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Tuesday
Apr302013

How Self Interest Groups, Conflicts of Interest Sabotage the Education Reform Debate

Lesson #1:   don't believe everything you read online as valid research on education policy.

There has been a great deal of heated rhetoric around charter schools and high stakes tests.  I have learned that the media will, on most occasions, get in the way of education reform efforts.  Let me give you a few examples of what I'm talking about.

 The National Education Policy Center says its mission is "to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence."  But looking underneath the surface raises a host of questions:

  1. It gets a large amount of its funding from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association - the two most influential teachers unions in the United States.
  2. Its blog section is basically a series of reposts from NEA members who are tasked with riling up their member base by writing consistently about opposition to education reform policies.  Folks such as Diane Ravitch are referenced almost daily.
  3. No editorial review is performed on these blog posts.  For example, one of the authors, Paul Thomas, whom I have criticized regularly on Education Week for his attack dog style and personal, slanderous attacks on people without sufficient evidence for such attacks, recently authored a blog post titled "Burning Bridges." In this post, which I will not provide links to but you can easily find it, he explicitly states that he believes that KIPP is a racist organization.  And the NEPC is totally fine with publishing such content, thereby destroying their organization as a credible "research" organization.
  4. One of the influencers that regularly gets reposted from the NEPC, Bruce Baker, is the quintessential "pay-to-play union hack extraordinaire."  This story details how Mr. Baker does "extensive work" for the NEPC, yet has been caught acknowledging that "he is willing to massage data until it serves up the results that his client wants."

I'm not saying that some ed reformers don't have conflicts of interest that they fail to acknowledge, but the folks who repeatedly criticize the ed reformers have their own credibility and integrity issues.

Even the mainstream media is creating paranoia and fear in the minds of the electorate and use misinformation to sway public opinion issues.   The Atlanta Journal Constitution's education blog, Get Schooled, is clearly trying to sway public opinion on high stakes testing.  I have been on record saying that our testing needs to be overhauled and used more appropriately in assessing school effectiveness and teacher effectiveness.  We teach to the test and tests should be used as an indicator only, not 50% or more of a teacher's evaluation plan.   This blog consistently republishes letters it receives from folks it claims to be experienced experts in this space, but yesterday, they published a letter from the Director of  Undergraduate Studies at Georgia State University who is literally telling students to only answer half the questions on standardized tests! When I I read this blog post, I almost hurled an object through a window in my house.   I have consistently stated the need to revamp how we test and how it is used in the evaluation of both teachers and schools, but the answer is NOT to teach kids to not do your best 100% of the time!    This is analogous to an athlete throwing a game or a musician flubbing a recital on purpose.  As an ethicist, I thought you would have a POV and want to know about such drivel, which should never have been published in a credible publication.   Telling kids to tank an exam is NOT the answer.

So at the end of the day, the moral of the story is this:   when reading authoritative stories on education policy, know something about the organization or person who is behind the story.  Knowledge is power, and so is neutrality.   It's getting harder to find the latter in the public discourse.

Tuesday
Apr162013

"A Prayer in the Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing"

Credits given to Rabbi Joe Black for writing such a beautiful prayer.

 

Our God who dwells in the highest heights and in the souls of our feet:

We find You in the passion of those who delight in testing and celebrating the power of their bodies:

The runners who push themselves to find new challenges in the rhythm of the road and the camaraderie of the race;

The doctors, medics, police, fire fighters and bystanders whose dedication to humanity drives them to run into the fray - towards the bruised and bloodied bodies in the streets.

On this day of destruction, we need to remember that the race is not for the swift; there is no finish line for those who seek a better world.
Neither bombs, nor blood, not death, nor destruction can deter us from running, O God.
We run to You.
We run towards a vision of perfection that is always in our sights.
We run determined to never allow hatred to obscure Your presence.
We run to build a better world.
Be with those who have lost loved ones on this tragic day.
Send comfort and healing to the injured and the maimed.
Heal them - heal us all - body and soul - as we strive to find You.
Give us hope.
Help us to use our arms, our legs, our breath, our determination to unite in a common purpose.
In our grief may we find the strength to keep on running.

AMEN.

Thursday
Apr042013

To Reform Public Education, Combine Optimism With Focus On Learning Outcomes

As I write today's post, I am saddened by the recent events in my adopted state of Georgia - my adopted city of Atlanta in particular.   In Metro Atlanta, two of the largest school districts (a combined 150K students) in the state are exemplifying what is wrong with our outdated, monopoly-style education system:

  • Dekalb Schools has already seen its accreditation put at risk due to poor board governance and financial mismanagement, the result being the removal of six board members and a costly legal battle challenging the state's right to install temporary board members and remove those who are putting the education of students at risk.
  • Indicted on charges normally held for mafia bosses, 35 educators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal were charged with  65 counts including racketeering, providing false statements and writings, influencing witnesses, and theft by taking.  It was the long awaited final stage of this tragedy which has exposed the city's public education system as an example of what happens when administrators  establish a culture of fear and intimidation and misuse test scores as the sole factor in judging the performance of a school system.

We have also seen the Georgia General Assembly pass sweeping reforms to add accountability and choice into the state's low performing education system.  These include:

  • Improve and expand the tax credit scholarship program, which will offer more school choice while at the same time injecting more transparency into its implementation.
  • New teacher and principal evaluation plans of which at least 50% of the evaluation must be tied to performance on state assessments.
  • A parent trigger bill which passed the House but was withdrawn from the Senate before coming to a vote.  It will likely be re-introduced in the next legislative session.

It is now time for Georgia to focus on reforms that will improve learning outcomes. It is also time for all parties to take a deep breath and get back to the collaboration table.   Georgia's push to "catch up" to the national reform movement must not be done hastily.  We have already seen what happens when you create the wrong incentive structure for your educators.  A moral hazard such as "cheating" is inevitable when administrator compensation is directly tied to test score gains.   Bill Gates, whose foundation has spearheaded some of the most promising research to date on how to measure teacher effectiveness, recently cautioned in a Washington Post op-ed, "If we aren’t careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust, this opportunity to dramatically improve the U.S. education system will be wasted."    Is Georgia rushing to implement a new teacher evaluation program that has not been fully tested?  Even teachers unions have given tacit support to the Gates Foundation conclusions that thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems should include "multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results.  Student test scores should NOT be the primary basis for making decisions about firing, promoting and compensating teachers."

Georgia should shift its efforts to testing an evaluation plan and learning from the results.  It should continue to bring teachers into the development process.   In addition, Georgia should be ensuring that every school district has access to a reliable, high speed broadband infrastructure as well as fund the testing and implementation of blended learning environments in public schools.   Finally, the funding formula should be redesigned as a more student-based formula and aligned towards innovative learning tools, with professional development for these reforms included in the solution.   Learning outcomes include experiential learning, inquiry based learning, self-efficacy, goal-setting, cooperation, and feedback.  Digital learning can be a critical component in not only intrinsically motivating students, but also ensuring these these learning outcomes are achieved successfully.

People do not like change, nor do established organizations of any kind.   Fear is driving many of the reactions at present, and we do not want to see a golden opportunity to improve public education wasted because of intense resistance to change.   Lets step back, lower the temperature, and re-engage stakeholders in a discussion that all should support.   And the message must include one of hope, as well as one that will provide greater access to quality learning tools, quality teachers, and students who will be prepared for college and career.   We can do this, and we must act now.

 

Sunday
Mar102013

It's Time To Reinvent Public School Governance

I've been holding off on writing this post as I wanted to let a situation happening in Georgia's third largest school system come to closure, or at least get past a big chunk of the "drama."    While there is still some legal maneuvering that needs resolution, most of the drama should be in the rear-view mirror.

Dekalb County Schools educates almost 100,000 public school children in the Metro Atlanta area.  It is also a county where the demographics are "flipped" - meaning, it is a majority "African-American" community.   The school district is near the bottom of Georgia's school systems in terms of graduation rate - a paltry 59%, well below the state's already woefully low average of 67% (ranked 46th out of 50 states).    The school board is comprised of 9 publicly elected board members (currently comprised of 3 whites - 2 of which are newly elected,  and 6 persons of color), and if you looked at the history of this school system, you would be shocked at the level of mismanagement and poor governance that has taken place.  These nine members have acted like 9 "fiefdoms" instead of working together as a unified board to govern the school system.  But lets look at the facts (courtesy of WABE):

 

  • 12/17/2012:  After a six-month investigation and multiple warnings, the DeKalb County School District was placed on probation for one year by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The primary concerns, outlined by SACS in a report, have to do with board governance issues as well as financial problems.  Board members continually interfered with the school's day-to-day activities, finances were mismanaged, and they showed a historical lack of understanding of the qualifications needed to be truly competent board members of a $1B school budget.  The divisions on the board are "toxic," and they have shown an inability to agree on decisions, even not being able to elect a new Chairman as recently as February 2013!  In addition, the school system was in a severe deficit and has had 3 school superintendents in the past 3 years.  The governance issues have been going on for more than a decade, but they have come to a head in the past few years.  NOTE:   Dekalb was the only system out of more than 1,000 systems that SACS, the accreditation agency, placed on probation.
  • A state law that was passed with bi-partisan support in 2011 provides the governor with the power to suspend and eventually remove school board members if a school system is placed on probation by the accreditation agency.   The governor would appoint temporary replacements until those seats are up for re-election. It was a "stopgap" measure to hold local school systems accountable for malfeasance and putting accreditation at risk.
  •  1/17/2013:  the school board attends a state board of education hearing to determine whether or not to recommend that the governor exercise his right to suspend the board.  No action was taken, and the board was asked to return in February for a continuation of the hearing and then decide whether or not to recommend suspension of board members.  The school superintendent did NOT attend the meeting and support the board.
  • 2/7/2013:  Dekalb's school superintendent resigns after just 16 months on the job and is offered a lucrative separation agreement.  A career politician, Michael Thurmond, is appointed interim superintendent.  While Thurmond is a respected Democrat who oversaw the Georgia Department of Labor in a previous position, he has no education experience, and learns after his hiring that he must close a $24 million budget deficit.  He was also appointed by a dysfunctional board that lacked the support of the community.
  • 2/18/2013: the board frantically tries to resolve governance issues, and the embattled board chair, Eugene Walker, decides to step down as chairman, even as the board was unable to agree on a new chairman.  Despite their financial deficit, the school board votes to pay $150,000 to a prominent law firm for "governance training."  They made this decision behind closed doors, which appears to be in violation of the bylaws, as nearly all board meetings are to be public, except for personnel matters and pending litigation, which this does not appear to  fall under.
  • 2/19/2013:  the school board tries to block the upcoming state board of education hearing, by seeking an injunction in federal court, claiming the law to remove board members was unconstitutional.  The motion was denied, mainly because of a technicality in that they did provide notice more than five days before the school board hearing.
  • 2/21/2013:  after a 14 hour hearing, the school board votes unanimously to suspend six of the nine board members (3 were new members who did not serve during the time of the alleged activities and thus were deemed not "eligible" under the existing statute).
  • 2/25/2013:  Governor Deal announces that he will accept the recommendation of the school board to suspend the six members.
  • 2/28/2013:  NAACP backs six ousted board members despite there being wide bi-partisan support for their ouster.
  • 3/4/2013:  after a hearing in federal court on March 1st to hear the arguments challenging the constitutionality of the law, the judge denies the school board's motion to stop removal of the board members.  However, he leaves open the possibility of future litigation by claiming there are issues that need to be settled by the Georgia Supreme Court.  Embattled former board chair Eugene Walker, the only suspended board member to speak publicly about the pending litigation, decides to pull out the race card and refuses to stand down, despite public outcries that he risks spending taxpayer dollars on more litigation and not on educating students.
  • 3/6/2013:  Nancy Jester, one of the six suspended board members, resigns from the board, the only one to do so as of the writing of this post

 

I have intentionally left out much of the sordid details of the examples of gross mismanagement and governance failures, but much of it is in the links above, one of which is a link to the report filed by SACS and their accreditation arm, AdvancED.   While some will continue to question the investigation methodology employed by SACS, it is not as if they regularly seek to put school systems on probation.  I am certain that there will be public pressure now and in the future for SACS to reform their investigation methods, the evidence is nonetheless "overwhelming."  The outcry has much to do with the fact that there is no appeals process with the accreditation process.   So what does all of this mean?

  • Governance of public education is woefully outdated and requires a new model.   There is a lack of accountability in public education, and there may be validity in having urban districts be overseen by the mayor.  At least in this case, the taxpayers know who is accountable.   Look at New York City Public Schools as an example.
  • Urban districts need strong leaders.  In the case of Dekalb, the new superintendent is using Gwinnett County Schools' superintendent as his "mentor." However, this district isn't even graduating 70% of its students, so it doesn't feel like it will be much help. Instead, I recommend that Dekalb look outside the state to someone like Dr. Jesse Register, who runs Nashville's public school system.   Dr. Register has a proven track record of successfully transforming struggling urban districts, such as Chattanooga.   Instead of looking internally, it is IMPERATIVE that Dekalb, and other struggling districts look towards "best practices."  Once the system is turned around, the district should then bring in a superstar superintendent with strong education leadership credentials.
  • Teachers need to be a part of the solution. In the case of Dekalb, the new superintendent waited far too long before meeting with teachers.  They should have been near the top of his meeting agenda when hired.  Students, parents and teachers are the three critical constituents.
  • Look at current research on best practices.   The Fordham Institute has authored research on education governance, and there is a new book titled, Strife and Progress:  Portfolio Strategies For Managing Urban Schools that discusses how the portfolio model can be a successful approach to transform urban school districts.

My hope is that national ed reformers look at Dekalb County Schools as a case study in how the traditional public school governance system is outdated and bold reforms need to take place before we lose a generation of children because they are not educated to be career-ready for the 21st century.

 

Monday
Feb042013

Are Politics Overshadowing Sound Policy On Education Reform in Georgia?

My first post of 2013 has been slow to emerge because I have been doing a lot of reading and listening.   The Georgia General Assembly kicked off its 2013 legislative session with a bang.   Legislators are struggling to balance politics and sound policy as Georgia's education system faces several obstacles:

  1. Governance and accountability continue to distract our attention from the issues of student achievement.   Dekalb County Schools, the 3rd largest school system in the state (with nearly 100,000 students) had been placed on probation for AdvancED, the state accreditation agency, in late 2012.   Hearings are in progress to determine whether the Governor will exercise is powers to remove an entire local board of education and take a greater role in the turnaround efforts.  In addition, their embattled superintendent, Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, is rumored to be on the verge of either resigning or being terminated.  This is a school district that is graduating only 58% of its students.
  2. In late 2012, all states reported graduation rates under a common formula, and Georgia ranked 46th out of 50 states, at only 67%!   Minority students' graduation rates were less than 60%.  
  3. Georgia has been trying to implement an ambitious set of reforms as part of its Race to the Top grant.  The U.S. DOE  recently expressed a concern that Georgia is one of the three states (others are DC and Maryland) that are struggling with various aspects of their implementations.  For Georgia, it pertains to the introduction and implementation of a new teacher evaluation plan, which is a central piece of  the state’s $400 million Race to the Top grant, and the portion related to this plan is now been put on "high risk" by the DOE.  According to local journalists who participated in a press call discussing the situation with Georgia's grant application, "Federal officials feared that Georgia has strayed too far from its original plans to create a teacher/leader evaluation system with four key components: classroom observations, student growth, a reduction in the student achievement gap and student surveys. They also worry that the state is proposing changes before it finds out how well the proposed new evaluations worked. They were tried out in 26 school districts from January to May of last year." One of the ongoing challenges working against the implementation of reforms in Georgia is the redundancies in the organization structure.   Georgia allows its citizens to elect both a Governor AND a State School Superintendent, as opposed to the latter being appointed by the Governor.   As such, Georgia operates two separate departments:  the State Board of Education and the Governor's Office of Student Achievement ("GOSA").  GOSA has been tasked with leading the implementation of the RT3 grant, but clearly, there is structural tension, especially given that the State Superintendent (a Republican) chose to change his position on the charter school amendment and oppose the Governor on this issue, which ultimately became a referendum on charter schools as opposed to the benefits of an appellate system for authorizing charter school applications.  Even on a local level, mayors in urban districts do not have any direct influence over their schools, unlike what takes place in New York City and Washington DC.   Mayors will, however, take all the adverse backlash from a school system that is failing, yet has little direct ability to improve it.
  4. Because of these ongoing challenges with Georgia's public schools, the public discourse continues to focus a disproportionate amount of bandwidth on school choice. The Republican-led majority has followed up the charter school amendment by introducing parent trigger legislation to make Georgia the 8th state to adopt such legislation. 
  5. Vouchers are also coming back to the forefront in Georgia. Legislators are looking to expand the availability of tax credit scholarship program before ensuring that the potential "moral hazards" with such programs are eliminated.  The main issue is the "secrecy" in which many of these programs operate, and the lack of reporting requirements has resulted in instances of alleged corruption with the program's implementation.

Will Georgia become the 8th state with a parent trigger law?

We all realize that Georgia faces significant challenges with the state of its public education system.   Funding education continues to be a major challenge, due to both a soft economy and an electorate that is expressing its frustration with the dysfunction of the public education system, not just in Georgia but around the country.  We cannot abandon the traditional public schools in this reform effort.  The parent trigger legislation can play a critical role in the reform efforts, because it shifts some power back to the parents, whose tax dollars are used to fund public education.  The problem is that mechanism's intent is  a check and balance system on governance, along with being a "last resort" option when a public school is "failing" and the local school board is not adequately representing the parents who elected them to office.  The intent of this legislation is NOT to allow any public school to become a charter school.   These schools are not the magic bullet to save public education.  They can be used as a powerful tool to foster innovation in public education, but we should not expect the traditional public school to become dormant.   In addition, because of "constraints" in the state constitution, the bill currently permits local school boards to reject parent petitions, which dilutes the power of the trigger.  While there are other problems with the bill as currently drafted, it is my hope that rational minds will prevail, and Georgia will work in a bi-partisan manner to pass a bill  whose intent is narrowly focused on turning around failing schools versus promulgating the foolhardy notion that we can reform public education by simply turning every public school into a charter school.

We need to get back to basics and focus on policies that improve student achievement.  Lets try and focus on career readiness, a sound curriculum, and ensuring every public school has a modern technological infrastructure to integrate digital learning into its curriculum.   Right now, it appears that politics are overshadowing sound policy, and we run the risk of passing legislation that negates, rather than enables, reform efforts in Georgia.