Monday, December 19, 2011

Channeling my inner Republican; what, specifically, should we do to change things?

My last email set a record for responses.  Before I get to them, I think it's only fair, having in my last email channeled my inner minority leader to write some very strong anti-Republican stuff, to turn the tables and channel my inner Republican and present the argument for why the Republican party is NOT "waging war" against the poor and minorities.  It would go something like this:


As a Republican, I don't view the world through a race-based lens, which I think is dangerous and un-American.  Instead, I'm in favor of policies that create freedom, opportunity, growth and wealth for ALL Americans.  It is this, not government handouts, that is most likely to lift your community out of poverty (along with reforming the schools, the need for which I'm glad we both agree on). 


We're already overtaxed so we need to hold the line on taxes (or, ideally, reduce them). In addition, we need to reduce the size of government, which is stifling our economy and job growth, severely impairing our freedoms and, financially speaking, is on a trajectory that will surely bankrupt us.  Italy anyone? 


As for government programs that benefit the poor, elderly, and unlucky, obviously there should be some safety net, but this needs to be balanced with fiscal realities as well as the very real problem of creating long-term dependence.  I recall that Democrats went berserk over welfare reform, yet this ended up benefiting, not hurting, most recipients.  In addition, many government programs are wasteful and corrupt – for example, see this article from the front page of yesterday's NYT:


One final point: when more than 90% of blacks and nearly 70% of Latinos vote Democratic, why would you expect the Republican party to look out for their interests? 


Though I don't agree with most of this argument, I think it's a reasonable point of view.  But that doesn't change the point in my last email: the argument I've outlined above isn't going to change most minorities view that the Republican party is hostile to their interests.


By the way, regarding channeling anyone, a couple of readers thought it was patronizing for me to write about what I thought someone else was thinking.  I totally disagree.  The natural human inclination is to view everything through one's own eyes, but this is a recipe for disaster.  If you want to be successful in ANYTHING that requires interaction with others (business, advocacy, being a good spouse, parent, friend, etc.), it's critical to be able to put your own viewpoint aside and instead try to put yourself in someone else's head and see things based on THEIR thinking, history, life experiences, etc. 

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Not one person disagreed with my assessment that "As a movement, we have so far largely failed to build a broad and diverse base of support, especially among minorities and in minority communities – and this is a HUGE area of weakness."  (A friend in California, however, wrote: "That is really not true here in Los Angeles and that is why it's working.")  There is widespread agreement that this needs to be a top-of-mind issue, but one friend asked a great question: what, specifically, should we do to change things?  Some thoughts:


·         We need to be doing a lot more outreach and listening.

·         We should be encouraging the formation of and funding grassroots parent and community organizations around this issue – things like Gwen Samuel's State of Black CT Alliance (, Parent Revolution (, Harlem Parents United (, etc.  Ditto for new teacher organizations like Educators 4 Excellence (  These organizations need to be genuinely owned and controlled by the people on the front lines.

·         The boards of directors of school reform organizations need to be much more diverse (defined broadly).

·         Charter schools boards should have parent and perhaps community representatives.


Here is Jeanne Allen of The Center for Education Reform on this:


I have to tell you, Whitney. The main reason that poor and minority communities fail to engage in our movement has very little to do with elected Republicans or Democrats and everything to do with us.


As a movement (and I've seen this first hand for more than 20 years) we believe advocacy is when a professional shows up in their friend the majority leader's office and has a good meeting. Too many in well-funded positions believe that advocacy is when the head of an association goes to the Capitol for a meeting.  Too many believe that having a rally with 2,000 children is enough to demonstrate power. Those 2,000 children, their parents, their teachers who may have gone to the Capitol to get engaged rarely get contacted to go to their legislator's home office, get good advice or guidance or even get pulled into the parties, receptions and local community events we go to. What's worse is, nearly the entire reform funding community, no matter what their ideological leanings, fund real, grassroots efforts. Real grassroots efforts are on the ground, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, long-term, sustainable, education efforts to engage and fortify REAL people, to be REAL voices. Neither ConnCan, nor Stand nor any of those who claim to do grassroots do it. They involve grassroots and they have successes, but your assertion -- that we have failed to build a broad and diverse base of support -- is directly rooted in a lack of appreciation for or commitment to engaging in very, very, difficult work that is required. Funders care more about seeing high level tactics employed, or sexy spokespeople over the front pages of the papers. Meanwhile, those papers and high level tactic are completely absent from the homes of the people we most need involved NOT because they don't understand or can't read, but because they are busy staying alive and paying their bills. 


This is a failure of the infrastructure of the reform movement. It is not a failure of our political leaders, Rs or Ds.  Rich White Republicans or poor Republicans are not to blame for minority voices being central to reform. In fact, look at the marketing for Waiting for Superman, which, despite people like me and Kevin Chavous telling them they had to go to the real grassroots, engaged United Way, Communities in Schools, the Business Roundtable, to do that work (which they can't.) That's not rich or white or republican or democratic failures. It's the failure of people who love and advance an issue through their own, narrow (albeit powerful) lenses and fail to recognize that the marketing and lobbying firms they hire are clueless about what is really necessary to truly make progress.


So the solution is learning first what real advocacy is, and how to truly empower voices of those most disenfranchised. Howard Fuller is distinct among our entire movement for knowing this first hand. Others can and have already begun to take his lead -- BAEO at the top of the list. But we need more, and those of us who get it, and know how to do it, are a vocal, but a big minority in the reform movement, who lack the resources and the recognition of those who have the resources as to what where they really should be putting their money.


Thanks for letting me share.


I'd welcome further ideas and examples/case studies, which I'm happy to share.

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Sample of Feedback

Turning to the feedback, here's a sampling:


Thank you for addressing this topic. This is a great email – and it helped me to sort through some ideas that have been rattling around in my head for quite some time.




Boy, that one felt good.  Working for [an ed reform advocacy organization], I get beat up by Dems and R's, so this email felt like I attended a social support group.  Thanks Whitney.




I really applaud the sentiment of this email. I think you are right to bring these issues to the fore in an honest way.




Thanks to this email, I finally understand the push back, which felt so irrational to me. It now makes sense. However, as a Republican, it was painful to read your channeling of a black community leader. As you admit, this is a mischaracterization of Republican views/intent, and it saddens me to no end why both sides continue to create false dichotomies, including impoverished minorities.




Thanks for the very thoughtful email.  I think you channeled the skepticism that many Black and Latino - and other people who think of themselves as progressive - leaders have when confronted with someone who allies themselves with "education reform."   I am fairly regularly challenged on these grounds in the civil rights circles in which I travel.


You suggest that you don't agree with the skepticism - but it is pretty persuasive.  I will be wildly curious to hear how people who care about education but are Republicans answer.




I really appreciate your comments, as a person of color, and one who has run organizations really funded by the rich White republicans, it has been extremely difficult to straddle the line between the community and the funders.  And in my opinion, there is also sometimes a distorted and condescending view of the needs of urban students, where folks feel like they are experts because they watched season 3 of "The Wire".  And this often plays out where there is a preference for schools that will (in my words) "civilize" the students -- they don't need arts and music or critical thinking -- they need to learn rules and to respond to behavioral cues, and order for these students is a prime goal-- where if you go to the suburbs -- to good schools -- that is not the case.  


I realize foundational skills need to be taught, but in general the more I deal with the rich folks -- the less I want to (and I would assume that I am somewhat representative) so to get to real reform, there needs to be a bridge to this gap.  I don't have the answer, beyond more esoteric ideas of real empathy for the students.  But as long as we are in this place, there really is only so far that reform can go.  Appreciate the note and I hope others will not react defensively but think hard about the words and solutions.


I loved this reply from Steve Brill:


This actually reflects one of the conversations I actually had with Bill Perkins when reporting for the book. It's almost like you were there.




A few months ago I had lunch with two [state university] professors interested in education, one of whom I know well and respect highly.  They both believe that education reform is really a sneaky attempt by the wealthy to undermine public education in order to maintain the class divide.


Yes, I'm serious.


I was utterly astonished to hear this.  Of course it makes no more sense than the right wing theory that Obama is trying to intentionally destroy the economy in order to usher in a socialist revolution, but apparently these two professors...and presumably legions more...have at least one thing in common with the Tea Party faithful: rock solid conviction.


As you note in your email, overcoming this misperception might be our biggest obstacle.  (Well, that and countering the clever union propaganda that anti-unionism is synonymous with blaming the teachers.)




You are 100% on the mark-- this time :-)  Our experience, from dealing with parents in [an urban district in New Jersey]:

- not only are they not aligned with the school choice movement

- but their experience of charter schools is that mostly they fail-- which is true in [my district]

- and they either don't understand vouchers (OSA) or they misunderstand them as a "Christie conspiracy," ultimately benefiting the "haves".


However, their spirit is amazing: a core constituency fiercely continues the decades-long fight to reform their catastrophically failing school system.  The only hope is their years of frustration with a school system


And from a friend "who has been both a Democrat and a Republican and is currently enamored of neither!":


I'm surprised you didn't also note that "rich white Republicans" are commonly elected by voters who don't want many (or any) of "those kids" coming into their own "good" schools, creating choice policies and programs "for thee but not for me."


I also have to point out that combating poverty is not the only justification for school choice, any more than "saving the bluefin tuna" is the only justification for responsible stewardship of the planet's oceans.


And this from Bruno Behrend of the Heartland Institute:


As a (not as) rich (as you) white guy who grew up in the suburbs (Lake Forest, IL), I can sympathize with the gist of this post. But that is all we should do - sympathize.

The fact is that the local machinery protecting the bureaucracy-based jobs of urban school district is a powerful barrier to the advancement of their own disadvantaged community. In a microcosm, they are the 1% who got into the protected school apparatus, and their drive to keep their jobs are keeping the 99% poor, broke, and ignorant.

I wish this were not so, but that is how it is working out.

Take a $100,000 bureaucrat salary and ask how many kids could fill slots in new charters or Catholic schools with empty seats? Ipads/Tablets?

The 6.3 million people in public ed (nationally) are made up of 3.2 million teachers and 3.1 million "admin and support." By aggressively triggering failing urban schools to charters or other individualized options, we could drop that massive over-investment in make work jobs, and dramatically improve the lives of millions of disadvantaged urban kids.

Again, I sympathize, but if confronted with the urban skeptic on this "jobs" issue, I'd point out that they are clinging to a failed model that is going away anyway, and they should embrace the transformation that helps the many, not the few.

PS - IMO, Suburban Whites are the REAL power base supporting the status quo, and the progress made over the last few years has come from THEIR questioning of this failed system.

While we should never take our eye off the achievement gap, I think it is the suburban soccer mom who holds the key to reform. When they turn on this system, it will fall. Sadly, not all of their motives are pure. District lines keep out the "riff-raff," and they are quite happy believing their schools are good. They are very susceptible to the lie that charters and choices will hurt their kids.

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As a movement, we have so far largely failed to build a broad and diverse base of support, especially among minorities and in minority communities – and this is a HUGE area of weakness

I'm dedicating this entire email to one of the biggest obstacles that we reformers face: while the issue we're focused on disproportionately impacts poor and minority children, we're mostly a movement a rich white people in general (myself included), and rich white Republicans in particular.  This must change if we are to achieve meaningful, enduring success.  The messenger is often as important as the message.


I haven't written much about this in a while, but have been noodling about it after I wrote in item 12 of my last email about the jobs, poverty, and racial issues that affect school reform – issues "that reformers need to be very aware of and sensitive to.  It helps explain a lot of otherwise inexplicable actions – and it's one of the reasons we created Democrats for Education Reform." 


Regarding the issue of school systems being a major source of good jobs – and school reform being perceived (with good reason) as a threat to this – here is what I wrote in my last email:


When Republicans talk about reforming school systems and giving parents choice, many black leaders are thinking: "I know our schools are terrible (that's why I send my kids to better schools), but it's not certain that your proposed solutions are going to be any better – and it's almost 100% certain that your proposed solutions will cost my community good jobs.  How can I support that, especially in these brutal economic times???"


One of my friends agreed, writing:


This is so true, and something I have encountered on the ground in several states. It cannot be underestimated, and it is a reasonable and understandable objection that has to be overcome. For many years the public school system was one of the few ladders of economic opportunity for African Americans, when most others were closed. When reformers denigrate "the system" or "the bureaucracy", they have to understand how this may sound.  I learned it the first week I was in this fight in the 90's—a minister took me aside and said, "look, I know you're right on choice, but you have to understand—I can't support his publicly because all my Deacons and their wives are employed by the school system!"


But it's more than just jobs.  It's also about poverty and its pernicious consequences, and how we have to be very aware of and sensitive to this.  Here's the incomparable Howard Fuller's response to my email:


You are exactly on target with the issue of poverty. We cannot have people vote against all of the things poor families need – jobs, housing for low and moderate income families, health care, food programs, etc. – but then say, "But I support vouchers or charter schools." To help the students who need the help the most we need both things: parent choice and programs aimed at getting people out of poverty.


I had this discussion recently on a panel with a person who shares a lot of our views about ed reform but seemed to be making a case that to recognize the limitations of school would be somehow in opposition to the "no excuses" mantle that we should all have.  There is a difference between recognizing the impact of race and class in America vs. using that impact as an excuse not to educate kids. We are not going to be taken seriously if we somehow get contorted into a position of arguing the being homeless and sleeping in a car doesn't impact your readiness and/or your capacity to learn.


We cannot do what the protectors of the status quo do: begin with talking about poverty and end with talking about poverty. NO! We must begin with our unequivocal stance that poor children can accomplish great things in spite of the cards they have been dealt. But, to act as if we do not understand the difficulties of overcoming the odds of not having the level of resources that are needed to be productive participants in our society makes no sense. We must fight a two-pronged battle, but we can never cede the point some try to make: that we must eliminate poverty before we can have good schools. But nor can we be oblivious to the negative impact on our kids when they lack the minimal resources needed to prepare them to come to school.


But it's more than just jobs and poverty too: there are ENORMOUS issues of race, class and political orientation that are big problems for reformers.  I'm treading on a very touchy subject here, but I feel the need to address it – at the cost of both airing some of our dirty laundry and also perhaps further antagonizing my Republican friends – because it's so important.  My main message is that every one of us needs to be very aware of how we (as individuals, the organizations we represent, and our movement) are perceived, so that we can take steps to address this problem.


Allow me to give you an example of what I'm talking about.  When a rich white Republican shows up in the office of a black or Latino political or community leader, here's what I think that leader, in most cases, is probably thinking (note that this isn't me speaking – it's what I perceive others to be thinking – and, yes, I'm being deliberately provocative to make a point):


I'm getting really tired of rich white Republicans telling me what to do about the broken schools in my community.  Even if I put aside the jobs issue, and even if I believed that you were genuine in caring about the admittedly lousy schools in my community, I don't like or trust you one bit because on every other issue, you are waging war against me and my people.  If you really gave a tinker's damn about my community, you'd see that the issues go far beyond the schools: job training, unemployment benefits, healthcare, social services, immigration, voting rights, etc.  On EVERY one of these issues, everything you stand for is contrary to the interests of me and my people.  Let me give you some examples:


·         We finally got one of our own elected President and from the first day he took office, the Republican party's highest priority has been to tear him down and reduce the chances of his reelection, often via racially tinged attacks, regardless of the consequences for the country.

·         The current leader for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich, has recently said outrageously insensitive, ignorant and borderline racist things about poor people.  Is his best idea for teaching poor children the value of work to force them to "clean the bathrooms" and "mop the floors" in their schools, and does he really think that the most likely other life alternative for them is to become "a pimp, prostitute or drug dealer"???  [I am NOT making this up: see this excerpt from last night's Daily]

·         Republicans want to slash a wide range of social programs that help the poor, unemployed and unlucky.  This terrible economy has hurt almost everyone, but disproportionately the people in my community.  We're hanging on by a thread here – and Republicans are hacking away at that thread with gusto.  I cannot think of a SINGLE government program that is helping my people stay afloat that the Republican party doesn't want to slash or eliminate entirely.

·         Regarding taxes, Republicans are fighting to the death – to the point of being willing to have the U.S. default on its debts – to prevent the taxes of millionaires (and billionaires!) from going up by even a penny.  Yet at the same time – this is the very definition of chutzpah! – they are also calling for even the poorest Americans to have to pay Federal income taxes (in addition to payroll, sales, and other taxes the poor already pay).  And you accuse MY President of engaging in class warfare?!

·         People in my community suffer from terrible health problems, due in part to lack of health insurance.  Obamacare will help alleviate this, yet the Republican party is determined to repeal this.

·         This year alone, Republican legislatures and governors in more than a dozen states have enacted new voting restrictions that are a blatant and despicable attempt to disenfranchise minority and low-income citizens [See this story in today's]

·         Republicans seem to be trying to outdo each other in whipping up anti-immigrant, xenophobic hysteria (see Arizona and Alabama for the most blatant examples).  The Latinos in my community, even the law-abiding, legal ones, feel like they're under attack and are afraid.


I could go on (and on and on), but you get the picture…


So even though I might agree with you on the urgent need to reform schools, as long as you're my mortal enemy on so many other issues, pursuing an agenda that would roll back the gains my people have made over the past few decades, I'm going to find it awfully difficult to join forces with you on school reform…


I'm sure that many of my readers are right now going berserk and drafting heated emails to me about to why the beliefs that I've outlined above are mistaken and misguided.  Save yourself the time.  These are not my views (not to this extreme, anyway), but rather my perception of the views of many (in fact, I'd guess most) leaders in minority communities across the country.  It's a major explanation for why people like Bill Perkins and Hazel Dukes are fighting us, even when they must know, deep down, that most children in their communities are being horribly mis-educated.


My point here isn't to attack Republicans or rich white people of good will.  We need all hands on deck and there are many important constituencies that we need to influence – like Republican politicians! – for whom rich white Republicans are the perfect ambassadors.  But as a movement, we have so far largely failed to build a broad and diverse base of support, especially among minorities and in minority communities – and this is a HUGE area of weakness.  Can you imagine if the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been rich white folks flying down to Alabama and protesting the discrimination against blacks by sitting with them in the back of the busses?!  Successful social movements, like the civil rights movement, are bottoms up, not top down, and are "owned" by the people most affected.  Many in our movement have figured this out and are taking important steps to, for example, engage poor/minority parents, bypassing conflicted and sometimes corrupt community "leaders", but much more needs to be done. 


One final point: the toxic political environment and the near impossibility for Republicans and Republican-backed organizations to get any traction with Democrats for all of the reasons noted above is why a handful of us created  Democrats for Education Reform.  We got a lot of flak for putting "Democrats" in the name because it sounds exclusionary – don't we want Republicans to support school reform as well? – but it's necessary because only Democrats have a good chance of persuading other Democrats to move on this issue. 


I think that what's happened in the last few years shows that our thinking on this has proven to be exactly right.  It's astonishing – and wonderful! – to see how much the Democratic party has moved on this issue (though we still have a looooong way to go)…

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Structure vs. execution

STOP THE PRESSES!!!  This commentary from a friend (who, trust me, is deeply, relevantly experienced and well informed) highlights an absolutely crucial issue – the subject of a major, ongoing debate in the reform community – about the best way to improve big, broken, entrenched bureaucratic school systems.  Is it possible to make meaningful progress by doing things better (a better teacher and principal contract, better recruiting, training and management of educators, a better system for removing people who suck, a better evaluation, compensation, testing and accountability system, etc.), or is this just fiddling with the deck chairs on the Titantic and is the real solution to adopt structural reforms that slowly and steadily (or in some cases like New Orleans, rapidly) take market share away from The Blob and replace it with something with a VERY different structure?  My friend is clearly in the latter camp, though wasn't always: "I didn't always feel this way, but I've been radicalized by watching the success - which I did not predict - in NOLA and in Harlem, and the abject failure of everything else.":


Here's why I keep bringing this up:  I hear a lot of good, smart people say things like, "I love charters, but _____________." (choose one: not all charters are good, charters are only serving 3% of the kids,  it's not politically palatable to go all-charter).  And then they use that excuse to double down their efforts on fixing the district – an impossible task – and throw tons of resources at those efforts.  The people who say these things sometimes also are very pro-charter in their actions, and sometimes they very much are not fans of charters.  Either way, the result of this mentality is that scarce resources are wasted in pursuit of not the black swan that will prove that not all swans are white, but the black unicorn, which doesn't exist.


We all know that charter schools are not, by themselves, the solution.  But going all-charter is absolutely the quickest – and in some cases the only – way to create the conditions necessary for reform in all schools.  Those conditions:

- No teacher contract

- No civil service constraints

- Can close schools for underperformance relatively easily

- Not dependent on what always ends up being ephemeral political support (i.e., no school board)

- Can replicate successful schools relatively easily by allowing good operators to operate many schools


So instead of doing the hard work of creating an all-charter sector that AT LEAST has all these factors as their baseline, I fear that we'll spend all our time and money trying to create watered-down versions of these conditions in the district – we'll spend our lives trying to get tenure from 3 years to 5, trying to get mutual consent, trying to get 51% of the school board to be pro-reform, and trying to elect (and then keep in office) reform-minded mayors (look at what happened to Fenty and the possible disastrous mayor that could follow Bloomberg).   And we might actually be successful in doing a few of these things.  But we could have had them all if we'd given up our excuses.  (And, by the way, even if we get them all and turn around a few schools, that progress is extremely fragile as it still depends on the union-elected school boards to maintain it.)


I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but I think the choir – all of us – needs to starting singing much more loudly and consistently from the charter hymnal and stop letting reformers maintain that classification if they waste resources chasing black unicorns.  Most of us are too damn sheepish about saying what is absolutely undeniable:  The quickest and most efficient route to having all the necessary conditions for success across the board is to make every school a charter school.   (Please note that I didn't always feel this way, but I've been radicalized by watching the success - which I did not predict - in NOLA and in Harlem, and the abject failure of everything else.)


Let me be clear: there is no easy, obvious answer here, nor is it clear that one must choose one approach or the other – maybe both is the right answer.  But there are tradeoffs, about where to allocate scarce money, political power, and negotiating leverage.  For example, let's say a new reform-minded mayor and/or super have the political power to do one – but only one – of the following: A) A great new teacher contract that allows for the adoption of a strong, fair evaluation system, rewards for good teachers, reasonable ease to get rid of bad ones, an extended school day, and removes seniority bumping rights; OR B) Remove the cap on charter schools, get decent funding, make facilities available, plus a tax credit program that gives students trapped in chronically failing schools "exit visas from hell."  Which would you choose???

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Why School Choice Fails

A truly dopey, misguided, ill-informed column that's nothing more than a biased rant – the very definition of "the Tyranny of the Anecdote" – that for some bizarre reason the NYT thought was worthy of putting on its op ed page:

My neighborhood's last free-standing middle school was closed in 2008, part of a round of closures by then Mayor Adrian Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. The pride and gusto with which they dismantled those institutions was shameful, but I don't blame them. The closures were the inevitable outcome of policies hatched years before.

In 1995 the Republican-led Congress, ignoring the objections of local leadership, put in motion one of the country's strongest reform policies for Washington: if a school was deemed failing, students could transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school.

The idea was to introduce competition; good schools would survive; bad ones would disappear. It effectively created a second education system, which now enrolls nearly half the city's public school students. The charters consistently perform worse than the traditional schools, yet they are rarely closed.

Meanwhile, failing neighborhood schools, depleted of students, were shut down. Invariably, schools that served the poorest families got the ax — partly because those were the schools where students struggled the most, and partly because the parents of those students had the least power.

Competition produces winners and losers; I get that. Indeed, the rhetoric of school choice can be seductive to angst-filled middle-class parents like myself. We crunch the data and believe that, with enough elbow grease, we can make the system work for us. Naturally, I've only considered high-performing schools for my children, some of them public, some charter, some parochial, all outside our neighborhood.

But I've come to realize that this brand of school reform is a great deal only if you live in a wealthy neighborhood. You buy a house, and access to a good school comes with it. Whether you choose to enroll there or not, the public investment in neighborhood schools only helps your property values.

For the rest of us, it's a cynical game. There aren't enough slots in the best neighborhood and charter schools. So even for those of us lucky ones with cars and school-data spreadsheets, our options are mediocre at best.

Given that this article is total idiocy, why am I taking so much time/space (below) to rebut it?  Two reasons: A) Like it or not, a lot of people share the views expressed here, however misguided; and 2) It can't be ignored: it was on the NYT op ed page and Ravitch, Weingarten, etc. are doing their best to draw even more attention to it. 


So let's start tearing this apart, starting with the facts (what a novel idea!).  A friend looked up Natalie Hopkinson's address online and learned that she's mistaken (deliberately lying?) in her opening paragraph when she writes, "there's been no neighborhood [middle school] option available."  In fact, there IS a middle school four blocks from her home and there's a KIPP charter school nearby as well.  In total, there are two charters AND two regular public middle schools within a mile of her home.  RiShawn Biddle's column (below) has more on this.


December 4, 2011

Why School Choice Fails


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Why the New York Times Failed

Here's Sara Mead (see below for a chart of the NAEP data she refers to):

What's changed is that, while buying expensive homes within the boundaries of these schools was once one of the only ways D.C. families could access higher-performing schools--putting them out of reach of the vast majority--now families in many other parts of the city have access to quality charter school options, including some of the city's highest poverty and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, such as Achievement Prep and KIPP schools in Ward 8, or the Center City school in Trinidad.

And don't take my word for it: Look at the data. District of Columbia students have made dramatic improvements in NAEP TUDA since 2003. While they still rank near the bottom of urban districts, they're no longer dead last, and if recent trajectories continue, they won't be there for long. Both DCPS and charter schools also made progress this year on the D.C. CAS state assessment.

Hopkinson is also dead wrong when she states that "The charters consistently perform worse than the traditional schools, yet they are rarely closed." Charter schools do not consistently perform worse than DCPS schools. The current portfolio of charter schools includes both some of the city's highest performing schools as well as some very low-performers and a large number of schools roughly on par with DCPS. But charter schools are making real gains in student performance--outstripping DCPS this year--and over the past two years the DC Public Charter School Board, on which I serve, has moved aggressively to close down half a dozen low-performing schools. But the New York Times apparently didn't find it necessary to look at this data before publishing Hopkinson's column.

Contrary to Hopkinson's assertions, all the available evidence suggests that the past decade of reform efforts has improved, not worsened the quality of educational options available to D.C. students.


Why the New York Times Failed

By Sara Mead on December 5, 2011 10:37 AM

If you want evidence of the sorry state of journalism and public discourse around education reform in the United States today, look no further than this op-ed piece by Natalie Hopkinson in Sunday's New York Times.

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Natalie Hopkinson’s Weak Root Against School Choice

And here's RiShawn Biddle, correctly pointing out why Hopkinson's op ed is "spectacularly flawed and shortsighted":

Of course, Hopkinson's piece proved to be the kind of clip that education traditionalists — who do know better — use to argue that expanding school choice is not worth doing. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, in a debate on Twitter between herself, CNN commentator (and Capital Prep Magnet School principal) Dr. Steve Perry, and yours truly, declared that the piece was "heartbreaking", she latter declared that Hopkinson's piece proved "the terrible effects of closing rather then fixing schools".

…Then there is the fact that Hopkinson's argument doesn't square with the reality that D.C. residents can easily access high-quality middle schools (traditional, charter or otherwise) within their own areas. If you live on the Northwest side of town near the Shaw metro (and not so far away from Rock Creek Park), you can avoid sending your child to the zoned district school, Alice Deal Middle (which is in its second year of official status as being in improvement) or the bottom basement Shaw Middle School (where as many as three out of every four kids don't exceed the District's reading and math standards). Instead, you can enroll him in Howard University Middle School, one of the Center City Public Charter School branches — a former Catholic school converted into a charter just a few years ago — a Community Academy charter school, or  even one of KIPP's charter schools. All of those choices are just minutes away from the Shaw metro, and, unlike Alice Deal, don't require a (still easy) 16 minute commute.

This is also true if you live in the District's southeast section, including Anacostia.

…Certainly the options are nowhere as extensive or robust as they should be. D.C. Public Schools is still undergoing systemic reform. The fact that parents have to wait on lotteries instead of simply enrolling their child into a charter school points to the need for the District to do all it can within reason to authorize more high-quality charters and bring in top-notch charter school operators such as Green Dot and Rocketship into communities. It also points to the need to expand the D.C. Opportunity voucher program, which only serves 1,615 of the District's poorest children.

At the same time, the reality is that D.C. families  have greater opportunities to provide their kids with high-quality education than they did when Virginia Walden Ford lived in the district back in the 1990s.

…Contrary to Hopkinson's assertions, the problem lies not with school choice. It is the lack of choice that relegates families to schools that aren't worthy of their children's futures. Thanks to Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling (along with restrictions on expansion of school choice that are supported by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and suburban districts), families throughout this nation are denied opportunities to help their kids succeed in school and in life.

…Contrary to Hopkinson's myopic, flawed piece — and the disingenuous assertions of Weingarten and other education traditionalists — the lack of widely-available school choice is what is truly heartbreaking. When we tell four out of every five children that they must stay in schools that fail their futures, this is not only a tragedy, it is morally and intellectually reprehensible. And it is especially heartbreaking that poor families have wider choices in restaurants than in high-quality schools that can nurture the proverbial soft heads of their young geniuses.

We need more high-quality choices for our kids so they can have brighter futures in an increasingly knowledge-based economy in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. And that's plain and simple.


Natalie Hopkinson's Weak Root Against School Choice

December 6, 2011 2 Comments by RiShawn Biddle

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Choice Causes Anxiety? Puhlease!

Another great response:

Choice Causes Anxiety? Puhlease!

Commentary by coolreformchick, Yesterday, 11:04 AM

I just read a piece in the New York Times by someone who actually writes for a living, and who lives in DC, say that she'd rather have bad neighborhood schools remain open, than have a choice to send her child to a public school that might actually be working. She is angry with people who have run her city and her school system, who had the nerve to "shutter" their failing, poorly enrolled, neighborhood school. And these same leaders even had the audacity to suggest students be provided the options of a new community school to attend (which she didn't like), while at the same time this same journalist says she only considers high quality private or charter schools, but apparently believes the charters perform poorly and rarely close, while the data shows the complete opposite. In fact, DC's charter schools make more and faster gains for all children, retain their students longer, and are boasting higher graduation rates. Those that don't work do close — at a rate of 15% percent, a practice that still rarely happens in traditional public schools, even in this city where she believes officials are school closure crazy.

Why does Natalie Hopkinson want parents consigned to substandard schools, while she herself admittedly enjoys a choice of public OR private education? She has anxiety over making choices, she says. In her own world, white parents have public schools in their neighborhood that work and black parents of whatever means have to exercise choice of schools outside their neighborhoods to find the best fit for their child, as if that's a bad thing. The person who wrote this drivel has most assuredly never stepped foot in the schools outside of her middle class neighborhood to see the notion of having a choice for the first time in their lives must mean for a parent who has been relegated to unconscionably horrendous schools. No, for this DC resident who has choices, the theory and nostalgia of a neighborhood school has been assaulted by parent empowerment. She claims not enough effort, money, or mandates of some sort has left her without a great neighborhood school. Oh, and she lays it at the feet of Republicans who helped spur the idea, without conceding that the Democratically controlled city has not only joined the reform chorus but now leads it in most cities, oh, and in the White House.

No wonder Diane Ravitch tweeted her praise for Hopkinson's editorial today. Indeed in countless tweets and interviews, the author — who says she lives between DC and West Palm Beach — demonstrates no grasp of the real issues here, the real data, nor the hope and promise that choices to students and families, including working and middle-class families who have experienced schools that do not excel, despite the paper that says otherwise, and that are more focused tradition and business-as-usual than personalized, student-centered learning.

That's why families choose, but rather than appreciate what others need, she simply wants a neighborhood school that is open and works. Wish that we all had one, Natalie. In the meantime, most rational people want education to mean something more than a theory for their children. But then, you'd know that if you'd actually talked to a few.

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Is School Choice Failing DC?

Finally, let's look at some facts – like the massive improvement in NAEP scores, far outpacing nearly all other cities (albeit from an extremely low base):

Is School Choice Failing DC?

By Matthew Yglesias

 | Posted Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, at 2:12 PM ET

I'm pretty frustrated by Natalie Hopkinson's failure to include any data of any kind in her New York Times op-ed "Why School Choice Fails" which is actually specifically looking at the District of Columbia. It's a little bit difficult to know exactly how we would want to go about assessing whether the availability of charter schools is or is not helping, but a good starting point might be this chart of DC NAEP scores that I've assembled. The trends are positive, especially for younger kids. So the question we should be asking is what's been driving improvements in DC public schools.

Meanwhile, I hope fans of education controversies all across the nation will eagerly await the release of the latest tranche of Trial Urban District Assessment data later this week.

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District unveils first ranking of public charter schools

Speaking of charter schools in DC, coincidentally there's a new report out that evaluates the academic performance of every charter school in the district in what appears to be a comprehensive and robust way.  Some will surely say that the 34 Tier II schools and 15 Tier III (lowest ranked) schools show that charter schools aren't all great and certainly aren't a panacea – and they'd be right!  Nevertheless, we reformers should be celebrating and embracing reports like this (see Chicago, below) for a variety of reasons: A) Most importantly, parents need and deserve this information to make better informed choices for their kids; B) The schools themselves need this information so they know how they're doing and can take steps to improve; C) Charter authorizers/evaluators need this information so they know which schools should be put on probation and, if they fail to improve, shut down.  Proper evaluation is SO important, yet it's done poorly or not at all, so we reformers should be demanding similar reports for ALL charter schools – and, this is key – ALL public schools.  The reasons I note above in A, B and C apply equally to regular public schools, so why aren't ALL public schools evaluated and held accountable similarly???  I'm delighted that this appears to be on track to happen in DC (per the article below: "D.C. Public Schools and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education are expected to release their own school ratings…"), but this is most assuredly not the norm for the vast majority of public schools.

The District unveiled its first rankings of public charter schools Tuesday, part of a new rating system that offers parents a broader assessment of school progress than annual standardized test results.

The new performance evaluation shows how test scores of students have grown over the last year, relative to their academic peers across the city. Schools also are assessed against a series of leading indicators and "gateway" measurements that researchers regard as predictors of future educational success. They include third-grade DC CAS reading scores, eighth-grade math scores and 11th-grade PSAT results.

The new system raises the bar of accountability for the 53 publicly financed, independently operated schools that educate more than 30,000 D.C. students across 98 campuses. While some of the information in the assessments is already available in annual performance reports, the new system creates a more detailed and easily accessible snapshot for parents and families.

"The idea here is that we really do want to shine a light on what's going on in our charter schools," said Brian Jones, president of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the body empowered to authorize the opening and closing of charter schools. Joined by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Jones unveiled the new rankings at a news conference at one of the top-rated schools, Achievement Prep in Southeast Washington.

The new ranking system, developed by the board over the past three years with the help of outside consultants, also represents the leading edge of a new generation of more-detailed school report cards that will soon be available to parents across the region.

D.C. Public Schools and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education are expected to release their own school ratings emphasizing academic growth over time rather than annual test scores. Virginia and Maryland are also committed to making similar changes in reporting school data.

The 71 charter campuses are listed in three tiers of overall quality, based on a 100-point scale. The rankings unveiled Tuesday, which cover the 2010-11 school year, delivered few surprises. Among the 22 charter campuses in Tier I were schools with established records of high student achievement. They include D.C. Preparatory's Edgewood middle school campus; the three KIPP middle schools (AIM, KEY and WILL) and its College Preparatory high school; Thurgood Marshall Academy and Washington Latin high schools; Two Rivers, a PS-8 school; and Howard University Middle School.

The 15 Tier III schools, considered the weakest performers, include the middle and high school campuses of Maya Angelou; Center City's Congress Heights campus, a PS-8 school; and Options, serving grades six through 12.

The remaining 34 campuses were ranked in Tier II.

Schools that win top-ranking are exempt from further in-depth monitoring by charter board staff. Officials said Tier III schools will get additional scrutiny, including consideration for possible closure by the board.

Other so-called "non-standard" schools — those offering early childhood programs, or serving adult or exclusively disabled populations, were not ranked. Officials said the charter board will be developing an alternate system to appraise their performance.

To repeat: nobody claims that all charter schools are great – and they should be held to the same standard as ALL public schools: if they're not delivering for students, there should be REAL consequences for the adults/sponsors, including reconstitution or closure.  To the extent that there's greater scrutiny and accountability for charter schools, we should celebrate this – and be asking why this isn't the case for ALL schools...


District unveils first ranking of public charter schools

(Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - Michael Woods teaches pre-kindergarten children during a class at LEAP Academy Early Childhood School (PreK3 Ð Kindergarten) at KIPP DC, a public charter school in Washington.

By Bill Turque, Published: December 6 

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Report finds charters struggling like other CPS schools

There's a similar (and wonderful) dynamic occurring in Chicago:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other city leaders have long heralded charter schools' innovative approach to education, but new research suggests many charters in Chicago are performing no better than traditional neighborhood schools and some are actually doing much worse.

More than two dozen schools in some of the city's most prominent and largest charter networks, including the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago International Charter Schools, University of Chicago and LEARN, scored well short of district averages on key standardized tests.

…Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, acknowledged that maybe a dozen underperforming charter schools are in need of "substantial actions" that may include closing. But simply looking at how many students have met state benchmarks is not a fair assessment, he said; a more important indicator is student growth over time.

…The report cards are somewhat limiting, only looking at a school's performance in 2010-11. But the trends show that despite their celebrated autonomy, discipline and longer school days, charter schools are struggling to overcome the poverty that so often hampers underperforming neighborhood schools.

…But even charters' staunchest supporters admit that success has not been widespread across all schools. New Schools for Chicago, which invested in dozens of charters after then-Mayor Richard Daley launched a massive charter expansion program in 2010, has compiled a watch list for poor-performing charters that they've turned over to CPS.

"In general for charters that have been around for more than five years and not performing, we're supporting their closure or restructuring of these schools," said New Schools Chief Executive Phyllis Lockett. "At the end of the day, we need the bar set on what achievement needs to look like."


Report finds charters struggling like other CPS schools

Poverty dogs students despite schools' flexibility, autonomy

Teacher Stephanie Licker works on arithmetic problems with fifth-graders… (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)

November 30, 2011|By Joel Hood and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporters 

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Charter schools under the microscope

Here's a spot-on editorial from the Chicago Tribune:


We're huge fans of charter schools. We want to see more of the best charter school operators come to Chicago.

But the schools and the operators have to prove their worth. They don't get a pass because they have the golden name "charter." If some don't raise the educational achievement of Chicago's children, they should be reconstituted or closed. Make room for new schools, new operators, new ideas.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said Wednesday that CPS will force major changes at two underperforming charter schools, changes that ultimately could lead to closing them. A third, Chicago International Charter Schools' Basil elementary campus, will go into turnaround. That's a last-ditch option, short of closing, in which CPS replaces school leadership and staff and revamps curriculum.

That suggests CPS leaders understand that charters must be held to the highest performance standards.

Now, Andrew Broy, head of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, warns about the limitations of the state charter data.

He argues that charters should be judged not on a single standardized test score, but on the trajectory of student growth over time. Broy says that 17 of 26 Chicago charter high schools showed better growth in student achievement this year than the average traditional high school.

That's great news for students and parents in those 17 schools.

And it says that students and parents in the other nine schools ought to be asking a lot of questions.


Charter schools under the microscope

As with traditional public schools, those that don't raise achievement should be reconstituted or closed.


December 2, 2011,0,812997.story

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How to Rescue Education Reform

This NYT op ed is noteworthy by its authors, Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond, who come from two different sides of the ed reform debate:

We sorely need a smarter, more coherent vision of the federal role in K-12 education. Yet both parties find themselves hemmed in. Republicans are stuck debating whether, rather than how, the federal government ought to be involved in education, while Democrats are squeezed between superintendents, school boards and teachers' unions that want money with no strings, and activists with little patience for concerns about federal overreach.

When it comes to education policy, the two of us represent different schools of thought. One of us, Linda Darling-Hammond, is an education school professor who advised the Obama administration's transition team; the other, Rick Hess, has been a critic of school districts and schools of education. We disagree on much, including big issues like merit pay for teachers and the best strategies for school choice.

We agree, though, on what the federal government can do well. It should not micromanage schools, but should focus on the four functions it alone can perform.

I really wanted to like this article, but other than their first (of four) points (which I agree with), I wasn't even sure what they were saying.  Andy Rotherham captures the confusion and contradictions:

Strongest Evidence Yet That The Obama Administration Is On The Right Track On Education?

Look ma! I'm reasonable!  In The Times today Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond lay out an odd-couple agenda for federal education policy.

Some of it is stuff that the federal government is already doing now, for instance they call for more research and development but don't mention various administration initiatives (eg i3, ARPA-ED, etc…).   And some of it is cheap shots.  They write that, "The Obama administration's $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate."  Really?  Of all the critiques you can level at RTT that's a pretty weak one.

But their two main points bear some discussion.  They write that:

"Instead of the vague mandate of "adequate yearly progress," federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising — on reliably describing achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement."

I'm all for transparency but "vague mandate?" I thought the problem with "adequate yearly progress" was that it is too prescriptive.  Where did I read that? Oh right, it was in this 2009 article by Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli. Darling-Hammond also says – at least recently said – it's too prescriptive.

They extend the thought in their second point writing:

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected. No Child Left Behind required states to "disaggregate" assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations — like black and Hispanic students and children from poor families — were doing. Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department's mandate since its creation in 1979. But efforts to reduce inequities have too often led to onerous and counterproductive micromanagement.

Wait, wait, wait. I thought the thing to do was to "drop the racial subgroups and wishful-thinking accountability. If such changes offend civil rights advocates, who may clamor to keep race-conscious labels or want nclb to stick to goals more aspirational than actual, so be it. Their offence can only lead to a debate that conservatives should welcome."  Gosh, where did I read that? Wait, it was that exact same Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli article.

Rhetoric of the day inconsistencies aside, I think Rick and Linda are right that some accountability efforts have led to micromanagement but absent those federal prods there is no evidence that states systematically address these issues.  It's an evolving balancing act. So from where I sit in addition to civil rights enforcement a good civil rights policy is ensuring a floor for performance and expectations not merely rooting through the data looking for pervasive violations (which are awfully hard to make stick anyway).

Bigger picture: The right-left confluence on education reform marches on. That's too bad.


Op-Ed Contributors

How to Rescue Education Reform

Gracía Lam

Published: December 5, 2011

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Where Schools Fall Short

A NYT editorial that correctly captures that it's not just enough to increase the number of students getting their high school degree (though that's an important first step) – they really need to be college ready, and today nowhere near enough are:


NYT editorial, December 4, 2011

Where Schools Fall Short

Millions of students attend abysmally weak school systems that leave them unprepared for college, even as more jobs require some higher education. The states have an obligation to help these students retool.

More than 35 percent of students need remediation when they reach college, according to the federal government. A study by the organization that administers the ACT, the college entrance exam, finds that only a quarter of the 1.6 million 2011 high school graduates who took the exam met college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math and science.

Some students need one or two remedial courses before they can enroll in credit-bearing college classes. Others need so much remedial work that they will exhaust state and federal student aid without ever getting a degree. This is especially troubling because many of these students have passed state exams that are supposed to certify them as ready for college.

The City University of New York system began addressing this problem in 1999, when it required applicants to its four-year colleges to show higher scores on the state Regents math and reading exams than those required for graduation. Despite rising test scores and graduation rates in New York City schools as a whole, city officials say that only about 34 percent of public school graduates met the CUNY standard in 2010, only slightly higher than five years earlier. To raise that number, the state and city will need to strengthen the curriculum, build a more robust teacher training program and add programs so that more students can reach the college-readiness goal.

State lawmakers also need to put more money into the successful early-intervention programs that CUNY has developed. Its College Now program, for example, offers pre-college and college level instruction to 20,000 city high school students, who generally perform better than their peers once they enroll.

New York is not alone in having to deal with the problem of mass remediation. Many states are adopting rigorous new academic standards for high schools, but those improvements could take years to put into place. In the meantime, states need to provide the resources to help the unprepared succeed after high school.

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