punish regimes across the country. Launching such a national movement seems daunting, but it could be the only reasonable course of action given Washington's unresponsiveness and the increasing severity of the problem. If there's enough energy and coordination, this simple strategy could work in the Administration sticks to the test-and-punish approach in transitioning away from NCLB.

So, let Arne Duncan issue his waivers. Let him dismantle NCLB, but also keep him from putting the same punitive policies in its place.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Degrees We Earn and The People We Value

Today Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce released their report, The College Payoff: Education, Occupations and Lifetime Earnings. For a nice overview, check-out Education Week's Guest Blogger Nora Fleming's post, More Education Leads to Higher Pay, But Not For All. Here are a few sobering highlights for those of us interested in equity and students of color.
*College degrees are increasing in value relative to high school diplomas. A college degree will earn you 84% higher earnings over  your lifetime than a high school diploma. That's up from 75% in 1999. -- When drop-out rates can exceed 50% in schools with majority students of color, we can quickly see the chilling reality behind these numbers.
*A degree can earn significantly less for African Americans and Latinos than for whites. For example, the lifetime earnings of African Americans with Masters degrees doesn't exceed the lifetime earnings of whites with Bachelor's degrees.
*Occupation matters. Depending on your professional choice an associates degree can earn more than a bachelor's degree, this is true on average 28% of the time.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

ESEA Update: Why Reauthorize When You Can Just Waive It Away?

As we mentioned last week, it looks increasingly likely that the Department of Education will soon be issuing waivers to states for selected No Child Left Behind (NCLB) provisions. Such waivers would exempt states and districts that receive them from having to comply with particular provisions of NCLB – the Bush era incarnation of the 1965 Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – while still receiving federal funding under the law.

Save the Champagne
But before you start celebrating the long-awaited demise of NCLB, consider the good stuff that's in the original ESEA law that states might try to have waived. What one state might see as "regulatory relief," students and teachers might see as programming cuts. For instance, Title I contains numerous provisions requiring schools that receive such aid to spend it on programs that help specific groups of students (typically low-income students of color). A percentage of Title I funds must be spent on parental engagement or after school tutoring, for instance.

We don't know what types of regulatory waivers Secretary Duncan is going to issue in light of Congressional failure to reauthorize, rethink, and rework ESEA. Yet, that point in itself seems pretty illuminating. A single public official – Arne Duncan – is preparing to tell the states that certain parts of federal law can simply be ignored. Wow.

Living With Uncertainty
To be fair, the Administration will likely waive the bad stuff in NCLB; the AYP requirements that states seemincreasingly incapable of meeting. The old test-based regime that results in school closures and disruptive punitive measures is something that should be ignored, but what we really need is a workable reauthorization of ESEA so the Dept. of Education no longer needs to ride a fine legal line. It's not going to happen, but one can dream...

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the first waivers. Several states, including Michigan and Tennessee (of Race to the Top fame), have already applied. Georgia's getting ready to follow suit. Whatever waiver packages Duncan doles out and whatever its terms might be will give us a heads up regarding funding and programming cuts. Then, depending on the fallout, we'll see how Congress reacts as the new school year begins.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Lost Ideological Battle

Who won?...Ultra Conservatives
We can haggle about the cuts. What's going to be cut and when and how many dollars we'll shave from the deficit. But ultimately, in the wake of the debt ceiling, the ideological war about the role of government was won by the far right wing. What should government do when the country’s in economic distress? Cut. Cut. Cut spending…and protect the rich from paying their fair share. Obama has adopted some of this conservative framework, frankly remarking that the latest debt ceiling deal would be “the lowest level of annual domestic spending since Dwight D. Eisenhower”. That Obama seeks a stamp of fiscal austerity at a moment of national crisis is enough to say that conservative economic lunacy rules the day.
            In real terms this will mean a contraction in federal government spending that will likely mean shortfalls and cuts to a public education system with increasing needs. What form those cuts will take is still unclear.

What will this ideology mean for public education?
Fresh from battle, ultra conservatism emerges with a new swagger. They’ve swayed the national economic debate. They even had Rep. Boehner on his heels. We know that emboldened ultra conservatives are bad for pubic education. During the debt ceiling debate, Tea Party members were willing to walk away from Majority Leader Boehner’s plan because it increased Pell Grant assistance. Yes, aid to poor students was a deal breaker! Rep. Denny Rehberg, Republican from Montana, characterized Pell Grants as the “welfare of the 21st Century” “you can go to school, collect your Pell Grants, get food stamps, low-income energy assistance, section 8 housing, and all of a sudden we find ourselves subsidizing people who don’t have to graduate from college”. Thankfully, this is one of the few things the emerged pretty well from debt ceiling negotiations.

With this new climate, the future of federal education policy may no longer be one of benign neglect or misguided policy ideas. At least you can argue that Ted Kennedy sincerely believed NCLB would help public education. With these ultra conservatives at the wheel, it could mean progressives fighting cruel outright attacks on poor children of color and a concerted effort to end the very presence of the federal government in public education. We thought the Obama Blueprint for Reform was bad. Well, they’ll make the Blueprint look like a Christmas present.

At the moment ESEA legislation is at a grinding halt. But really, after what we've witnessed the past few months, forward movement on ESEA may give one pause. What would an Obama debt ceiling style compromise look like in education? It makes me shudder to think of it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hitting the Ceiling: What the Debt Limit Deal Means for Public Education

President Obama and Speaker Boehner hit the links on Jun. 21 to discuss a solution to the debt ceiling crisis. Seven weeks later, we have a deal that may spell big cuts for public education programs. (Source: Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)
While Washington might be rejoicing over the fact that Congress was able to reach a compromise before the global economy imploded, we don't yet have a solid understanding of what the debt ceiling deal might mean for public education programming at the state level (where the vast majority of education funding is allocated and originates).

Today, the Washington Post shed some light on education's prospects in the budget-cutting deal. The details remain sketchy, but it seems pretty likely that federal spending cuts will put states in a position where spending cuts can be easily justified. After all, while Social Security and Medicare funds are immune from budget trimming, education remains vulnerable.

From the perspective of a state, education budget cuts make perfect sense. After all, we've been told that an extraordinary teacher can handle just about anything – from class size increases to pay cuts. With states facing tremendous budget crises of their own, it seems logical to "trim the fat" in educational programs.

So, in the end, this big compromise that ostensibly preserved the economy will inflict more pain on communities that need the educational programs that are susceptible to cuts. These programs, like Head Start and after school tutoring for low-income students, coud likely be cut in the name of efficiency, in the name of a compromise that saved the very rich the burden of a modest tax increase. That said, nothing's certain yet. We'll have to wait and see what and how much each state decides to cut from K-12 budgets.

What can be said of such a deal other than, "Watch out!"? Watch out, a critical education program that you value or even rely upon may be vanishing soon. That's the way compromise works these days – trading uncertainty for... even more uncertainty.

Monday, August 1, 2011

SOS March, Teachers Fight Back!

According to organizers some 5,000 teachers and allies descended on Washington DC, Saturday. Flanked by the White House at one far end and the Washington Monument at the other, attendees demanded that Washington end NCLB! The subtext of the march was clear, stop blaming teachers for failures in education. Was  it a success? Well, teachers were certainly energized. But what longterm effects it will have on our education policy discourse is as yet unknown. A multitude of voices were certainly present, but what message did they communicate and what might they have missed?

  Here is some food for thought: 
A. Who? What? When? Where? and Why?, The teacher's argument about school conditions is compelling but they're missing a key ingredient. A substantive discussion about "why" the most prosperous nation in the world has produced such substandard public education. They are great at explaining the "who". Conservatives, Republicans, Obama. Hence the popular "Hey Hey Ho Ho, Arne Duncan has got to go" chant. They can even explain the "what", "when" and "where" about the problem.  Our urban schools, deteriorating over time, under resourced, over tested. But the missing part in the rally was the "why". Why are things the way the are? Why has nothing been done? Why are all the wrong things done? Why doesn't anyone seem to care that we're basically killing public schools? This missing x factor diminishes the power of all the rest. The "why" may be the ugly anchor we need to awaken the American public. We hesitate with the "why" because it must include a legacy of racism; both institutionalized and individual. Not all children are being thrown away. Our best public schools rank nicely against those around the world. White and upper class children, have and still do fare far better than their student of color counterparts. It's children of color we've quietly decided are expendable. The inconvenient truth and reality is that the nation's shifting demographic has made this racist foundation impractical. 
B. The second missing piece was answering "what needs to be done to truly improve teaching in America's public schools". Merit pay and high stakes testing accountability don't work. But let's concede that there are teachers in the system who need better support and training. What fundamental structures should be put in place to improve teaching? Let's define what a healthy national teaching system might contain. What are other countries doing in the name of great teaching and teaching professionalism? To ignore that the teaching profession isn't in great need of local, state and national assistance to improve the product they offer is to leave your argument vulnerable for others to fill in the blank with bad ideas. 
SOS marchers braved the heat to call attention to their cause. 

An NCLB graveyard. May imagination, creativity, and critical thinking RIP.

Matt Damon addresses SOS marchers. 

The march to the White House