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Local committee ends Massachusetts' first virtual school

Posted by Jim Stergios March 4, 2013 09:27 AM

The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald are reporting that last week the Greenfield School Committee voted to shutter the state’s first and only public virtual school.

Here’s the Globe piece by Evan Allen:

The academy opened in 2010 and serves about 470 students in kindergarten through eighth grade from all across the Commonwealth. It will close on June 30, according to committee members.

… One of the district’s major objections was that the School Committee would no longer have had direct oversight of the school.

“It would be an autonomous school governed by a separate committee that would not be publicly elected,” said committee member Marcia Day, who voted in favor of not submitting the proposal to the state. “I really feel like it’s important for public education to be under local control with school committee members who are elected directly.”

Allen’s story includes a quote from a family that was well-served by the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, and certainly the school worked for some of its students. That said, the school, which was formed through a partnership between the Greenfield School Committee and a private virtual vendor (K12, Inc.) was not performing at the level many had hoped.

I have noted in the past a number of its challenges – and the poorly crafted elements of the law enabling the Academy to be established. For example, the funding system for virtual schools which is dependent on checks being cut by peer districts is untenable. Moreover, unlike the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), payments for students are received in a way that is not tied to accountable performance by the school. In the case of FLVS, the school only receives payments if and when the student successfully completes a course.

State law and regulations should have followed that high-accountability path for any new virtual school – especially the first one. Moreover state law and regulations emphasize seat time and geographic limitations on who can take courses through the virtual school. These all hampered the school’s ability to be successful.

But even if these parameters of law and regulations make it hard to be successful in Massachusetts with a virtual school, the leadership and choice of vendor to work with in establishing the school are questionable.

While K12, Inc., has a presence in many other parts of the country and has some strong product lines, it also came to this endeavor with a mixed track record. Consider the Stephanie Saul report in the New York Times, which demonstrated a 50 percent “churn” rate for K12-affiliated vendors:

The constant cycle of enrollment and withdrawal, called the churn rate, appears to be a problem at many schools. Records Agora filed with Pennsylvania reveal that 2,688 students withdrew during the 2009-10 school year. At the same time, K12 continued to sign up new students. Enrollment at the end of the year — 4,890 — was 170 students more than at the beginning, obscuring the high number of withdrawals.

As I noted at the time:

Saul's piece is helpful when it underscores an issue that states interested in expanding digital learning have to get their arms around: How payments and incentives are structured to online vendors is crucial to ensuring accountability for recruitment and retention, as well as student achievement.

Without a strong accountability system in place, that’s probably not a company you want to start out with – and it may not be a firm you want to have present in the market. Again, for me strong accountability means you pay for success and only for success.

Given its performance, the closure of the Massachusetts Virtual Academy does not surprise me. But the reality is that the school’s performance is not why the MVA is being shut down. The real reason the local school committee is shutting it down is because it does not want to have the virtual school it created become a charter school.

So, a poorly performing virtual school run by the district was okay, but that same school if out of their control is not okay? What kind of logic is that?

It's the logic of our district schools in far too many public systems. The fact is that once the MVA was put to approval as a Commonwealth virtual school, it would have had to articulate clear goals and be held accountable for delivering results.

So the closure that has come about is the result of the school committee's desire to maintain local authority and control over money and resources.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Suicide and the stress from school

Posted by Jim Stergios March 2, 2013 09:44 AM

We often hear that kids are stressed by school -- and most times MCAS testing is considered the culprit. Let's look at the broad picture first. Indiana University's High School Survey of Student Engagement suggests the following about US District High School students:

  • 82.7% spend no more than 5 hours a week on homework.
  • 42.5% spend an hour or less each week on homework.

In contrast, according to a 2009 Korean National Statistics Office:

  • The average Korean high school senior spent 11 hours per day studying
  • The all student average was 8 hours (with about 3 hours per day of studying occurring outside the classroom).

Of course, that begs lots of questions -- important questions about culture, familial expectations, and the kind of education we want for our kids. It also ignores the distinction we should make between competitive high schools (schools that churn out lots of Ivy and top college applicants, where homework loads can be seen as a badge of honor or academic grit). I think all reasonable people can agree that homework loads ("I study 4 hours a night"; "well, I was up till 4 last night studying") are hardly a barometer for a serious education.

A simple comparison between South Korean hours and American hours studying also forgets to include distractions like social media. As the American Press Institute noted in a summary of three analyses of media usage by teenagers:

Technology has powered an explosion of media usage among young people in the last five years – so much so that young people spend about as much time consuming media every day (7 hours, 38 minutes) as their parents spend working, according to a study of 8- to 18-year-olds by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That's far too much for one blog post, but I did want to focus briefly on some statistics that are often considered indicative of stress and need to be taken off the table because misrepresented by anti-testing advocates.

Often the "let them play and read what they want" advocates cite suicide rates in South Korea, Japan and Singapore as an example of what we are creating in the US -- and in Massachusetts particularly by insisting that kids attain a knowledge level appropriate for a 10th-grader in order to graduate. And they counterpose Finland as the answer -- a system that does well on the PISA international tests but poorly on the TIMSS tests of math and science. (Massachusetts does well on both the PISA and TIMSS when it tests as a country, which always suggests to me that we might want to look at what we are doing right -- instead of always focusing on the negative or seeking redemption in some mystical Nordic land).

Anti-testing (and pro-Finland) advocates love to cite rates of suicide in Singapore and South Korea, claiming that they are double and triple what we see in the US. These assertions are not only wrong, stupidly wrong, but frankly suggest a racial stereotyping that you might expect of cultural troglodytes.

An OECD study seeks to harmonize the definitions of suicide in each country, and on page 2 of the report it summarizing the changes in suicide rates in countries, looking at 1990, 2000 and 2008 data. Smartly the data looks at teen years instead of referring to the entire populations of countries, which distort questions of how school and testing impact children's psyches.

It just shows how upside some of the debates are on standards and testing that anti-testing advocates can point to Finland as a garden of youth, where children play and learn so well -- when Finnish kids are in fact having the greatest difficulty with questions of life and death. Finland has among the highest suicide rates for 15-19-year-olds in the world. South Korean teens have a lower suicide rate than the US as a whole (amazing, given the umbrella of war under which they live every day), and Japan has a slightly higher suicide rate than the US.

And this data overstates Korean and Japanese suicide rates in as much as it is single-year data and therefore catches blips that are not representative of broader trends.

A better view of the data would agree on to stipulate that we

  • avoid single year data and instead opt if possible for averages across 5 or 10 years in order to avoid referencing data blips
  • not use countrywide data on suicides (that is for the full population) instead focusing on data for age groups that are in school or immediately after their schooling
  • be open to looking at the historical data for periods when economic, cultural or institutional changes or events occurred which had long-term impacts on suicide rates.

I have looked at a variety of data for the suicide rates per 100,000 of young persons aged 15-19 in 26 countries with data available over a 35-year period (1965-1999) and here is what any reasonable person would draw from the information we have:

  • In the 1980s the US suicide rate for boys jumps 50% from 10 per 100,000 to 15 per 100,000. In the 1990s, a decade during which standards and testing were first put into place in states around the US, there is little change in boys' suicide rate (an increase of 6%). For US girls, the suicide rate rises from 3 per 100,000 to 3.5 per 100,000 in the 1980s, then during the 1990s (again, the period in which standards and testing are put into place) it declines.
  • In Singapore, boys’ suicide rates rise from 5 per 100,000 to 6 over 30 years. (That's less than half of the US boy's rate.) Suicide among Singaporean girls declines by 40% (going from a higher rate than boys to having a significantly lower suicide rate). The Singaporean testing culture does not lead to higher suicide rates than the US for this age group -- and the increase in suicide over time for boys comes, happily at a much lower pace.
  • Japan sees over the 30 year period measured a decline in suicide rates for boys of 40%, to the place where they are below half the US rate. Japanese girls drop by half to a suicide rate that is equal to the US rate for girls (3.25 per 100,000).

As for South Korea? Perhaps due to the fact that the country only really opened up to the West decades after Japan, I could only find data for the 20-year period from 1986 to 2005. What I found is indicative of how careful we must be in discussing suicide.

  • The data suggests a decline in the overall (boys and girls) 15-19 year old suicide rate from 9.5 per 100,000 to 7.6. That puts South Korea squarely below the overall US rate in the 1990s of 10 per 100,000.
  • Where the jump is in Korea is everyone from 30-34 year olds to 75-59 year olds.
  • The jump in suicide has a specific historical context in as much as the data points directly to 1998 and the currency crunch as a cause for a long-term shift in South Korean suicide rates. Not for kids under 20, but rather for the 30-24 through 75-79 year old groups.
  • The suicide rate for 75-79 year olds is particularly sad in South Korea, going from an already high 37 per 100,000 in the late 1980s to a devastatingly high 127 per 100,000 in the early 2000s.

The data also shows that Finland, for all the waxing eloquent we get from edupundits in this country, has an ever-worsening problem with youth suicide. The data suggest that the suicide rate for boys 15-19 went from 19 per 100,000 in 26 per 100,000 from the sixties and seventies to the 1990s; for girls suicides rates did not change significantly.

Do kids in the US feel stress? Yes. But ensuring that public schools provide them with 10th-grade academic attainments before they move ahead in life is not the cause of stress.

You have to go look for answers elsewhere. Perhaps the answer is an economic one (a society hell-bent on seeking ever more stuff), institutional one (where high school's brutal social atmosphere is in fact made worse by teachers who don't give kids sufficient focus on things outside their navels), a cultural one (the corrosive concept of "cool"), or something altogether different. And what impacts will we see from the fascination with social media?

Anti-testing advocates should abandon their Luddite views that rival those of the most anti-scientific conservatives who deny that our climate is changing. In fact, their constant pointing to Asian countries as robotic, lacking creativity, and all the rest, is worse. Racism has an ugly history -- and as little changes in the human spirit I am sure it has an ugly future.

South Korea's focus on homework and cramming right for the US? Hardly. I am always amazed that the US does as well as it does on international tests given the challenges of educating a diverse population and the 180-day limit we have on the school year. Just imagine, however, how well our kids could do if we all focused more on a serious academic and cultural education so that our kids are able to gain the humanity and knowledge that would allow them to look beyond their immediate, subjective situations?

In essence that is what academic rigor is and what our schools should aim at: Getting kids who are emotionally raw, tender and yet ready to gain the grit and toughness for the world, to reach beyond the subjective. Toward objectivity.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Why do district superintendents oppose charter schools?

Posted by Jim Stergios March 1, 2013 05:34 PM

When you ask that question, the usual answer is something about the kids, equity, and the unfairness of all the flexibility that charters get. It's hard to get a superintendent to go beyond the platitudes.

Perhaps the superintendent will raise all the good work that's going on in the district. There may in fact be lots of work going on, but without a judgment on whether it is good or not so good of work is really dependent on results. Otherwise, such statements are simply assertions of exertion.

With the closing of ranks in Brockton by the Brockton school superintendent and the district's school committee in opposition to a proposed high-quality charter application, I got to wondering: Why? Why such opposition? Why such opposition when Brockton's elementary and middle schools are declining in (their already low academic) performance? Why opposition to a proven provider (SABIS), which runs very successful schools elsewhere in the state? After all, the 2010 education law called for an emphasis on proven charter models -- and SABIS is definitely that.

Hmm. Well, at a recent event, former Brockton Superintendent Basan “Buzz” Nembirkow, who is certainly a very accomplished district superintendent (but who is no longer works as a full-time superintendent), opened up about the motivations for their opposition to charter schools.

Buzz would know. When in Brockton, he led the charge against a strong charter application back in 2008 that garnered broad support in the community and also from the Boston Globe. The Globe called the applicant, SABIS,

one of the few educational systems in the state where minority students not only perform on par with white students, but outperform them, as well.
At an event in the fall, he noted the following:
“I think [SABIS] is an excellent model”

“When I looked at the SABIS model, the instructional model is sound.”

“SABIS has done a good job of taking what works best and putting it together, dealing with training teachers and administrators so there is a unified system.”

“From my perspective on schools, SABIS is a good model.”

When asked by the moderator of the panel he was on, “Given the SABIS school in Springfield was a strong school, why wasn’t that good enough for you to support their coming to Brockton [in 2008]”? Nembirkow acknowledged:

My title was Superintendent of Brockton Public Schools, so right off the bat there’s an enlightened self-interest involved in that…. Basically, the issue was finance and politics. It had nothing to do, or very little to do with the quality of the [SABIS] program.

When SABIS came [to Brockton] we saw it as a financial threat. Simply as a financial threat. It took money away from us, which was about $4-5 million. Based upon that, our progress in BPS would have been substantially affected.

So my job in defending the Brockton Public Schools, as the Superintendent, was to do whatever I could to stop that particular threat at that time, so we mounted a very good political campaign.

Buzz noted that his opposition to the SABIS school application was “almost 90% finances.”

When asked whether SABIS' being a for-profit charter management was an issue, Nembirkow responded: “I have no issues with that.”

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

What to make of big early education proposals?

Posted by Jim Stergios February 27, 2013 08:01 AM

early ed.jpg

In 2008 President Obama talked about a “zero to five” education plan and a “continuum of child care for children from birth to age 5.” His proposal during the State of the Union address to expand early education for children of parents earning up to 200% of the federal poverty rate is part of making that a reality. (Truth be told, the president keeps mentioning universal early education on the stump and in the SOTU, but his written proposal is far more targeted.)

Governor Patrick also put forward in his State of the Commonwealth address a proposal to create a universal early education program here in Massachusetts. So, what are the pros and cons of these proposals?

You can hear a solid debate on th is topic on WBUR’s Radio Boston, but let me sum up the evidence here.

The evidence. The president and the governor’s arguments that “study after study” demonstrates that a dollar invested in federal and state early education programs will save seven dollars later in life due to lower dropout rates, better student performance and other good things is not true. The president’s reference to “seven dollars’ is drawn from a single study of Chicago programs. The country has a broader and longer experience with the Head Start program, which has been in place for 48 years and upon which we have spent $180 billion.

The results from Head Start, according to a study conducted by its parent federal agency (and buried by the administration, which released the results the Friday before Christmas 2012), are anything but reason for hope:

  • There was no long-term impact on the cognitive abilities of participating children
  • There were no improvements in access to health care
  • There were no improvements to behavior and emotional well-being
  • There were no improvements to the parenting practices of parents.

On a few measures, Head Start actually had negative impacts.

Let's be clear here: Not all early education programs are Head Start. But the fact is that there is vexingly little evidence that early education programs – as currently structured – have has a positive or even lasting impact on student achievement. Ditto on dropout rates, lessening teen pregnancy, and all the other things claimed by the president and the governor.

So, that's evidence from the largest early ed program in the country. Now, let's go to the state data. Several states, like Oklahoma and Georgia, have expansive early education programs; unfortunately, the data does not significantly differ from what we have found in the Head Start program.

Lots of pro-universal early ed advocates will quarrel with what I describe above by referencing boutique programs like the Perry PreSchool and the Carolina Abecedarian Projects conducted, respectively, 40 and 30 years ago. The problem with referencing these unique experience is that they don’t look like early ed programs as we know them. Early education, as proposed by the president and the governor, are one-year programs prior to kindergarten. Abecedarian was an intensive, multi-year program costing $90,000 per child that tracked kids throughout their maturation and adulthood. The Perry Preschool project clocked in at a more affordable $11,000 in today's dollars on an annual basis, but most of the kids participating attended two years of school, not one, and there are few additional studies that confirm its results.

The preponderance of evidence goes in the opposite direction..

Moreover, consider this: Even as the governor is proposing a huge expansion in the current program, the state of Massachusetts has not produced a longitudinal study of the impacts of current public programs. So the governor is asking us to fly blind – on the basis of emotion. That is unfortunately the MO of many of the recent state reforms such as so-called innovation schools and extended learning time. There is no empirical basis for the establishment or continuation, yet somehow that is what we are doing.

High-quality early education and the crowdout effect. Any benefits from early education are based upon having high-quality programs. Just what constitutes “high-quality” is, as you might imagine in education discussions, up for grabs. Central to the conversation is the debate over structure and content.

The advocacy world behind universal early education in Massachusetts is for the most part against using their programs to focus on literacy, numeracy and the inculcation of basic habits that will lead to strong academic performance in later years. They insist on lots of play and “the things all kids should do.” When former president and chancellor of Boston University John Silber talked about targeting early education to increase the chances of getting kids to gain reading proficiency, he was talking about inculcating the cultural and educational foundations that most of the children of the well-to-do benefit from were available to inner city kids.

And his view was that kids could at a much younger age engage in real school work, to the point that he thought that it made sense to make a "Grand Bargain" tradeoff, wherein we would extend education to Pre-K and get rid of the 12th grade. Very different mindset from those who have told me "yes on some basic literacy" but more importantly the focus would be on safety, play and socialization.

A content-driven focus is not likely to be the defining thrust of publicly funded programs in Massachusetts. If it were, we would already see a strong presence of that view in the current set of public Pre-K offerings.

The president’s early ed plan is based on creating some curricular frameworks for early education programs, but the standards the feds are looking to put into place are extensions (downward) from the K-12 Common Core national standards. Given that the Common Core has reduced the focus on literature in early grade reading, anything that preschool adds to reading ability will likely have no impact. One wonders if federal policymakers are looking to bring nonfiction offerings even into pre-K.

As is the case with the governor's plan, it is sure to come with standardizing the teacher and early care corps -- and likely unionizing it.

Currently in Massachusetts 70% of the pre-K-age population is in some pre-K program, with programs ranging from privately funded, mixed private-public programs, and fully public programs. With his proposal to put $350 million into making early education universal, there is the distinct possibility that the public funds will displace a significant portion of the private offerings. That is a problem for two reasons. Clearly, the private offerings are in some cases of a higher quality than the public offerings. Even when that is not the case, the public system always tends to render uniform important aspects of programs (often for reasons of “fairness” and “accountability”). The intrusion of public programs and funding into a space that is largely privately funded today will likely remove the nuances in programming.

That is, we are back to the conversations around structure versus lack of structure for kids. We all know kids that thrive with a highly structured program, and we also know others who need greater flexibility. All kids are different, and trying to squeeze them into a more homogenized system removes our ability as parents to make the right choices for our kids.

My takeaways from this debate are as follows:

  • Early education, if done well, can be helpful to kids.

  • All kids have different needs and a public system will not be able to take into consideration the vast variety of needs and situations of kids at a tender age.

  • The feds and state policymakers really do need to read their own reports. Head Start is a mess, and all the baloney about how it is working, which is restated in speech after speech around the country by Arne Duncan and the President, amounts to willful irresponsibility at the least.

  • There are lots of reasons to question the efficacy of even a well-planned early education expansion. A well-designed program, which would need to provide flexibility, curricular options and accountability, would present huge challenges to implement.

  • None of this pays for itself notwithstanding the “one dollar for seven” talking points bandied about are for one dollar in payments now that provide seven dollars of benefits (to the individual) over a lifetime. And those are from a single study in Chicago. As noted above, the preponderance of evidence from state and federal programs is actually not in line with those talking points.

  • Whatever we do, we must avoid displacing current high-quality programs. Rather, we should seek to build on their diversity and strengths.

  • The president’s targeted proposal is far preferable to the governor’s.

  • The best way to provide flexibility for the uniqueness of our kids and for the needs of parents is to expand tax credits for families to purchase their own early education services. For poor families, for whom tax credits are not an effective strategy, we will have to come up with a pot of money they can direct to a program of their choice, based on their own kids' needs. Families will best know what their kids’ specific needs are.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

An easy vote for the Board of Education

Posted by Jim Stergios February 25, 2013 09:55 AM


Tomorrow’s Board of Education meeting expects a crowd. Applicants for five new charter schools and 11 expansions will be on hand, as will detractors. There will be those on hand who pursued and opposed new charters that were denied the commissioner’s recommendation and therefore will not be brought to a Board vote. Push into that mix the oddly timed, late Friday news release (to one news source) that the Renaissance charter school is likely to be placed on probation, and you have a pretty full agenda and set of possible items that could come up.

So plenty of opportunity for eruptions, interruptions, and controversy. On the underlying five new charter and 11 expansion applications that will be at the center of tomorrow’s agenda, there will be little to no controversy. That is especially so for the application submitted by the Phoenix Charter Academy, a Chelsea-based charter focused on serving at-risk students and dropouts and giving them a new lease on graduation and college preparation.

A while back, I shared in a series of blog posts some of the key elements of Phoenix, such as its hyper-focus on creating a culture of success among kids (and often college-age adults) who have lacked all structure and who were ill-served by the district school system, the clarity of its mission which has the benefit of clarifying roles and priorities within the school, its programmatic offerings to make college preparation a possibility for young mothers who want a better future for themselves and their kids, and their teacher recruitment and retention strategies, which are especially important given the difficulty of the school’s mission.

Since those posts a year and a half ago, students at Phoenix have continued to show terrific progress, even as the charter has increased its collaboration with the Chelsea district system. They also take on the gargantuan task of leading efforts within the Lawrence district schools to reclaim the educational futures of dropouts in the struggling mill city on the Merrimack. I’ve been critical of the overall plan for the turnaround of the district schools (here and here), because it does not reach enough of the city’s 13,000 kids; that said, some of the work of the school receiver Jeff Riley and the charters there is promising.

Phoenix is poised now to expand out to the Springfield area. And the Springfield school application continues to build on the Academy’s laser focus on at-risk students and dropouts.

Here’s the mission as described in the 123-page final application submitted to the Department of Education:

Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield’s (Phoenix Springfield) mission is to challenge teenagers in Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee with an academically rigorous and individually tailored curriculum. At Phoenix Springfield, talented students, some who have not succeeded in other schools, have the support, resources and training needed to succeed academically in high school and college, and become economically secure in their future.

The Academy

target[s] students who turn to alternative education when traditional school systems fail, often including students who have dropped out of school, have struggled with truancy and chronic absenteeism in the past, are involved with the Department of Youth Services or the Department of Children and Families, are pregnant or parenting children of their own, and/or are recent immigrants to the country.

In Lawrence, where again Phoenix has been invited to bring its expertise, almost one of two students does not complete high school. (The sheer extent of the problem is why I have been vocal in calling for Phoenix and the other charters currently working in district schools to be granted full charters. Bringing in Phoenix and some other charters to support the Lawrence receiver’s district turnaround plan is fine, but it is ultimately focused on the wrong thing – the district – as opposed to the kids.) Springfield faces similar challenges, and this application fills a real need in the City of Homes.

The problem statement in the Academy’s Springfield application is spot on:

Across America, students are dropping out of high school at an alarming rate. According to Education Week’s 2012 Diplomas Count, “Nearly 1.2 million students from 2008’s high school class (the most recent year for which data was available) failed to graduate with a diploma. That amounts to 6,400 students lost each day of the year, or one student every 27 seconds” (23). Among students of color, this problem is particularly prevalent: only 57% of Latino students and 57.6% of African American students from the class of 2008 successfully finished high school, compared to 78.4% of white students (Diplomas Count 2012, 23). Dropping out of high school has severe economic and social consequences. The unemployment rate of high school dropouts is four times that of college graduates, and high school dropouts are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, homeless, or recipients of government services (Kazis 2002, 4). On average, each dropout costs the United States nearly $300,000 in lost Earnings over the course of his/her lifetime (Rennie Center 2011, 1). Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield’s target communities face the reality of the dropout crisis on a daily basis. In the 2012-13 school year, Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke had five-year graduation rates of 56.1%, 71.2%, and 56.1%, respectively, all significantly lower than the statewide four-year rate of 84.7%. As in the nation at large, the costs of dropping out of high school reverberate through the Massachusetts economy: the average high school dropout in Massachusetts makes $10,000 less annually than a high school graduate and $34,000 less annually than a college graduate (The Boston Foundation, 2010).

Phoenix’s approach of blending high-accountability and a focus on at-risk students is certainly focused on academic rigor. Students

must demonstrate mastery of upper-level math, science, and humanities classes in order to graduate, and are required to receive a college acceptance letter prior to graduation. Our College Services Department, Phoenix Through College, works with every student to help him/her map his/her course through high school and college.

But it takes more than rigor and accountability. The goal of passing the MCAS, graduating from high school and preparing for success in college certainly requires rigor but also “comprehensive socio-emotional supports” and constant engagement from the staff and support services that include

a student support center that serves as a resource for students who need coaching to model the characteristics of a scholar, on-site social workers who connect students to collateral supports in the community, an on-site childcare center that offers services to teen parents, and outreach workers who tirelessly endeavor to keep students connected to and engaged in school.

The results speak for themselves.

In 2012, 86% of students scored advanced or proficient on the English Language Arts MCAS exam, as did 72% on the math exam, beating all but one of the school’s sending districts. Additionally, 77 students have now graduated from Phoenix, and 100% of those students have been accepted to college.

Embedded in Phoenix’s application is the following chart of student MCAS proficiency levels. It tells you all you need to know about why Phoenix’s application will sail through.

Phoenix Charter perf.jpg

Here is what Phoenix Springfield is seeking to accomplish in the words of Phoenix Academies founder, Beth Anderson.

Good luck to Beth and the team, and to the many Springfield students who will pass through its doors.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Two new charter schools for City on a Hill

Posted by Jim Stergios February 21, 2013 07:25 AM


For the past decade and a half, February has served as the month during which the state’s Board of Education votes on proposed charter schools. The process is a long one, involving during the previous year the submission of concepts, detailed applications, revised applications, interviews with proponents and evaluations by the Charter School Office, which is today located within the state’s Department of Education.

This year, the state’s education commissioner Mitch Chester has recommended a handful of the original 22 charter applications move forward. At next Tuesday’s education board meeting, final votes will be taken on the 5 new charters and 11 charter expansions recommended by the department.

If all of the charters recommended by the department move forward, there will be 1,600 new charter seats in Boston, with the percentage of Boston public students in Boston public charters closing in on the 18 percent threshold established with the 2010 education reform law. New Bedford is different. In the Whaling City, there are currently few options for parents including two charter schools (Alma del Mar and Global Learning charter schools), a handful of Catholic schools (the All Saints, Holy Family-Holy Name, and St. James-St. John schools), and private options like Our Sisters School, an excellent all-girl middle school option.

Two of the applications that made it through the department’s review and are up for a board approval were submitted by City on a Hill Charter School, a charter provider that currently operates a 280-student high school in Roxbury. CoaH is seeking approval of a second school in Boston in 2013, and the creation of an additional affiliated school in New Bedford in 2014. Each of the new schools would serve 280 students.

The original City on a Hill charter was one of the first charter schools approved in Massachusetts and currently has 10 applicants for every available freshman seat.

Overall Commonwealth charter schools perform very well compared to their district and unionized (so-called Horace Mann) charter peers. Among Boston schools serving 6th graders, 8 of the top 11 performers on the MCAS were in Commonwealth charter schools; among 7th graders, 7 of the top 11 were in Commonwealth charters; among 8th graders, 6 of the top 11 were in Commonwealth charters. In all grades tested before high school (3-8), charter schools held the number one position on the MCAS. And among high school students, excluding the city’s two exam schools (Boston Latin and Boston Latin Academy), Commonwealth charters occupied 5 of the top 7 spots. Commonwealth charter students topped all other schools in each of these tests—again, with the exception of the 10th grade MCAS where the exam schools, which do not select students by lottery as do charters took first and second place, leaving charter schools to take third place.

With 900 applicants for the 90 open slots available each year, it is a no-brainer for the Board to allow CoaH to replicate in Boston. The justification for the New Bedford affiliate is even stronger.

The district schools in the City of New Bedford fare poorly on the MCAS, with 10th graders on English Language Arts languishing near rock bottom in the entire state and with the outrageously high cumulative high school dropout rate of 28.5 percent.

Compare that record to the results to be found at City on a Hill.

CoaH - ELA results-chart2.png

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Moreover, recognizing that the MCAS is a floor and not the goal line, CoaH is, like many other charter schools, tracking where their students go and whether they complete a college degree:

We know that with the right supports our students can get into college. It is our job to provide them with the academic, social, and financial literacy skills necessary to complete college. Approximately 24% of Hispanic and 28% of Black Boston Public School graduates graduate from a two- or four-year college within six years (Center for Labor Market Studies, Getting to the Finish Line. Boston: 2008). Of our last five graduating classes, 75% of students have either graduated or are still enrolled in college.

Erica Brown, executive director of City on a Hill charter school describes in her own words why the school is seeking two replications at the Tuesday Board of Education meeting.

The New Bedford Standard-Times has it right with a recent editorial giving full support to the proposed CoaH school. The Standard-Times notes that in opposing the CoaH school proposal, New Bedford mayor Jon Mitchell

asks Chester to consider the positive changes being made in the city's system, starting with an inventory of the "profound" and "dramatic" changes under way in New Bedford. He points out the superintendent search; a newly signed teachers contract that addresses seniority, evaluations and performance pay; the expansion of Advanced Placement and teacher home-visit programs; and steps taken to address the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's concerns regarding facilities, principals, attendance and more.

These reforms will over time, one hopes, lead to more than the modest improvements we have seen through other “in-district” efforts at reform. Twenty years into education reform, we have seen seemingly uncountable efforts to reform the district schools from within, including pilot, Horace Mann, Commonwealth pilot and innovation schools; significant new resources; significant hiring; new contracts; and other seemingly “dramatic” and “profound” changes. I don’t want to diminish in any way the hard work, the good will, and the political challenges each of these efforts required. But none of these efforts can hold a candle to the game-changing impacts of a flexible, autonomous Massachusetts charter school like City on a Hill.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Boston Kids Need Another Brooke Charter School

Posted by Jim Stergios February 13, 2013 04:47 PM

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote later this month on a new set of charter school proposals is an opportunity to give thousands of Massachusetts kids access to a great school. The list of proposed charters includes new proposals for Boston, such as City on a Hill Charter Public School, which is proposing to open a second 280-student high school in Boston to open in 2013. (City on a Hill has also applied for a separate, new high school in New Bedford to serve 280 students.)

In addition, a number of Boston charters have looked at expanding their existing enrollment caps, including Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School, a 5-12 charter that would like to serve 545 students rather than 500; Codman Academy Charter Public School, a charter high school which would like to serve 345 students rather than 145; among others.

As part of an effort to share a look at what the charter proponents are seeking to do, I am giving some basic background on the schools and including a video allowing the proponents to speak in their own words. Today we’re focusing on the application filed by the Edward W. Brooke Charter Schools, seeking a fourth 540-student K-8 school, to open in Boston in 2014. We will be talking with Kimberly Steadman, the Network Co-Director of Academics.

The original Brooke elementary school opened in 2002. For some time now the school’s K-8 student body has shown stellar academic performance, outperforming most every school in the Commonwealth notwithstanding predominance of disadvantaged students. Consider this graphic of the school’s performance in 2010 on the English/Reading MCAS exam:

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In addition to the Brooke Roslindale school, in 2011 Brooke gained a Mattapan affiliate and a year later an East Boston affiliate. Today, the three schools in the Brooke network serve about 1,500 Boston-area students—primarily poor minority students (78% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch).

This year’s (2012) MCAS data puts an exclamation point on the progress seen in the original school, where Brooke administrators tout the following achievements

  • In all tested elementary grades (3-5), Brooke Roslindale students scored #1 in the state in Mathematics;
  • In 4th and 8th grade, Brooke Roslindale students scored #1 in the state in English;
  • On all English and Mathematics tests in all grades, Brooke Roslindale ranked either #1, #2 or #3 among all Boston schools

Brooke - 2012-MCAS-Math-scores.jpg

Moreover, the Brooke Mattapan school “demonstrated the highest growth [in student performance] in the state in both English and Mathematics.”

Today, the Brooke network has 4,000 Boston Public School students on its waiting list. These are parents who want a choice and a chance for their kids. They are parents who, like the architects of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 do not want “the accident of place and station of birth.. to be the most dispositive factor in determining a child’s potential for educational success.”

In the video below, we hear from Kim, who prior to helping to joining Brooke taught in the Chelsea and Washington DC district schools. She’s been with Brooke for almost a decade, serving as a lead teacher, math teacher, professional development coordinator, and elementary principal before taking on her new position. Kim and Brooke’s work to support its teachers is phenomenal, with 35 administrative and peer observations per year, and 10 video self-analyses per year. In addition, there are daily co-planning sessions, 3 hours of weekly professional development, and data review meetings to support teachers’ work.

Edward Brooke Charter Schools have done an incredible job, leading the state in tested content areas and disproving the status quo mantra that poor minority kids cannot achieve great things. They deserve another 500-student school. And those 4,000 Boston kids on the Brooke waiting lists deserve a chance.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Give Brockton students a choice

Posted by Jim Stergios February 12, 2013 01:45 PM


The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote later this month on a new set of charter school proposals is an opportunity to give thousands of Massachusetts kids access to a great school. The list of proposed charters includes the following schools in cities outside of Greater Boston:

  • Argosy Collegiate Charter School in Fall River
  • the replication of Boston's successful City on a Hill Charter Public School in New Bedford
  • the replication of Springfield and Holyoke's successful SABIS charter model in Brockton (the International Charter School of Brockton)
  • the replication of Chelsea's successful Phoenix Charter Academy in Springfield, and
  • YouthBuild Charter Academy in Lawrence

In the Greater Boston area, there are also two charter proposals, replications of the Pioneer Charter School of Science to serve Saugus-Peabody-Lynn-Danvers-Salem and to serve Woburn-Stoneham-Medford-Melrose-Wakefield.

Several other charters are also asking for increases in grade levels served. Most of these charter applications come as a result of the 2010 education reform law that increased the percentage of students within poorly performing districts that can attend charters from 9 to 18 percent.

Over the next few days, I'd like to share a few videos of the charter proponents explaining the reason they are seeking to create new schools. Today's video is of Jose Afonso of SABIS International explaining the genesis of the application to create a K-12 school in Brockton.

The International Charter School of Brockton is to be operated by SABIS, an educational management company that runs highly successful charters in Springfield and Holyoke. Its Springfield school has been rated by both Newsweek and US News & World Report as one of the nation’s top high schools.

Those arguing against the new Brockton school, such as the district administrators, say Brockton doesn’t need a charter school. The fact is, however, that Brockton's MCAS scores rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide. While the city’s high school has seen modest improvement, performance in its elementary and middle schools has actually worsened since 2009.

In addition to dramatically better MCAS scores, the SABIS International School of Springfield’s 2011 graduation rate was over 90 percent; Brockton’s was less than 70 percent. In the 12 years that SABIS Springfield has had a graduating class, every graduate has been accepted to college.

As in Brockton, low-income and minority students make up the majority of SABIS Springfield’s students. Graduation rates for SABIS’ low-income, special needs, and minority students also exceed Brockton’s.

In considering this application the new Secretary of Education Matt Malone and the Board of Education would do well to go back and read the Boston Globe editorial from 2008 which criticized the then Board of Ed for "jettisoning SABIS" and in the process

abandon[ing] minority families in more than a dozen communities. SABIS is one of the few educational systems in the state where minority students not only perform on par with white students, but outperform them, as well.

It went on to encourage SABIS "to come back" with another proposal, closing with the statement: "But the proposal should find a home in the Brockton area."

Last year, again, the Globe editorial pages chimed in support of SABIS' (successful) application to create a new charter school in Lowell.

The editorial page was absolutely right. And there is yet an additional reason to approve the SABIS application, besides the possibilities it opens up for Brockton students: It is an opportunity to rehabilitate the severely tarnished charter school approval process.

Massachusetts’ charter approval process, once considered a national model, has in recent years become politicized. A now-famous midnight e-mail from former Education Secretary Paul Reville cited political pressures in asking the state education commissioner to “see his way clear” to approve a Gloucester charter application, even though it didn’t meet the commonwealth’s rigorous criteria.

A Superior Court judge wrote that there was “considerable evidence” “the Board and the Commissioner blatantly ignored and violated state law” by approving the Gloucester charter for political reasons. The commonwealth’s Inspector General called the process by which the school was approved “defective.” Less than three years later, the state is closing the poorly performing school.

Mischief with the charter approval process has also prevented good schools from opening—and that is what the Board of Education can make right this year. In 2008, again because of political pressure, Mr. Reville persuaded the board to reject a proposed charter school in Brockton. It was the first time a charter proposal endorsed by the commissioner had ever been rejected by the board.

SABIS is back with an improved Brockton application, hoping the process will not be rigged this time.

Brockton officials are out in force, and this is a big test for the man who succeeded Secretary Reville last month, Matt Malone. Mr. Malone, until his move to become the new Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth, had been serving as the Brockton school superintendent. And, yes, he was very much involved, up until his departure, in whipping up anti-charter sentiment.

As always, district administrators will raise a hue and cry over money. Funding follows students from district to charter schools, but changes in the commonwealth’s charter funding formula reimburse districts are over a six-year period. Ultimately, districts receive more than double their money for every child selecting a charter school. Districts can no longer make the money argument with a straight face.

As the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education prepares to vote on a new group of charter schools, it should answer one simple question: Why should the options of children in one of the commonwealth’s worst-performing districts be limited to a modestly improving high school and elementary and middle schools whose already poor performance is only getting worse?

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Bureaucratic teacher evaluations bring no change

Posted by Jim Stergios February 9, 2013 01:15 PM

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Back in April 2011, the Globe editorial page touted "Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s proposed regulations linking teacher evaluations to student performance" as "a long-awaited step toward rewarding effective teachers and unmasking incompetent ones." Many have seen the new evaluation system as a huge step forward, but I've always been highly skeptical that it will do anything but create a lot more paper.

In this regard, as I noted at the time, I think the Worcester Telegram & Gazette was the media outlet with the most detailed and most accurate view of the new evaluations:

The state’s new regulations for the evaluation of educators… establish that MCAS test results will play some role in teacher evaluations; they state that student and teacher feedback are to be included in the evaluation process, eventually; and they allow for the inclusion of existing measures of progress at individual schools or in districts.

But those points don’t arrive until three-quarters of the way through a 20-page thicket of definitions, standards and indicators, most of which are painfully obvious, vaguely phrased, repetitive, or offer little specific guidance to educators. And the regulations never state exactly how much weight MCAS will have, exactly how teacher and student feedback will be factored into evaluations, and who is to decide whether a district or school’s existing evaluation process is good enough.

In fact, the regulations lay out 16 “indicators” for teacher standards in the areas of Curriculum and Planning, Teaching All Students, Family and Community Engagement, and Professional Culture. There are 20 such “indicators” for administrators, reaching into every conceivable area of day-to-day school management...

It isn’t clear to us how any of this will help districts rid themselves of bad teachers any more quickly, ensure such teachers aren’t passed around within or between systems, or, on the positive side, facilitate the recruitment, promotion and rewarding of excellent teachers.

We were hoping for a far more succinct, specific and clear set of expectations that would promote accountability and excellence. Instead, by virtue of their length, complexity and open-ended language, these new educator evaluation regulations strike us as an excellent way to create more work and worry for administrators and teachers, while ensuring plenty of new grist for the wheels of bureaucracy that revolve at the state Department of Education.

If it were up to us, we’d declare these new regulations “unsatisfactory,” take an eraser to the whole blackboard, and start over.

Of course, the proof will be in the what we see the education sector do. As would be the case in any sector (business or public), authentic evaluations of performance would translate into the identification of a number of individuals to reward, steward or remove.

Attempts at bureaucratic statements about teacher quality include the "highly qualified teacher" provision of the No Child Left Behind (the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education) Act. As goes with most of these things, the definition allows for most Massachusetts districts to tout that 98-100 percent of their teachers are highly qualified.

Thanks to Massachusetts' unique teacher certification test, which prioritizes content knowledge (aligned with the state academic standards), the Bay State's teacher corps is more qualified to teach required academic work than in other states that use the so-called PRAXIS test. But 98, 99 or 100 percent of our teachers highly qualified? C'mon.

And yet the federally-promoted teacher evaluations, which were driven through the Race to the Top inducements, are showing the very same pattern of overstating teacher effectiveness. Look, Massachusetts has a slightly different take on teacher evaluations than does Michigan, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, but most of the elements of the programs are similar -- and similarly bureaucratic.

It's a little like all those states that have been using "A to F" school grading systems, where somehow the great majority of the schools fall into the A and B categories. Astounding. If that's the case, how is it so many of our kids fail to do well? (Massachusetts is far better served by providing the straight student performance -- the MCAS -- data.)

So while we wait to see what the numbers will look like coming out of the Massachusetts evaluation system, let's see how Michigan, Florida an other states have fared. EdWeek has a piece today which notes that

In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better.

Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be "at expectations" or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program.

Harumph. So predictable. File under: Another in that interminable list of process reforms driven by Race to the Top that supposedly will be game-changers and result in... more paper. Get the shredders ready.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

How vocational technical schools are lowering dropout rates

Posted by Jim Stergios January 23, 2013 08:19 AM

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On January 6th the Boston Globe published a thoughtful opinion piece on the cost of dropouts by Alan Leventhal, who in his day job serves as chairman and chief executive officer of Beacon Capital Partners. It opened with a good overview of the challenge in the country:

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY for education has been a social and moral imperative of our society. In the looming budget battles, it is now an economic imperative. The secondary education system annually produces 1 million dropouts nationally — 10,000 in Massachusetts alone — at a staggering cost to society.

The cost of a dropout over a lifetime has been estimated at up to $500,000 in lost wages, increased entitlements, and criminal justice spending. If the dropout rate can be reduced by one-half to 500,000 annually, savings will approach $250 billion over the lifetime of each graduating class. Over a 10-year period this would represent lifetime savings of almost $2.5 trillion. In the context of our budget challenges, this is real money.

There are many ways to come at this issue, but perhaps the most hopeful way is to look at the state’s voc-techs, which educate a higher percentage of at-risk students. Statewide, 17 percent of students are in special education, while the number is 24 percent at the voc-techs.

Previous blogs and research I have shared here have underscored how much academic performance has improved in the regional vocational-technical schools, which function autonomously outside the purview of a district superintendent. A quick primer on the issue can be gotten in Vocational-Technical Education in Massachusetts (October 2008); a few blogs (here, here, here, and here), and a Fall River Herald News op-ed in support of expanding vocational education.

Why is this the most hopeful way to look at the issue of dropouts? Because, as a report released yesterday notes, voc-tech schools -- especially a subset of them -- are hitting it out of the park increasing the graduation rate and lowering dropout rates.

The special education graduation rate for vocational technical schools, which stands at 82 percent, is nearly 20 percentage points higher than that of traditional district high schools.

Looking at it from Leventhal’s frame – that of the dropout rate -- here are the numbers: "The statewide dropout rate at regular/comprehensive high schools averaged 2.8 percent in 2011, but … averaged a mere 0.9 percent among regional CVTE schools."

Translated into a way that normal people think about this (a four-year high school cycle), that amounts to just over 11 percent of Massachusetts kids dropping out, and in the regional vocational technical schools less than 4 percent.

That’s a lot less than the district schools overall, but also a lot less than the city and town-run vocational technical schools, which have a cumulative four-year dropout rate of 17+ percent.

As the report notes, “the dropout rate is often higher among schools located in urban areas where the problems of gang violence, poverty and family dynamics can derail a student’s attempt to graduate from high school.” But there is, based on the decline in dropouts in regional voc-tech schools and also the standout performance of Worcester Tech, reason to believe we can do a lot better with the voc-techs currently part of the overall district system.

Consider this section of the report on Worcester Tech:

In the 2010-2011 school year, Worcester Tech’s dropout rate was just 0.5 percent, well under the statewide average of 2.7 percent and the 0.9 percent dropout rate for all vocational technical schools in the commonwealth. Among its sister urban district-controlled vocational technical schools, whose average dropout rate was 4.4 percent in 2010-2011, Worcester Tech had the lowest rate.

Perhaps more impressive is how Worcester Tech compares with schools in its own backyard. The district-wide dropout rate among the seven high schools in Worcester was 3.7 percent and Worcester Tech, with its 1,400 students, has the largest enrollment in the city.

… Worcester Tech’s low dropout rate and 95.8 percent graduation rate are a marked turnaround from where the school was a decade ago. Paired with the new facility was a new educational attitude that gave Worcester Tech the autonomy it needed to operate on its own, as a separate CVTE entity, and not “just another Worcester High School.”

“We needed to address the rigor of the academics connected to the technical program,” says Harrity. “We certainly had strength in the technical program and we had state of the art technology and equipment to support that, but we needed the integrated approach that really made student education relevant.”

Worcester Tech began incorporating more Advanced Placement courses into its four small learning communities: Alden Design and Engineering; Coghlin Construction Technology; Information Technology and Business Services; and Allied Health and Human Services Academy. It was approved to be a Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative (MMSI) 24 school, a program to increase participation in AP courses among underserved populations, with a pledge to increase AP offerings in science, technology, engineering and math. Advanced Placement enrollment was up 93 percent in the 2010- 2011 school year compared with the prior year.”

In his State of the City last year, Mayor Tom Menino vowed to make Madison Park Vocational Technical School a model for the city and the rest of the state. That certainly has not happened yet – and a year into the process the Mayor will want to rethink the strategy of keeping the school embedded in the overall district system – together with so many high schools that have very different missions.

There is huge upside for the mayor, if he draws the basic lesson from the new report:

when vocational-technical schools and programs are autonomous, they are significantly more successful, especially at retaining students, than CVTE schools and programs that are run as a component of a larger district

As David Ferreira, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators notes:

“The needs and responsibilities of vocational-technical students are unique. It only makes sense for schools to have the freedom to set policies and procedures customized to those students.”
There are other recommendations that are worth looking at including the mix of “academic choice, applied learning, intense mentor relationships, and high expectations” used in high-performing vocational-technical schools. Especially important for Madison Park is establishing “a schedule of alternating weeks of academic and trade education, which makes it easier for students to envision themselves in a career.”

The issue of dropouts cannot be solved by vocational-technical schools alone. But there are many lessons from the highest performing voc-techs that apply more broadly – especially in places like Madison Park Vocational. Freeing our urban vocational technical schools to perform at a higher level could serve as an important step forward in addressing the needs of at-risk kids.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Massachusetts aces international math and science tests

Posted by Jim Stergios December 13, 2012 02:29 PM


With the announcement of the Trends in Math and Science Study results this week, there are all kinds of statements being made about who made out well and what it means. They range from the wildly overstated claims of the Foundation for Excellence in Education that Florida’s mediocre performance on the TIMSS signified that the Sunshine State is a “national example,” “world leader,”and “busting all the myths” to accurate praise for Massachusetts for showing continued progress into the upper tier of countries in the world in math and science.

Here are the four takeaways from the tests

The TIMSS test matters. Massachusetts should be extremely pleased to have done well on the TIMSS test, for it is in many ways a tougher test than the PISA tests. Dougal Hutchison and Ian Schagen analyzed the TIMSS and PISA tests for the National Foundation for Educational Research citing the work of Graham Ruddock, who looked closely at the tests in a British context, noting:

It is the quantity of reading that marks PISA out, not the complexity of the language, which is similarly unfamiliar in both the international studies. The high reading demand of questions in PISA is often accompanied by a relatively lower demand in the mathematics or science required. This reflects the lower level of mathematics or science that students can apply in new contexts as opposed to very familiar ones. (Ruddock et al., 2006, p.123).

The TIMSS is a more objective test based on multiple choice answers, with far more numeracy and algebra on the test items (PISA has more data manipulation), and more focus on knowledge acquired.

The United States is still doing poorly, but Massachusetts stands out among an increasing number of states that are participating as countries. On 4th-grade math, the US is fully 60 points behind Singapore, 40-plus behind Japan and 20 behind Great Britain. The States’ 11th place showing is no reason for celebration. As the NCES press release notes, 4th graders are improving over time with the average US score going up 23 points since 1995 (12 points in just the last four years). The US did moderately well on the percentage of 4th graders scoring advanced, coming in around 8th of the 57 countries sand other systems tested.

On 4th-grade science, the happy news is that US 4th-graders are performing at a higher level (now 7th of the 57 systems against which it was compared); the bad news… there is virtually no change in the US 4th-grade score since 1995! The US is over 40 points behind Korea and Singapore.

Worried? Let’s focus on 8th-grade performance, which tells more about sustained ability to move students forward (and also for reasons of keeping our dear reader’s interest). By the 8th grade US students fall to just slightly above average (509 versus the TIMSS average score of 500). Worse, there is virtually no change in 8th-grade US student performance on this test since 2007.

Average math scores, 8th grade (57 countries and education systems)
Korea, Republic of 613
Singapore 611
Chinese Taipei 609
Hong Kong 586
Japan 570
Massachusetts 561
Russia 539
Connecticut 518
Florida 513
US average 509
TIMSS scale ave. 500

Looking at some of the states that participated in TIMSS, we can see that a Globe front page headline this week was justified in noting that Massachusetts pupils buck the national trend. On both 4th-grade but more importantly on 8th-grade math, Massachusetts (if it were a country) scores with international leaders. We have a long way to go to get to the level of South Korea, Singapore and Chinese Taipei, but we blow the doors off of other states and the U.S. “World leader” Florida scores right about where the U.S. does. Hmm.

Turning to science, again, the US 8th graders muster a mediocre average score of 525 (versus the overall international average of 500). While the U.S. has made progress since 1995, that can’t be said of the period since 2007. What of state participants like Massachusetts, Florida and Connecticut? Again, Massachusetts performs very well, behind only Singapore. We need to up our game significantly to reach Singapore, but we are far ahead of the US average and clean the clocks of neighbors like Connecticut and also “national leader” Florida.

Average science scores, 8th grade (56 countries and education systems)
Singapore 590
Massachusetts 567
Chinese Taipei 564
Korea, Republic of 560
Japan 558
Finland 552
Slovenia 543
Connecticut 532
Florida 530
US average 525
TIMSS scale ave. 500

States lead the way on reform. Arne Duncan noted in his press release associated with TIMSS that states can play a role in improving schools. Well, given what Massachusetts has accomplished these past two decades and the little impact of federal policy, perhaps a better way of putting it is: States and localities are the only entities capable of improving student performance. States and localities bring 90 percent of the revenue pie, and states and localities are flexible and innovative enough to craft policies that matter.

The question for Massachusetts is why, if it is showing this kind of progress, it would want to tether itself to national and federal efforts like the Common Core standards, tests, and curricular materials. Why the best state in the US would resign itself to being like all the rest of the states is truly a difficult policy decision to explain.

Massachusetts still has a way to go. The students participating in the TIMSS are a representative sample of students from around the state. We know we have a long way to go to get Boston, Cambridge, New Bedford, Fall River, Lawrence, Holyoke, Springfield and other urban school districts up to the bar. But the TIMSS data is clear in showing the weaknesses we have vis-a-vis the highest-performing countries. Singapore has double the percentage of students in the "advanced" scoring range in math and science.

So the title of this post is overstating where we are. We deserve a B or B+ on TIMSS, with a recommendation to redouble our efforts to address unique issues. Specifically, the test confirms that we need to make our standards and curricular choices even more rigorous and that we have work to do to improve the quality of our teacher core.

If we make the right choices, having the best schools in the world is within reach. Lowering the bar by adopting Common Core is no more helpful than it would be for a teacher to tell a student who is performing well and improving fast to join a study group with underachievers. For us that means the rest of the United States, which earns no more than a C- on TIMSS.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

A new law expanding virtual schools?

Posted by Jim Stergios December 10, 2012 08:00 AM

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Back in January 2010, there was a lot of hope that the charter school expansions associated with the new law would work out well. The data on that is largely tremendous. The new charters are faring very well, thank you.

There were other elements in the law including the creation of statewide “virtual schools,” schools where students could do much of their coursework online. That promise was not kept, as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education put into place what were onerous regulations that dissuaded all but the Superintendent of Greenfield Schools from attempting to create such an entity.

Susan Patrick, perhaps one of the most informed policymakers on virtual education, noted at a recent event in Massachusetts that the Department Education actually took her original advice on best practices in how to regulate online learning (no geographic restrictions, no enrollment caps, and pay for successful course completion, etc.) and did the exact opposite. (Check out from 22:00 to 24:30.)

In many states throughout the country, virtual or digital schools are serving ever growing numbers of students. During this public debate, my organization has urged everyone to look at Florida’s Virtual School, even inviting FLVS’s founder, Julie Young, to speak with district and state policymakers.

This past week, the Senate gave a second chance to digital learning in Massachusetts, passing a bill that expands the presence of virtual schools statewide, so that by 2020 the Board of Education could license up to 10 of such schools.

The bill, which originated in and was passed by the House as H4274 (no online summary available), gives emphasis and preference to those schools that will serve students with distinct medical issues, that have dropped out, travel for the arts or sports, fear bullying, and are high-performing students.

Starting in 2013, the Board of Education will be able to grant three virtual schools from 2013-2016, the same number from 2016-2019, and up to four in the 2019-2020 cycle. Again, no more than 10 can be created. Applicants for licensure can include school districts, charter schools, teachers, and parents – and the existing virtual school in Greenfield is guaranteed one of the licenses. The Senate bill establishing 37 elements necessary in any application, but then sets the following parameters:

  • The number of students attending virtual schools full-time will not exceed 2 percent (currently, about 19,000 students) of the statewide student population
  • Local school committees can restrict local enrollment if more than 1 percent of its students attend virtual schools (for a point of reference, in Boston around 550 students, in Chelsea 60, in Lawrence 130).
  • At least 5 percent of students have to come from the district within which the virtual school is formed.

The bill also does away with “seat time” requirements – that is, the minimum number of hours that a student must spend physically at school. It places the same curricular mandates and requirements for standardized testing as are present in all Massachusetts public schools.

As argued before (here, here, and here), I am a big supporter of lots of choices for parents. So in principle this is a good bill. I also appreciate the fact that the licenses will be given out for period of three to five years with a accountability review based upon achieving promised improvements in student achievement and other important metrics.

In section (m) there are requirements that the school submit an annual report that includes

  • a “discussion of progress made toward” stated goals;

  • “a list of the programs and courses offered;”

  • “a description and number of the students enrolled,” applied and not admitted;

  • “a [detailed] financial statement)”;

Section (m) requires “information regarding, and a discussion of,”

  • student attendance and participation;

  • student-teacher interaction;

  • student performance;

And, finally a discussion of

  • courses completed and not completed;

  • the creation of “a community for students”;

  • activities “to engage students and how students participated”;

  • parental involvement;

  • “the school’s outreach and recruitment efforts”.

That’s a lot of discussions and descriptions, and for the most part useful for the Department of Education as it seeks to learn about what is working and may work in the future. The bill also requires the Department will then produce its own report based on MCAS and other metrics, which it will provide back to the school and the public.

What is missing from all of this are two things I’ve noted in previous posts on virtual learning, drawing from the experiences in other states. First the negative, then the positive experiences.

As the New York Times’ Stephanie Saul made clear in her 2011 piece on virtual schools, Pennsylvania was seeing over 50 percent of its virtual students withdraw from the courses they were taking. The problem was solvable – and it required little more a proper auditing of teachers and students together with a change in the payment system so that payments followed the child, but were only made after the student had successfully completed a course.

Such a change would have all kinds of virtues, including creating incentives for the virtual school to seek out students who were good fits for online courses – not just warm bodies that would sign up for a course.

Which is where the positive experience of the Florida Virtual School comes in. Established in 1997, during the administration of then-Governor Lawton Chiles, FLVS started due to a $200,000 grant from the state department of education and support from the Alachua School District and the Orange School District.

As I noted in a previous RTS post, the Florida Virtual School, a Better Government Competition winner, is the example we should be looking at:

FLVS is not a simple distance learning option, with correspondence-style courses and videoconferencing, as you can find in rural western US states, Alaska and parts of Canada. FLVS is a completely internet-based model that provides students in rural as well urban settings everything from AP classes, summer intensive work and remedial support to a full-fledged K-12 curriculum. FLVS is a statewide school system funded on a “pay for performance” basis. Rather than focusing on “seat time,” it aims for students’ mastery of their subjects.

The numbers show that it is working. FLVS’ course completion rate has consistently remained above 80%, with 80,000 students completing 100,000 course enrollments (each enrollment equivalent to one semester’s work). These students range in demographics and in terms of needs—from emotionally and physically handicapped students to the academically advanced. Minorities comprise about one third of FLVS’s population, exceeding the national online learning participation rate among minorities by about 20%. Among AP students, minority participation was at 39% in 2006-2007. You can see some FLVS student activities here.

Susan Patrick’s iNACOL notes that FLVS has

pushed next generation learning forward with a combination of competency-based learning and performance-based funding. With open enrollment, students can register and begin online courses any day of the year… Funding is provided when students successfully complete courses. Every student in Florida has access to the 115 online courses offered by the Florida Virtual School, providing licensed educators who are skilled in online instruction.

This performance-based funding model has required FLVS to develop sophisticated data systems that monitor student progress in detail. Data was integrated between the instructional and administrative information systems used in the school. Specifically, the learning management system for the online course data was integrated with the student information system for a standards-based learning model for monitoring progress in real time.

Florida Tax Watch reported that the performance-based model of Florida Virtual School was a better return on taxpayer dollars—serving a higher percentage of under-served students, while producing better results in student learning outcomes—than traditional models.

So, where does this bill come out on funding? Well, as you might expect, we have got our work cut out to ensure that we are putting the right incentives into place. The bill notes in section (k) that

The amount of tuition per pupil a school district shall pay for its student or students who enroll in a commonwealth virtual school shall be the school choice tuition amount.

The school choice tuition rate referred to in the Senate bill is 75 percent of any school’s “operating cost per full-time equivalent pupil for the receiving school district.” The tuition rate is capped at $5,000. As Patrick notes in the video at top (again the same segment, 22:00 to 24:30), it is far better to have the funding follow the child on a per course basis, with the check being cut only when the student successfully completes the course.
But, alas, we will still be cutting checks among districts.

As a P.S., the final section of the Senate bill makes an explicit warning:

Upon release of the proposed regulations, the board shall file a copy thereof with the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate who shall forward the regulations to the joint committee on education. Within 30 days of the filing, the committee may hold a public hearing and issue a report on the regulations and file the report with the board.
That’s a bunch of words that admonish the Commissioner of Education not to tie this law up with red tape. Well said, Senators.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

The perfect storm facing Jewish Day Schools

Posted by Jim Stergios December 6, 2012 04:25 AM


Think of school choice in Massachusetts and the first thoughts that come to mind are charter schools in the public realm, possibly the Bay State's many high-end and mainly historic independent schools, or Catholic schools in urban and suburban areas across the Commonwealth.

The fact is that there is a lot of choice in Massachusetts. Consider the 3,300 kids in METCO interdistrict programs in Boston and, to a lesser extent, in Springfield; kids in other interdistrict choice programs around the state; and vocational-technical schools around the state.

If Catholic schools have seen declining enrollments, the waiting lists for charter public schools and METCO programs are in the tens of thousands. With the impressive work of the state’s regional voc-tech schools, they now have thousands of kids on their waiting lists as well.

Of course, for independent schools affordability is a huge barrier to entry. That is true not only of the $25,000-plus annual tuition locations, which often focus part of their recruitment strategies on providing scholarship opportunities; it is also true for Catholic schools and Jewish Day Schools (JDS).

With 3,000 students enrolled in Massachusetts’ 19 Jewish day schools (which represent Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and pluralist cultures), we are talking about a set of schools that serve about as many kids as are enrolled in METCO. Except for seven historic schools (Yeshiva Academy in Worcester, the Lubavitcher Yeshiva and the Heritage Academies in Longmeadow, New England Hebrew Academy and the Maimonides in Brookline, the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, and Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead), the JDS are of relatively recent vintage having been established since the 1970s.

A recent study entitled "And You Shall Teach Them Diligently": The History and Status of Jewish Day Schools in Massachusetts provides important historical and pedagogical analysis of JDS. (The title is drawn from an exhortation in Deuteronomy 6:7.) The author of the paper, Jason Bedrick, then focuses on enrollment declines in the day schools, which have mirrored the decreases seen in the public system over the past decade, though there has been some growth in Orthodox “Chabad-affiliated K-8 schools and high schools of all affiliations.” The result is that

Declining enrollment in recent years has left Massachusetts’ Jewish day schools with significant excess capacity. Capacity utilization ranges from below 49 percent to 100 percent, with only one school at either extreme and most schools operating at between 70 percent and 99 percent. More than half of the schools are operating at less than 90 percent capacity while only one-fifth are operating at less than 70 percent capacity.

What is leading to the declines in JDS is different from the demographic patterns we see in the overall public system. Part of it is cost, with “the range of total per student costs at the Jewish day schools [ed. note: including infrastructure costs] is similar to the range of current per pupil expenditures at nearby public schools [ed. note: excluding infrastructure costs].”

Citing Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, Bedrick notes that

the day schools are currently facing a “perfect storm” of a growing number of families requiring financial aid combined with a shrinking philanthropic base of support. This is making it difficult for Jewish day schools to fulfill their longstanding tradition of not turning away students due to lack of ability to pay…

Marc Baker of Gann Academy says that the need for financial aid since 2008 is “through the roof.” Gann is “closer to Catholic schools than other independent schools” in that the socio-economic status of most students is “right in the middle, on the brink of not being able to afford it.” This is true of many Jewish day schools in Massachusetts, particularly, though not exclusively, the Orthodox schools. “We don’t have a wealthy clientele here,” explains Esther Ciment, principal at New England Hebrew Academy, “There are multiple families with five or six kids in the school. It’s absolutely impossible for them to pay full tuition or even half tuition, so we give out a lot of scholarships. Filling that void is a struggle all the time.”

The latest demographic survey of the Jewish community in the Greater Boston area found that 27 percent of families earn less than $50,000 annually with 15 percent earning less than $35,000.

How should we address the “perfect storm” of increasing need for financial aid and decreasing philanthropic support? Acknowledging the two state constitutional barriers to providing public tax dollars for private school use, which sadly stem from the Know-Nothing bigotry of the 1850s and 1860s, Bedrick suggests an education tax credit program to ensure that children have the widest possible access to the schools their parents choose for them. There is a clear need, especially for low-income families; and tax credits have been targeted in New Hampshire and Rhode Island to address those specific needs.

Bedrick suggests looking at these programs in neighboring states to see how we might structure such a program here, suggesting that the education tax credits could be granted to philanthropies or philanthropists contributing to state-approved, non-profit scholarship organizations. The organizations would then grant scholarships to qualifying families.

Studies indicate that reductions in revenue from the tax credits are generally less than the corresponding reductions in education spending as a result of students taking advantage of the programs. More than 100,000 students in 10 states – including Rhode Island and New Hampshire –are currently educated under tax credit programs.

You can see a paper on Rhode Island's tax credit strategy here. See Bedrick describe the study below.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Students in which states are climbing highest?

Posted by Jim Stergios November 20, 2012 02:04 PM

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A lot of the headlines in the general and specialized media on education have focused the past few years on the seemingly interminable list of federal initiatives, which are more or less attempts by the federal government to define what "real" state reforms are (standards, tests, curricular materials, instructional practice, evaluations). It is ironic to anyone who watches this closely to remember that Secretary Duncan is largely working off of a cheat sheet he developed while superintendent of Chicago -- hardly an experience that has a lot of empirical evidence to back it up. When not leaning on that experience, he has turned to a number of DC-based organizations with equally weak records in improving outcomes for kids (see here for a much deserved skewering of said friends of reform).

The real action has always been at the state and local level. The reasons for that are easy to explain: tradition, federal and state laws, and money (states and localities provide >90% of all K-12 funding). The press and the policy world's focus on DC is not only misinformed, it is misleading. It is why we often hear pronouncements without meaning such as: Charter schools around the country have not performed uniformly well. Yup. Well, how about looking at the state level? State and local policy sets the parameters for charter consistency and performance just as they determine the success and failure of district, vocational-technical, virtual and private school options. Charters in Massachusetts are in many ways distinct from those in a number of states. And ours are highly successful in great part because of getting state policies right in the 1990s.

So, which states have shown the most progress overall (charter, district, and everybody included)? Which states can act as models for other state reformers who are not looking for dictates from the USDOE but rather to other comparable experiences?
There are a handful of states, but generally Massachusetts and Florida rise to the top for significant (and sustained) increases in student performance over time.

Matt Ladner works for the Foundation for Excellence in Education (an organization headed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush) and he is very bullish on Florida. He shared in a recent blog post entitled Read 'Em and Weep Edureactionaries (not sure who those reactionaries are...) an interesting chart from an important report authored by Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek, which once more shows that there is no correlation between money spent and K-12 academic performance.

Focusing on the 4th Grade Mathematics exam between 1992 and 2009, the authors found that increasing spending does not have a strong relationship with improved student learning.

But Ladner loses me when he starts putting the reforms in Florida on a pedestal at the expense of the reforms in Massachusetts.

Conflict-adverse state policymakers with extra billions of dollars burning a hole in their pocket and very wealthy and pale complected students should study MD, DE and MA for clues on how to improve their student outcomes.

If however you live in a state with average or above student diversity, real budgetary constraints on the amount you can spend on K-12 and strong competing demands for any additional revenue you are likely to scrape up, you should study Florida. In fact you should study Florida regardless unless you lack the guts for a good tussle.

He is in fact doing what many analysts do, which is conflate money with reform. Do I believe that money can be helpful in securing reforms? Yep. The fact is that the Massachusetts reforms (as opposed to the money) started in 1993 in reaction to a court case brought by the teachers unions seeking “adequate” funding. And it is a political fact of life that it’s often hard to get constituencies to agree to do hard things unless you provide additional resources.

In the case of Massachusetts, the money has largely gone to salary increases and sizable increases in funding dedicated to paying for the remarkable inflation in the cost of teachers’ health care.

But let's dig into Matt's thesis and start by following the money trail in both states. If Massachusetts increased its per pupil funding at the same rate as FL (1992-2009, NCES), it would have seen increases of 209% rather than the 236% we’ve seen. (The national average is 211% over that period of time.) Instead of increasing from $6,151 to $14,501, MA per pupil expenditures would now stand at $12,850, again according to NCES, or about $1,650 per pupil (see here and here).

That $1,650 per pupil differential in funding between Florida and Massachusetts is altogether due to the fact that Massachusetts increased teacher salaries far more than FL during the 1990 to 2011 period. In just the past 10 years, the average salary for a Massachusetts teacher has gone from $50,880 to $71,752 (+45%) versus $41,640 to $45, 732 (+20%) in Florida, according to the Teacher Portal (an effort by the National Education Association to track salaries and benefits).

the clilmb - FL-MaSalaryBen.jpg

A separate but important expenditure side issue to note is that a recent study demonstrated that increases in health care costs for teachers in MA more than consumed all additional revenues from the state for education from 2000-2007, consuming $300 million more than increases in state funding.

The differential in the cost of health care, where average Massachusetts teacher plans are at least on average a couple of thousand higher, makes the difference in state education spending even less of an issue as it relates to the cost of reform.

There is of course the fact that normalizing (seeking apples to apples comparisons on purchasing power) the expenditure levels also corrects some of the differential, in as much as a Bureau of Economic Analysis report notes the difference in purchasing power between Boston and Miami to be on the order of 12 percent. (For those who may like extra handholding, Boston is the more expensive location!)

In suggesting that the Massachusetts’ reforms are less applicable to most states than those enacted in Florida, Matt is in essence equating money with reform. That is, he is implicitly making the argument that the teacher salary increases and the incredible run-up in teacher health care costs are a big part of the Massachusetts reform agenda. Logically, he is also assigning these increases in salary and health care costs a role in Massachusetts' faster improvement on the Nation’s Report Card, where the Bay State has improved faster than Florida on 4th and 8th grade math, and where Florida has outpaced Massachusetts' rate of improvement on 4th and 8th grade reading.

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I’m all for paying teachers more – in fact especially open to paying starting teachers more. But the fact is with low starting salaries imposed and absence of merit pay opposed by the teachers union because of their insistence on a uniform salary schedule, there is little to no reason to think that higher average salaries have done much during this period to improve the quality of teaching unless you make two pretty indefensible assumptions. One, schools of education have changed in a way that has altered the pipeline of prospective teachers. (Um, not true.) Second, teachers who are paid more are better teachers because of motivational factors. The second statement is not empirically tested and unknown as of yet, but it assumes that teachers who received lower pay before held back on the talents they possess. Observation tells me that such cases are limited in the extreme.

I also hope Matt is not asserting that paying more for health care is related to the quality of teaching.

The reforms in MA — mainly (1) choice through a high-quality charter process, inter-district choice, strengthening vocational-technical schools (which are schools of choice); (2) the development and implementation of high-quality standards; (3) high-quality student testing, made public and attached to an independent school audit system; and (4) teacher tests based on the standards and unlike the various PRAXIS tests given out countrywide in that Massachusetts’ tests are content-driven — are not what has driven up the cost of education in Massachusetts. There has been an increase in teacher quality, and rather than being driven by salary increases, it is due to the unique way we test our teachers. While content-knowledge may not make a great teacher on its own, it sure does keep a lot of unprepared teachers out of the classroom.

The argument that these reforms are the work of “conflict-adverse state policymakers with extra billions of dollars burning a hole in their pocket” is more than a tad myopic.

Anyone who has looked at what Florida has accomplished over the past 20 years to improve student performance is impressed by a couple of important reforms such as holding the line on making sure third graders read at grade level before being promoted and the innovative and highly accountable Florida Virtual School, which receives funding only if and when students complete their online courses. The state has also increased choice options beyond what we’ve seen in Massachusetts. And Florida has improved on the Nation’s Report Card.

That said, last I looked (the 2011 NAEP), the Sunshine State is still below the national average on 4th grade math and absolutely dismal (somewhere below 40th in the country) on 8th grade math. Its improvements on 4th grade reading are solid, driving Florida to around 10th place in the country. Florida’s 8th grade reading scores on the NAEP are, again, pretty bad, coming in somewhere around 35th in the country.

Moreover, Florida’s gains on the NAEP have in recent years slowed and in some cases been reversed. The stalling of student performance in Florida has been accompanied by recent increases in funding for K-12 that outpace those in Massachusetts.

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So not only does Massachusetts at least keep pace with Florida in terms of improvement from 1992-2011 on NAEP (with one giant, gaping exception which I will note below), but it is doing it at a different level. Florida started from the bottom and moved to a below average state in terms of performance. The Bay State went from just above average to the top performer in the country — and to being competitive on international tests like the (2007) TIMSS, where we scored in the top six countries in math and science, and tied for number 1 on the 8th grade science test. We are playing in the big leagues.

And we continue to show improvements on NAEP.

the climb - statue-of-liberty - inside.jpg

Moving from the bottom to an average performer as Florida has done, while good, is not nearly as hard as going from above average to the top. As they say, the higher the altitude, the tougher the climb. Florida’s slowdown in improvements is, one hopes, temporary.

Now for the big, gaping hole Massachusetts must address – and where it would do well to learn from Florida — improving Hispanic student performance. While the Bay State has outpaced Florida’s impressive rate of improvement among 4th grade Hispanics on reading (comparing the 1998 and 2011 NAEP, MA has gone from 196 to 216, while FL has gone from 203 to 220), we have fallen flat on 8th grade Hispanic reading; from 1998 to 2011, Massachusetts went only from 242 to 248, while Florida improved from 247 to 259. (It is worth noting that from the first year the NAEP disaggregated Hispanic performance, Florida Hispanics have outscored ours.)

I share the data and the thoughts above to make two points: (1) I agree that additional education spending does not correlate with success and (2) I agree that the Florida model has real merit.

But reformers in other states, even ones with a sharp eye on keeping costs down, would do well to look at Massachusetts as much and, frankly, even more than Florida. The blue-state salary increases and health care cost inflation are options the 30 states with Republican governors (25 where the state legislatures are also controlled by Republicans) need not sign up for.

Arguing that these increases in education spending in Massachusetts are what drove the state’s rise in student performance may serve as a nice talking point for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, but it has the unfortunate characteristic of being untrue.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Don't Count Your Chickens Before Elections: Tony Bennett's Defeat in Indiana

Posted by Jim Stergios November 8, 2012 03:48 PM

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In what you might call a “count your chickens before they hatch” moment, even as late as the morning of Super Tuesday (November 6, 2012, 7:16:15AM EST) Virginia Edwards of EdWeek’s “Leadership Forum” sent an email invitation entitled “Save the Date: Road Maps to Common Core Success in March 2013.”

I invite you to attend Road Maps to Common Core Success. This Education Week Leadership Forum is taking place in Indianapolis, IN on March 11, 2013 and in White Plains, NY on March 21, 2013. At this day-long event, you will hear from state and district leaders, education experts in, and other colleagues on their common core implementations, and discover and share new ideas on curricula, teacher training, and assessment.

For those attending in Indianapolis on March 11, you'll meet Dr. Tony Bennett, Indiana state superintendent of public instruction, who will discuss how his state has built the common core into a comprehensive education reform agenda.

That was pretty much par for the course for EdWeek and for Tony Bennett. EdWeek has long been funded by the Gates Foundation and sponsors any number of forums that support the Foundation's priorities. Superintendent Bennett made it his business to talk up Common Core wherever possible, often arguing against facts (Indiana's state standards were superior to the Common Core standards, but he repeatedly posited the opposite.) He was a regular at legislative events, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (a forum for conservative state lawmakers to discuss issues and debate model legislation). Such meetings matter on a national basis because Republicans control the majority of governorships (30 of 50) and state legislative chambers. At ALEC meetings in November 2011 and spring 2012, he provided the defense for national standards and tests.

There's one problem. He lost his re-election bid on Tuesday. At the end of the summer few imagined he might lose. As EdWeek’s Andrew Ujifusa noted election night

Democrat Glenda Ritz, backed by the state teachers' union, has knocked off a big-time figure in the education policy world, Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett. As of about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, the word spread that Bennett began giving his concession speech.

Bennett’s concession speech is here.

Ritz hung the use of national standards and national tests to evaluate teachers around Bennett's neck. Like other commentators, in his reporting, Ujifusa overstates the opposition to the aspects of Governor Mitch Daniels and Bennett’s agenda in favor of choice and charter schools (“This has to be a major blow for charter, school choice, and the general 'education reform' community.”).

The fact is that while Bennett faced an onslaught of angry teachers, the numbers point to anger among his base over his vocal support for and adoption of the national standards and tests. Activists note that it was “the prime issue among his base.”

Bennett's loss was not, as Diane Ravitch is suggesting, a rejection of choice and market forces in education. As Erin Tuttle, one of the key local activist moms in Indiana, argues:

I live in Indiana and am close to the issue. I'll tell you why Bennett lost. It wasn't the idea of choice or free markets, it was the crippling effect of the Common Core straight jacket on these ideas. Bennett's allegiance to ObamaCore is what undid him. Hoosiers like the idea of school choice but only with truly free market forces, not those with nationalized standards and curriculum-shaping federal tests.


Only a difference of curriculums, methods, philosophies, teachers and student achievement make school choice real and Hoosiers know that. Bennett lost because he didn't listen to the people, parents, teachers and legislators alike. He just didn't do the bidding of his people. Other common core federal mandate-supporting politicians should beware.

Here's the electoral evidence. Other Indiana school reform candidates won. As RiShawn Biddle suggests even within Indiana,

One cannot fully surmise Bennett’s defeat as a harbinger of things to come for the school reform movement, both in Indiana and the nation at large. As seen in Indianapolis, where three reform-oriented candidates have gained seats on the board of the worst-performing district in the Midwest outside of Detroit in spite of the opposition of the NEA affiliate there (and that of failed school leader Eugene White, who has presided over IPS’ continuing decline), reformers can win elections.

From a friend:

At first glance, it looks like the anti-CCSSI vote played a major role in Bennett’s loss. [Bennett’s] vote total lagged Romney and Pence and was only slightly higher than Obama’s:

Romney 1,339,931
Pence 1,207,212
Bennett 1,107,767
Obama 1,079,556

And Ritz got more votes (she received 1,246,201) than Pence and President Obama. This tells me that anti-Common Core conservatives who voted for Romney and Pence not only refused to vote for Bennett but actually voted for Ritz. I have a hard time believing that these (likely GOP) voters were voting against Bennett’s other reforms.

Any elected education official who backs CCSSI in a red state should be extremely concerned about these results.

And he's right. As StateImpact, a collaboration of local public media and NPR notes:

Electorally, Bennett’s share of the vote slipped significantly from 2008 in several key counties where other Republicans (Romney, Pence, Mourdock) won.

See StateImpact's map here and consider this:

  • Losses on home turf. Bennett not only saw his share of the vote in Allen County slip by 7 percentage points — he lost Allen County, the home of Fort Wayne. Pence won this county by 12. Romney won it by 17.
  • 10+ percentage point drops. Despite solid Romney victories in all of these counties, Bennett saw huge drops in: Jay (–10.1 percentage points), Tipton (–11.1), Scott (–11.7), Huntington (–12.3), Rush (–13.0), Adams (–13.2), Montgomery (–17.2) and Wabash (–17.4) counties this election from his 2008 totals.

In a very personal piece, Rick Hess bemoaned Bennett’s loss (“In Indiana, all-world superintendent Tony Bennett lost last night – 53 to 47. I’d like to find an eloquent way to say this but I’m a simple guy: Bennett is a stud.”). Hess gets some of the storyline right, noting that there was

[F]rustration among Tea Party conservatives that Bennett was championing an initiative that they've come to see as an Obama administration initiative (with its own derogatory name, "Obamacore"). One needs only to peruse conservative publications or e-mail blasts to realize how deeply this view has taken hold.

But Rick is wrong on two fronts. In red state Indiana opposition to school choice had little to do with it; nor can you blame Bennett’s loss on the Obama administration's “politiciz[ing] the Common Core and, in so doing,… making it dangerous for elected Republicans in red states to support it.”

That reminds me of the scene in the Godfather series where Michael Corleone strolls with Kay after a long absence, courting her, and discussing his father’s “business.” She notes that his is not a business, it is controlled violence and murder, so unlike politics. Michael stops her short, “Now, who’s being naïve, Kay.”

The fact is that Common Core has been politically and financially driven from DC from the beginning. State participation has been window dressing, as have been public comments. How else would states have been convinced to go along with it except for the lure of federal funds, coordinated funds from allied foundations, and the promises of waivers? With the mediocre quality of the national standards and the as-yet undefined national tests and proficiency levels, there was no other way for Common Core advocates to convince states to go along.

The Obama administration did not “surprise” Bennett with this approach. He knew about it from day one, supported it and talked it up around the country. I know, because I and many other others debated him on just these points.

Does Bennett’s defeat portend big challenges for Common Core? I think Tom Vander Ark, a veteran of I can't count how many reform efforts and a big Common Core supporter, is right when he tweets:

Tom Vander Ark ‏@tvanderark RT @educationweek: Blog: Tony Bennett Says #CommonCore in Jeopardy in Indiana #edpolicy #bummer

But it goes beyond Indiana. After the (forced) departure of Utah’s school superintendent Larry Shumway, Bennett’s loss is a signal that in most red states Common Core faces a rough road forward.

And, of course, the electoral outcomes in Georgia and Washington state, where charter schools got a huge boost, make clear that the school choice argument can now be won through a referendum--the popular vote. Thanks to union muscle, that was unheard of until recently .

One final consideration. Biddle makes an extremely important point regarding choice as he describes the future of reform in Indiana: While Ritz's victory may make her want to slow down the pace of choice reforms, the fact is that they are bigger than her or Bennett. They have broad popular, legislative and gubernatorial support.

Ritz won’t likely be able to roll back any of Bennett’s efforts. Why? Because there is still the presence of longtime reformers such as former state senator Teresa Lubbers — who now heads the state’s higher education commission, a key player in spurring overhaul of education since the days of her predecessor and partner-in-reform, Stan Jones — Robert Behning (who chairs the state house’s education committee), and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar, who sits on the powerful Education Roundtable with other longtime reform advocates. There’s also the presence of former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, whose Mind Trust is the leading force for centrist Democrat reformers in the Hoosier State, and the efforts of Peterson’s successor, Greg Ballard, in the area of authorizing charters and pushing for IPS’s overhaul. The lesson for reformers is clear: Reformers can weather election defeats if they build strong, diverse, and (contrary to the argument of American Enterprise Institute honcho Rick Hess, and Democrats for Education Reform cofounder Whitney Tilson's statement last year that "only Democrats have a good chance of persuading other Democrats to move on" reform) bipartisan coalitions.

As Bennett was losing, a pro-choice governor was elected, and super-majorities for choice forces were achieved in the state house of representatives and the state senate:

The 37-13 Republican majority in the chamber was decided Wednesday when Republican incumbent [editorial note: opponent of Common Core and proponent of school choice] Scott Schneider emerged victorious in his north side Indianapolis district, holding off a challenge by Democrat Tim DeLaney.

This is the strength of state-based reform over the stuff that passes for reform coming out of Washington, DC. Solid reform efforts are comprehensive, covering choice, standards, teacher quality, accountability and, yes, funding. They are advanced through real political processes that are public and often involve fights that are resolved in state legislative bodies. They are not built on personalities. The cult of personality reforms touted by Washington insiders are tired. They usually involve some Superman or Superwoman, and they often don’t last past the Super departure. Real reform is hard-won but runs far deeper.

Just look at Massachusetts. The efforts to undo even some of the basic pillars of our reforms have not yet won the day. And that is because they were crafted with Rs and Ds at the table, debated over years, and while people carp and do inflict damage to the integrity of the reforms, they have had a hard time undoing the basic pillars put into place in 1993. That’s because the reform was bigger than any one person.

I like Tony Bennett. But his loss was his own doing. As a friend noted,

For all the positive things [he] did, he also split [the reform movement in his state] by accepting and defending federal control of curriculum standards and testing. If this sends a signal to other Republican officials at the state level that Common Core is dangerous to their support among the base, then some good will come out of this.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Fallout from election 2012 on education

Posted by Jim Stergios November 8, 2012 09:35 AM


You can summarize the fallout of the elections on schools in three simple outcomes: No change in federal policy, two big state charter expansions got passed--and through ballot initiatives (!), and in a blow to supporters of national standards and tests the state superintendent of schools in Indiana got shown the door.

In more detail, on federal policy:

1. Arne Duncan stays US Secretary of Education.
2. The next four years will look like the last three years. That is, the first Obama administration was split between a Year 1 and Years 2-4. Year 1 was all using the bully pulpit to get state legislatures to revamp charter laws. It was a sea-change on the education landscape, with the dynamics around charter schools likely altered for good. Years 2-4 were all about making states comply with a checklist of what DC insiders consider “real reform” (national standards, curricular guidance, and tests; bureaucratic teacher evaluations; etc.) through grants, the bully pulpit, and waivers not sanctioned by Congress.
3. The accountability bloom is off the rose and likely not a core element of the second Obama administration. As RiShawn Biddle notes:

The administration’s evisceration of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions through its waiver process is doing more to weaken the very reform efforts centrist Democrats embrace than any opposition from traditionalist circles. From the embarrassment of approving Virginia’s abysmally low proficiency targets, which had only required districts to ensure that 57 percent of black students (and 65 percent of Latino peers) were proficient in math by 2016-2017, to revelations that states are being allowed to provide inaccurate and deceptive graduation rates, there is little about the Obama waiver gambit that has proven to beneficial to advancing systemic reform.

After the waivers, the administration will have a tough time turning around and pushing for high proficiency levels in the national tests.
4. Finally, file under "Obvious," but don’t expect an NCLB/ESEA compromise anytime soon.

At the state level there were big changes. Big changes came to Georgia and Washington state where

Two ballot measures concerning charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately operated, spawned fierce battles in Georgia and Washington State.

Georgia’s measure, which passed handily on Tuesday, asked voters to amend the State Constitution to allow for a commission that would approve new schools that had been rejected by local school boards.

In Washington State, a ballot initiative, “the fourth time in 16 years that Washington voters had been asked to approve charter schools” changed the state, which was “one of only nine states that [did] not allow charter schools. The ballot measure would open the door slowly, permitting the approval of 40 schools over five years.”

Getting charter schools adopted through ballot initiatives is a tough slog, and to see both states do it this year just builds on the incredible expansion of choice and charters in the past several years. State after state has advanced this agenda.

Finally, and importantly, there was the electoral defeat of Tony Bennett, state superintendent of schools in Indiana. As noted in my November 5 blog,

The criticism coming from academic experts, Indiana parents, and local media is clearly growing in intensity. To go back to Hoosiers, they all feel that Coach Bennett’s decision to adopt Common Core shortened the free throw line on expectations for the kids in Indiana’s traditional public schools.

... He’s, in essence, lowered the rim for all the kids and parents who have turned to alternatives, whether public charter schools or private school choice. As public schools, charters have had to focus their work on Common Core’s objectives and therefore they are aiming for a much lower academic standard.

As regards school choice, it’s just as bad. Unlike Massachusetts, Indiana has a voucher program. And that voucher program came with the requirement that private, including Catholic, schools had to take state-sanctioned tests. With the transfer over to national standards and tests, private schools now frame their curricula on Common Core and must take the (not yet finished and never field tested!) national tests.

and closed with this:

The clock is winding down on Tuesday. Coach Bennett may eke out a victory and remain as superintendent of public instruction, but the game has changed and no amount of motivational talk is going to make his original game plan work.

A few local news outlets claimed I was overstating the case. The score is in: Bennett lost and he lost because of his support, advocacy and pom-poms for Common Core. After the "forced" retirement of Utah's school superintendent Larry Shumway, I would guess that many state education leaders will study the fallout of the Indiana election very closely.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Indiana's air ball on national education standards

Posted by Jim Stergios November 3, 2012 01:31 AM


Basketball fans will remember the scene from the epic 1986 Gene Hackman movie, Hoosiers , where Coach Norman Dale (Hackman) is taking his small-town high school team, Hickory, on the road to the Indiana state championships. As they peer into their opponent’s massive gymnasium, his players grow understandably nervous. Taking out a measuring tape, Coach Dale has them measure the distance to the free throw line and size up the height of the rim, and says: “I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory.”

I’ve often thought about that scene when interacting with Indiana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, himself a basketball coach, which is clear to anybody who meets him. He talks like a coach, acts like a coach and tries to convince like a coach – less interested in reason, much more in tools like exhortation and motivation. Those are good political skills to have when you’re trying to get stuff done, and as a result Bennett is among the better, more reform-minded state commissioners of education in the country. He has, with Governor Mitch Daniels, gotten some important things done in the Hoosier state like expanding school choice, charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and focusing on accountability mechanisms for the Indiana public school system.

Full disclosure: My organization (Pioneer Institute) thinks well enough of Bennett that we featured him, together with Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist and Texas’ Robert Scott, at a Boston event highlighting dynamic state education commissioners from around the country. (Here’s a video of the keynote speeches by Bennett, Gist, and Scott at our event last fall.)

Over the last year, however, as Bennett has been running for reelection as the state’s superintendent of schools, he has been facing increasingly heated opposition from across the state for discarding Indiana’s K-12 state education standards for the qualitatively weaker national “Common Core” standards. (In addition to strong debates here in Massachusetts and Indiana, there are debates underway on the adoption of Common Core in California, New Hampshire, Idaho, Maine, South Carolina, Utah, etc.)

Parents, the press, and commentators across Indiana have questioned the reasoning for changing the Indiana state standards. Let me share a few examples of the public debate. On WIBC 93.1 FM’s Greg Garrison Show, Indiana parent Heather Crossin didn’t mince words, saying that:

…Indiana did have standards that were higher, that, in fact, there are a lot of problems with the Common Core standards…The validation committee for the Common Core for math and English language arts, some of the content experts would not sign off on them. These are people who got on board, to be on the validation committee, because they believed in the idea of national standards, they were not opposed to them, they simply wanted them to be good national standards that would allow us to compete internationally with other countries…

On that same show, Erin Tuttle, another concerned Indiana parent spoke, as well as Emmett McGroarty of The American Principles Project and Jamie Gass from Pioneer. (The full podcast can be heard by clicking here and scrolling down to June 11, 2012.)

Columnist Russ Pulliam of the The Indianapolis Star then argued that:

Republican incumbent Tony Bennett is officially running against Democrat Glenda Ritz, a teacher at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis, for state superintendent of public instruction. Yet he also seems to be running against critics of the national Common Core standards. Critics see the Common Core as part of a federal effort to command a larger role in education, which historically has been the responsibility of state and local government. They also argue that previous Indiana standards were excellent and should not have been tossed aside.

Followed by The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, which recently editorialized that

…arguments are growing among some Indiana residents, who are questioning the state’s enthusiastic embrace of the standards. Rather than basing participation on the Common Core’s political supporters, Hoosiers should view the new academic requirements in terms of how they will affect Indiana students. By that measure, the Common Core and the national test that will support it are a step backward…Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction, pushed adoption of the standards in 2010. He defended the Common Core before a skeptical audience at an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting last year. In June, he insisted the state hasn’t given up control of its academic standards, but as Election Day looms, his position appears to be shifting. In August he told an angry tea party gathering that the Obama administration nationalized the standards and forced them on the states.

Fabio Augusto Milner, a professor and director of Arizona State University’s Math for STEM Education, offered Indiana lawmakers a comparison of the math standards. “I can unequivocally recommend that Indiana not adopt the (Common Core math standards) if the state wants to require high school graduates to excel by design to a higher level than average,” he testified in January…

…“It is not clear why Indiana’s board of education chose to trade in a silk purse for a sow’s ear – that is to give its secondary English teachers an inferior set of standards to aim for,” testified Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, in remarks to the Senate Education Committee in January.

A local school board candidate, Glenna Jehl, also recently published an op-ed piece in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:

When President Obama touts “education reform in 46 states” as one of his accomplishments, most people haven’t yet realized that Obama is referring to the new Common Core State Standards being implemented nationwide, including in Indiana…

Surprisingly, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett helped wheel this Trojan horse into our midst…Unfortunately, they never took time to consider what sort of standards they agreed to adopt; no longer in a Race to the Top and higher standards, we are in a race to mediocrity. We are voluntarily relinquishing Indiana’s superior, acclaimed standards for those that are inferior to our current standards in math and language arts…Are we going to place our children’s futures in the hands of Washington bureaucrats? We need to send ObamaCore back….we must join the four states that have already rejected it. Our next governor and state legislature must understand that Indiana needs to opt out of Common Core. That is the only way states, local school boards, and parents will retain the ability to choose the curriculum and the standards for the education of the students in their community.

An op-ed by Joy Pullmann in The South Bend Tribune:

Bennett was briefly surprised in July when local residents asked him about federal control over what children learn through the Common Core, a set of K-12 lists for what every student should know in math and English and, soon, history, science and the arts…

More of that fury is coming. Indiana parents and teachers are becoming more nervous as Common Core mechanisms fall into place, and ignoring them will create a strong backlash among the very supporters Bennett needs to further his pro-school-choice agenda. Local networks of concerned residents are right now holding meetings on the Common Core throughout Indiana, at an astonishing rate. State representatives and local school board members are showing up….

I've attended several. The energy in the room is electric, in contrast to typical school board meetings. Teachers report reluctance to speak up about the unwieldy standards and corresponding curriculum and teaching requirements, for fear they will lose their jobs. Parents bring examples of needlessly complicated multiplication homework their child's own teachers cannot explain. These are motivated grassroots activists no leader should ignore. Two words for Bennett: Dick Lugar.

Those are tough words -- and highly political words, which matter more in Indiana than in, say, Massachusetts where Commissioner Chester (who holds the equivalent position) is appointed by the state's Board of Education and does not face the voters. And, while I think Bennett will get reelected on Tuesday, I'm not sure he is going to be able to temper the reactions he is getting. Here are a few reasons:

  1. He will no longer have Governor Daniels as a boss. Daniels is at the end of his second term and is prohibited (because of term limits) from running for reelection. The likely winner of the election is Congressman Mike Pence, who has a strong record of not liking Washington mandates. It would be a remarkable about-face if he were to support national standards.
  2. Bennett has put his best game-face on in trying to rally public support for Common Core. He has not used reason. Consider the Fordham Institute's 2010 view of the Indiana standards before Bennett pushed for adoption of the national standards:
The Bottom Line: ELA -- Indiana’s standards are clearer, more thorough, and easier to read than the Common Core standards. Essential content is grouped more logically, so that standards addressing inextricably linked characteristics, such as themes in literary texts, can be found together rather than spread across strands. Indiana also frequently uses standard-specific examples to clarify expectations. Furthermore, Indiana’s standards treat both literary and non-literary texts in systematic detail throughout the document, addressing the specific genres, sub-genres, and characteristics of both text types. (my italics)

The Bottom Line: Math -- With some minor differences, Common Core and Indiana both cover the essential content for a rigorous, K-12 mathematics program. That said, Indiana’s standards are exceptionally clear and well presented. Standards are briefly stated and often further clarified with the use of examples, so they are considerably easier to read and follow than Common Core. In addition, the high school content is organized so that the standards addressing specific topics, such as quadratic functions, are grouped together in a mathematically coherent way. By contrast, the organization of the Common Core is more difficult to navigate, in part because standards on related topics sometimes appear separately rather than together.

(It's no longer 2010 and as has now become routine at Fordham, they have engaged in a wonderful display of gymnastics to justify their reputation-be-damned support of Common Core, including rewriting their views on Indiana's state standards. It's the equivalent of a double back layout, followed by a giant swing and single layout flip with two twists. Basketball players they are not, and Coach Bennett should not attempt that on a basketball court.)

Another baton-holder in the Common Core parade, Achieve, Inc. had this to say to the Indiana Business Roundtable regarding the previous Indiana state standards:

Achieve has completed the final review of the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school. The primary purpose of this review is to ensure that the state’s proposed revised academic standards for K-12 align with the expectations for success in college and career. The following national frameworks served as the “exemplary standards” to which the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics were compared: the Achieve American Diploma Project (ADP) Benchmarks for Mathematics, the National Mathematic Advisory Panel Foundations for Success (NMAP), the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Mathematics Framework 2009, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten through Grade 8 Mathematics…

The Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school present student learning expectations that are intellectually demanding and well aligned with the ADP Benchmarks in mathematics. If Indiana’s students master the state standards, they will likely be well prepared for success in college and in their career…

In conclusion, the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school generally address the essential content at the level of rigor that is consistent with that of national exemplars.

Achieve said that in 2009. But like, Fordham, they don't say that anymore. And in 2009, University of Wisconsin mathematician, Dr. Richard Askey said this about the previous Indiana state standards:

For about two years I have been reviewing the new Indiana Mathematics Standards… The earlier Mathematics Standards were among the best in the United States, and the current draft improves on the previous one, so clearly they are at the top of the Math Standards in the United States. It provides a backbone which, when fleshed out by teachers, will help students learn the mathematics they will need either in college or in more direct preparation for a job.

Contrast the views of Fordham, Achieve and Dr. Laskey to the analysis of Stanford University mathematician, Dr. R. James Milgram, regarding the quality of Common Core's math standards:

The above standards illustrate many serious flaws in the Core Standards. Also among these difficulties are that a large number of the arithmetic and operations, as well as the place value standards are one, two or even more years behind the corresponding standards for many if not all the high achieving countries. Consequently, I was not able to certify that the Core Mathematics Standards are benchmarked at the same level as the standards of the high achieving countries in mathematics…Overall, only the very best state mathematics standards, those of California, Massachusetts, Indiana and Minnesota are stronger than these [Common Core] standards…California, and the other states with top standards would almost certainly be better off keeping their current standards.

As I've noted before, the fact is that the Common Core standards (whether in math or English Language Arts) were not internationally benchmarked against the highest standards in the world, they lacked a true research base, and there is no reason to think that such a process could lead to standards close to those achieved in Indiana, Massachusetts or any number of states who took high-quality classroom content as a real objective.

The criticism coming from academic experts, Indiana parents, and local media is clearly growing in intensity. To go back to Hoosiers, they all feel that Coach Bennett’s decision to adopt Common Core shortened the free throw line on expectations for the kids in Indiana’s traditional public schools.

The impacts don’t stop there. He’s, in essence, lowered the rim for all the kids and parents who have turned to alternatives, whether public charter schools or private school choice. As public schools, charters have had to focus their work on Common Core’s objectives and therefore they are aiming for a much lower academic standard.

As regards school choice, it’s just as bad. Unlike Massachusetts, Indiana has a voucher program. And that voucher program came with the requirement that private, including Catholic, schools had to take state-sanctioned tests. With the transfer over to national standards and tests, private schools now frame their curricula on Common Core and must take the (not yet finished and never field tested!) national tests.

The fact is that Coach Dale’s gambit of using the tape measure worked because it was common sense, it was factual, and he was making the point that his players could compete if they set the highest expectations possible. Advocacy for and adoption of inferior quality national standards by Indiana’s Tony Bennett has landed with a thud, seen by the Hoosier State as a big airball for the children of the state.

The clock is winding down on Tuesday. Coach Bennett may eke out a victory and remain as superintendent of public instruction, but the game has changed and no amount of motivational talk is going to make his original game plan work.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Why is the state not implementing the MCAS for U.S. history?

Posted by Jim Stergios October 26, 2012 01:23 PM

law of the land.jpg

We are in the middle of a U.S. Senate campaign and, while passions may run high on both sides of the partisan divide, what is a young Massachusetts student to think of the race?

Given his or her ignorance of the role of a senator, whether in Massachusetts state government or at the federal level, the fact is he or she is unlikely to think beyond the partisan commentary that populates television and the internet.

That is a shame and sadly ironic in Massachusetts where state Senate leadership was the driving force, behind the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act (MERA), which has brought many benefits to our students and to the state.

In 1993, as former Senate President Tom Birmingham reminds us,

Before the passage of the Education Reform Act, there were two state imposed requirements to receive a diploma in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: one year of American history and four years of gym. This was certainly more a tribute to the lobbying prowess of gym teachers than to any coherent pedagogical theory. But the absence of a comprehensive statewide system of standards imposed real hardships on poor and minority school districts, which were not only under-funded but also afflicted with society’s low expectations as to what their kids could learn.

The MERA changed all that, with world-class academic standards established in the coming years for English language arts, mathematics, science and U.S. history.

With steady leadership to uphold the promise of MERA's “grand bargain,” funding increases were combined with high academic standards, tests to ensure that teachers had mastery of the content, student tests to ensure that schools and districts were making the grade, and parental choice in the form of charter schools. The landmark reform translated into some of the nation’s largest gains in student performance—for all students.

The rise in Massachusetts’ performance can be encapsulated in two ways: In 1993, we were around 10th or 11th place in the country on national assessments; since 2005 we have been first. In 2007, Massachusetts students scored in the top six countries in math and science on the most reputable international test in those fields; our 8th graders tied for 1st place.

We have not seen similar progress in U.S. history. On the civics portion of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, only seven percent of America’s eighth graders could correctly identify the three branches of our government.

Massachusetts students do not excel in their knowledge of U.S. history either. Yet, in 2009, Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education postponed a requirement that Massachusetts public school students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school. History had been slated to join English language arts, mathematics, and science as a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2012.

Commissioner Chester has repeatedly cited the prohibitive cost of administering the tests. A recent poll of state legislators shows that they disagree. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of those surveyed said it is possible to find the $2.4 million needed within the $4.5 billion annual state budget for K-12 public education.

Without a test in place to ensure accountability, in the past few years we have seen entire middle school social studies departments eliminated, and history courses now being taught by English, math, and science teachers.

Kids need more than facts and figures, or even a general ability to read and write. While many bemoan the lack of a sense of "civic engagement" on the p[art of younger people, the fact is that all that must start with knowledge and respect for the remarkable democratic institutions that have been the bulwark of our success as a state and as a country for over 200 years.

A strong grounding in our own history allows for better citizen engagement. And it is as important to the Commonwealth’s educational goals as is the study of literature, math and science.

Testing U.S. history it is not only critical to improving kids’ knowledge of their institutions, it is the law of the land.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Obama-Romney education debate

Posted by Jim Stergios October 15, 2012 08:00 AM

Wordle: How Common Core's ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk

Education Week will be hosting a live webcast of a debate between education advisers to the two presidential campaigns, Jon Schnur (the Obama campaign) and Phil Handy (the Romney campaign) tonight (Monday, October 15th) at 7 p.m. EST. The webcast is free, but requires that you register here.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

John Silber and Immortality

Posted by Jim Stergios September 27, 2012 05:12 PM


Today is a day for John Silber’s detractors to put their pens down. John Silber is dead, and he was a great man in the sense of how human beings long were measured—by their accomplishments.

In many ways he was the exact opposite of the famously self-referential Milan Kundera, whose own thinking was summed up nicely in his novel Immortality:

A person is nothing but his image. Philosophers can tell us that it doesn't matter what the world thinks of us, that nothing matters but what we really are. But philosophers don't understand anything. As long as we live with other people, we are only what other people consider us to be. Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating. But does there exist another kind of direct contact between my self and their selves except through the mediation of the eyes? Can we possibly imagine love without anxiously following our image in the mind of the beloved?

While hypnotic, that obsession with self-reference is a recipe for hyper-sensitivity, resentments, and all-too-much navel-gazing, the kind that we require of our students all too often as they learn to write. We have them write about their feelings, their observations, their observations about their feelings, and maybe even their observations about others’ observations about their feelings.

For John Silber that was a disaster—in some ways the disaster of American education.

Some may think that Silber’s brusqueness was all about shunning people’s feelings. Back in 2008, when the Massachusetts Board of Education spent successive meetings seeking nicer ways to speak about school failure, hoping to soften even the already fluffy “underperforming” by calling them a “Commonwealth priority,” Silber thundered:

This is all word games… Changing the name doesn't change the reality. I think Shakespeare had a good line: 'A rose by another name would smell as sweet.' A skunk by any other name would stink.

The newspapers delighted in such quotes. But the fact is that Silber was interested in attaching the right word to the right object or the right idea. He is called the “architect of the MCAS” in today’s Globe, but the fact is that he thought that any useful test was good – even the Stanford 9. (He was wrong on that, BTW.) What he really is the architect of is the broader set of education reforms that set this state on a path focused on academics rather than simple skills or self-esteem. He believed in knowledge acquisition and thereafter the formulation of an individual’s judgment.

Tests were a vehicle to inject this into a system that was failing spectacularly. Like so many in the state, when Silber started as Chairman of the Board of Education in Massachusetts, he was not a fan of charter schools. He thought he would by dint of personality and force of will turn around the state's entire network of district schools. And he aimed to do it by focusing on academics, higher-quality teaching (ensured through subject/content–based tests rather than the usual PRAXIS tests employed in other states) and an accountability/audit office for the public schools that was to mirror the British system.

Those were difficult times for such an argument. After all, the Board of Education was, prior to his arrival, a place where debates about whether to include Ebonics in the state’s content standards took considerable air time. He was appointed in 1996 by his former rival for Governor, William Weld, to chair the state’s Board of Education. That appointment had the support of both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House, because they were disappointed with the pace of reform after the Commonwealth’s 1993 landmark Education Reform law.

All three of these elected leaders got what they were looking for: An energetic, focused educational leader who was willing to do what it took to shake up the education establishment and bureaucracy.

In this work, he followed the same principles and mission he used at Boston University, in taking it from a commuter school to a uniquely branded university with some of the most qualified faculty in the country. Coming from Texas, he brought scholars like William Arrowsmith, classicists like D.S. Carne-Ross and others. He recruited big names like Derek Walcott, Saul Bellow, and Elie Wiesel in the arts and humanities as well as high-profile scientists, critics like Christopher Ricks, and more. But he spent time personally and drove his staff to scour the academic credentials and weigh the quality of the academic publications of each tenure decision and even some non-tenure hires.

Some decisions may have rankled feathers, but the fact that a university president took that kind of care and spent the time acting as an academic leader is almost unheard of in modern day higher ed. Far too many have become an awkward blend of messenger-, ambassador- and fundraiser-in-chief. Silber did all that too, leading to a dramatic increase in the university’s endowment.

But Silber cared most about academic work and preserving the university from political correctness. Like Charles W. Elliot of Harvard at the end of the 19th century and Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago in the mid-20th century, Silber took the role of public intellectual seriously and leading voice in higher education seriously. Ask yourself this: When was the last time you heard a college president engage the public on an important topic or make a public speech of any note? Yeah, and this is Boston.

That unwavering focus on academic quality and high standards transformed Boston University from a large but unspectacular university to one of the leading institutions of higher ed in the nation. It was a university that probably would have recoiled from the current facile marketing campaigns attached to it (start with the “Be You” t-shirts). Instead it was a university that sought to re-create the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought on the Charles River, calling it the University Professors Program. It was a university that created Trustee Scholarships that were meant to be the university’s

most prestigious merit-based award [which] recognizes students who show outstanding academic and leadership abilities. Students from the United States and around the world are nominated by secondary school principals and headmasters.

It was a university that dared to partner with the Boston City Hospital and create the new Medical Center, building research and faculty facilities to rival those of the best universities in the country.

It was a university that dared public involvement in the community, providing opportunities to many of the City’s inner city students but on a grander scale spent two decades and millions of dollars running the Chelsea Public Schools.

I am not saying Dr. Silber got everything right. Yes, yes, his detractors will read this and say that I am focusing on nothing but the good. On this day, clam up. Massachusetts students are the best-performing state and internationally competitive. No other state in the nation can make that claim. Boston University continues to be a strong university, though in a more humble way; today, it does not dare, as Silber explicitly did to the chagrin of many of the city's elites, to try and rival Harvard).

Contrary to his tough-guy image, he was an incredibly generous man who almost always kept his good deeds quiet and out of the public eye. You see, he didn’t care much for what people thought about him. He was aiming for what he believed was right.

That may not appeal to people today who “celebrate overcoming adversity,” when in Silber’s world that simply meant working hard and being an intellectually and morally serious person.

To many of us personally he has meant a lot. But for all of us he has improved our lot. Godspeed, John.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Huck, Jim and our interest in education

Posted by Jim Stergios September 17, 2012 12:45 PM

huck and jim.jpg

Twain famously noted that

the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.

Getting words right is arguably the key task in educating an individual, for precise use of language is critical to developing the ability to observe and to think.

Then there is the sinister twisting of language for reasons of power (most often political power). This was a topic of intense focus by George Orwell, who in his staple of 9th grade reading courses, Animal Farm, described how the vision of Old Major was transformed to the darker purpose of other animals after his death. In the novella, the animals rebel against the drunken farmer Mr. Jones for mistreatment, with Old Major noting that “all animals are equal.” By the end, Napoleon has moved aside other competitors for power and trampled on Old Major’s original ideals. He has set himself up (and apart) in comfort with the final formulation of his new ideal: “some animals are more equal than others.”

Orwell developed an interest in and ability to perceive political uses and abuses of language through a life “suffering” from wanderlust, traveling and living in Burma, Paris and London, chronicling working class life throughout England (most famously in The Road to Wigan Pier), and staying in Spain during its civil war.

Teacher contract negotiations are not a civil war, nor should they work from allegories on the history of socialism. They do seem like either or both at times, as we have watched the Chicago teachers strike with wildly stated facts on both sides of the argument and, closer to home, the Boston Teachers Union’s two-year dance with the Boston Public Schools Administration, which concluded in a settlement last week.

In a real (though legalistic) way, the teachers union in Boston and the City were hard at work for 800 or so days, trying to find the right words to express what they wanted to achieve together. A teacher contract is not all about where the district and the teachers want to take the system. But at its most basic level, it tries to answer this question: What is the best way for adults to work together to improve student performance the fastest?

Or even better, this question: How can the teachers and the city’s school management system work most effectively together to provide an excellent education? We sometimes forget that that is the outcome we want—and we feel like we are asking for the impossible because we are so far from it in reality. But it is the right question, using the right words.

But whatever path you take to improve schools, the recently settled contract negotiations in Boston and the continuing strike in Chicago have millions of Americans reading lots and lots of words about the teachers unions, urban schools, and the need for radical improvement.

In both circumstances, we should be struck by how 95 percent of education policy discussions are actually totally devoid of any mention of the academic substance that is the real, central work of schooling.

There, I’ve said it.

With the mediocre performance of American schoolchildren overall and the shockingly low performance of schoolchildren living in U.S. cities, as compared to our international competitors, this kind of ongoing political theatre (mostly among public officials who often fund each others’ campaigns and each others’ initiatives) and the ensuing horse trading found in contract negations, says everything about what ails public education in our nation.

That is, when the adults carry on like children the general public and students alike witness it and hear the empty language these supposed “educational leaders” use.
Consequently, everyone gets the correct impression that academic content doesn’t matter much in K-12 education, while people also realize that the adults who run our edu-systems are far more concerned about the adults’ interests, edu-processes, and dead education language (not ancient Greek or Latin) than about actual academic content, ideas, and the life of the mind among their students.

So that we can start hearing more words around K-12 schooling that are “lighting” and not merely “lighting-bugs,” Pioneer has a great event featuring real scholars in academic content areas.

In this case, the event is on Mark Twain. Twain was a wanderer, like Orwell, and developed a keen ear for how people spoke—and what would be the right word. His ability to shape our way of reading, writing and speaking in a distinctly American voice was the product of innate talent, but also of his continuous chronicling of his times and his almost Zelig-like knack for finding himself in exactly the right place at the right time in history.

His masterwork Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and classic literature more generally are vitally important in K-12 English standards. This is a particularly important discussion now that 46 states have adopted weaker quality national standards that emphasize so-called “informational texts” and cut classic literature in formerly high standards states like Massachusetts, California, and Indiana by more than 50 percent.

Here are the all-star speakers—Jocelyn Chadwick and Ron Powers:

Jocelyn Chadwick has more than 30 years of experience as a teacher, scholar, and author … is a nationally recognized Mark Twain scholar…she is the author of The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, and is currently writing another book on Twain.

Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Emmy Award-winning writer and critic, has studied and written about Mark Twain for many years. He is the author of 12 books, including Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain and Mark Twain: A Life.

Here’s an outstanding essay that Chadwick wrote on Huck Finn and race and Ron Powers on CSPAN.

This is the kind of scholarship and expertise, academic content, and substantive world of ideas that our teachers and schoolchildren need to be exposed to and engaged with. It is only through great books and ideas that our schools will truly be the transmitters of academic rigor that is worthy of our teachers’ and kids’ precious time.

Mark Twain’s greatest achievement was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. According to PBS, Huck Finn, along with Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, ranks among the greatest American novels.

Sadly, the new national K-12 education standards that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia don’t even mention either Huck Finn or Moby-Dick. And what we know from standards and curriculum is that what’s not cited in standards doesn’t get included in the tests and if it’s not tested – it doesn’t get taught.

Mark Twain wrote the way everyday Americans spoke. His Huck Finn is a tale about a half educated, backwoods kid and Jim, black slave fleeing captivity and their journey together down the Mississippi. Twain used common words to highlight Jim’s humanity and heroism to help Huck unlearn his own racism, but to illustrate the moral and societal failure of slavery and racial discrimination.

Maybe if Twain could use common language and plain words to help move Huck and Americans closer towards enlightenment on race issues, then maybe, just maybe, classic literature can help America’s educationists find enlightenment and stop putting edu-process before academic content and interests of our schoolchildren.

Just once, wouldn’t it be fun to force union and district officials to sit down at the table, to set aside contract negotiations, the Step tables, and the talking points, and to discuss in earnest Huck Finn? I’m not fool enough to think it would lead to dramatic change; but I sure would enjoy seeing people who are arguably interested in education talk about the purpose of education.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Rahm says Chicago strikes, while Boston teachers settle

Posted by Jim Stergios September 14, 2012 12:06 PM

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Those Chicago teachers are really being intransigent. They need to learn how to compromise, settle and drink deep from the well of education reform—just like the Boston teachers union, which finalized a contract with the city’s school department on Wednesday.

That’s the view from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But is it true? False? Well, it certainly seems like the rest of Chicago isn’t buying it. The fact is, neither should we. The debate on the Chicago school contract and its now four-day-old strike is enlightening if we look at what the Chicago Teachers Union wants and what the BTU got.

Consider what the Boston Teachers Union says about the comparative terms sought (CTU) and agreed to (BTU) in their full-page ad in today’s Chicago Sun-Times.

On teacher quality, there are two issues that are perennial points of contention. Can a principal choose who s/he wants in the classroom based on performance or will it be based upon other factors such as the number of years a teacher has in the profession? At its core, it's a question of who gets to control hiring and firing of teachers.

As CBS Chicago notes, the BTU ad argues that

teachers in Boston whose schools have closed have a seniority-based right to obtain positions in other schools. The deal is the same when there are layoffs, the ad says.

“We support the right of Chicago Teachers to obtain similar protections. To deny hard-working professionals this right is to deny that experience and training matter in educating our youngsters,” the ad says.

The Chicago Sun-Times has an editorial today on Mayor Emanuel’s misrepresentation of the BTU contract settlement, where it notes:

The Chicago Teachers Union wants teachers displaced from closed schools to get first crack at job openings, something Chicago has never had.

Boston has always had recall, always and forever guaranteeing laid-off teachers a job. Seniority trumps all else. That remains in the new contract for teachers displaced from closed schools.

A second critical issue for districts seeking to improve the quality of teaching is often said to be having a standard evaluation process. (I have written extensively about how overstated the impact of such evaluations will be in the hands of school officials who will employ them bureaucratically — but that’s another discussion.) On evaluations, the BTU settlement and what’s at stake for the CTU are miles apart. CBS notes:

the ad says, “At some point, student test score data will be used as one of multiple measures to determine part of the teacher’s ratings.” It says there is no set percentage, and the issue was not part of the settlement.

The Sun-Times’ editorial underscores the fact that Emanuel is seeking to attach 40 percent of teachers’ evaluations on student performance. In contrast

Boston teachers agreed to evaluations based in part on student performance. Boston doesn’t have a set percentage like Chicago… and their union president tells us it will never get that high in Boston. [my italics]

Finally, there is more money. Emanuel repeated that while the CTU is striking to gain a 16 percent raise over a four-year contract, Boston teachers settled for a nominal 12 percent raise—and that was for a six-year contract. And that raise included cost-of-living increases. Wow, right? Not so fast, says the Sun-Times editorial:

Chicago’s 16 percent includes a cost-of-living pay raise plus annual increases for each extra year of service and more education. The COLA raise is only half of the 16 percent.

Shockingly, Boston’s announced raise only includes the COLA. But the district, like nearly every one in the country, also offers raises for experience and education. This omission makes comparison impossible and unfair — but so hard to resist!

Those extra raises in Boston amount to an additional 2 to 3 percent a year, the school system tells us.

Boston teachers, it follows, will get raises that range from roughly 24 to 30 percent on average over six years.

Not 12 percent.

This stuff is complex. It’s complex because we, the adults, have made it overly complex to muddy the waters and the ability to have a debate that is non-political. Here are some basic facts for us in Boston:

  1. Seniority continues its reign in Boston.
  2. The teacher evaluation will not include the kind of focus on student performance that will have an impact, and it will likely be just more paper that covers all kinds of soft measures that will lead to sparingly few changes. This is another way of restating (1).
  3. The topline 12 percent raise is the product of legal parsing and theory. In reality, we will see 4-plus percent increases annually.

I get why Rahm is using Boston as his example. Our politics these days is not a place of vision, and that’s why the rhetoric has little to recommend it in terms of hard truths. That’s in part why people have turned off from following what should be important debates, like the teacher contract. We all knew how it would turn out. Admit it.

Our political and community leaders keep tacking toward the siren’s song of in-district reform for no other reason than their own ambitions. Literary history teaches us that only two boats ever escaped the siren’s song. That’s a lot of kids washed up on shore.

The Boston Teachers Union did not settle. They won.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

The Democrats' Platform on K-12 Education

Posted by Jim Stergios September 14, 2012 08:00 AM

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Here is the Democratic National Platform on K-12 education, taken from the national site:

An Economy that Out-Educates the World and Offers Greater Access to Higher Education and Technical Training. Democrats believe that getting an education is the surest path to the middle class, giving all students the opportunity to fulfill their dreams and contribute to our economy and democracy. Public education is one of our critical democratic institutions. We are committed to ensuring that every child in America has access to a world-class public education so we can out-educate the world and make sure America has the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. This requires excellence at every level of our education system, from early learning through post-secondary education. It means we must close the achievement gap in America's schools and ensure that in every neighborhood in the country, children can benefit from high-quality educational opportunities.

This is why we have helped states and territories develop comprehensive plans to raise standards and improve instruction in their early learning programs and invested in expanding and reforming Head Start.

President Obama and the Democrats are committed to working with states and communities so they have the flexibility and resources they need to improve elementary and secondary education in a way that works best for students. To that end, the President challenged and encouraged states to raise their standards so students graduate ready for college or career and can succeed in a dynamic global economy. Forty-six states responded, leading groundbreaking reforms that will deliver better education to millions of American students. Too many students, particularly students of color and disadvantaged students, drop out of our schools, and Democrats know we must address the dropout crisis with the urgency it deserves. The Democratic Party understands the importance of turning around struggling public schools. We will continue to strengthen all our schools and work to expand public school options for low-income youth, including magnet schools, charter schools, teacher-led schools, and career academies.

Because there is no substitute for a great teacher at the head of a classroom, the President helped school districts save more than 400,000 educator jobs.

We Democrats honor our nation's teachers, who do a heroic job for their students every day. If we want high-quality education for all our kids, we must listen to the people who are on the front lines. The President has laid out a plan to prevent more teacher layoffs while attracting and rewarding great teachers. This includes raising standards for the programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers. We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom. We also recognize there is no substitute for a parent's involvement in their child's education.

To help keep college within reach for every student, Democrats took on banks to reform our student loan program, saving more than $60 billion by removing the banks acting as middlemen so we can better and more directly invest in students. To make college affordable for students of all backgrounds and confront the loan burden our students shoulder, we doubled our investment in Pell Grant scholarships and created the American Opportunity Tax Credit worth up to $10,000 over four years of college, and we're creating avenues for students to manage their federal student loans so that their payments can be only 10 percent of what they make each month. President Obama has pledged to encourage colleges to keep their costs down by reducing federal aid for those that do not, investing in colleges that keep tuition affordable and provide good value, doubling the number of work-study jobs available to students, and continuing to ensure that students have access to federal loans with reasonable interest rates. We invested more than $2.5 billion in savings from reforming our student loan system to strengthen our nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Alaska, Hawaiian Native Institutions, Asian American and Pacific Islander Institutions, and other Minority Serving Institutions. These schools play an important role in creating a diverse workforce, educating new teachers, and producing the next generation of STEM workers.

We Democrats also recognize the economic opportunities created by our nation's community colleges. That is why the President has invested in community colleges and called for additional partnerships between businesses and community colleges to train two million workers with the skills they need for good jobs waiting to be filled, and to support business-labor apprenticeship programs that provide skills and opportunity to thousands of Americans. The President also proposed to double key investments in science to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, encourage private sector innovation, and prepare at least 100,000 math and science teachers over the next decade. And to make this country a destination for global talent and ingenuity, we won't deport deserving young people who are Americans in every way but on paper, and we will work to make it possible for foreign students earning advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to stay and help create jobs here at home.

Mitt Romney has a radically different vision. He says we need fewer teachers, cops, and firefighters—good middle class jobs—even after losing hundreds of thousands of such jobs during the recession and at a time when state, local, and territorial governments are still shedding these jobs. He supports dramatic cuts to Head Start and the Pell Grant program. Tuition at public colleges has soared over the last decade and students are graduating with more and more debt; but Mitt Romney thinks students should "shop around" for the "best education they can afford." And he supports the radical House Republican budget that would cut financial aid for more than one million students while giving tax cuts to the rich. We Democrats have focused on making sure that taxpayer dollars support high-quality education programs, but Mitt Romney is a staunch supporter of expensive, for-profit schools—schools that often leave students buried in debt and without the skills for quality jobs and that prey on our servicemembers and veterans.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

The GOP Platform on K-12 Education

Posted by Jim Stergios September 13, 2012 08:00 AM

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Here is the Republican platform on K-12 education, taken from the National GOP web portal:

Education: A Chance for Every Child Parents are responsible for the education of their children. We do not believe in a one size fits all approach to education and support providing broad education choices to parents and children at the State and local level. Maintaining American preeminence requires a world-class system of education, with high standards, in which all students can reach their potential. Today’s education reform movement calls for accountability at every stage of schooling. It affirms higher expectations for all students and rejects the crippling bigotry of low expectations. It recognizes the wisdom of State and local control of our schools, and it wisely sees consumer rights in education – choice – as the most important driving force for renewing our schools.

Education is much more than schooling. It is the whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavioral norms and traditions. It is the handing over of a personal and cultural identity. That is why education choice has expanded so vigorously. It is also why American education has, for the last several decades, been the focus of constant controversy, as centralizing forces outside the family and community have sought to remake education in order to remake America. They have not succeeded, but they have done immense damage.

Attaining Academic Excellence for All
Since 1965 the federal government has spent $2 trillion on elementary and secondary education with no substantial improvement in academic achievement or high school graduation rates (which currently are 59 percent for African-American students and 63 percent for Hispanics). The U.S. spends an average of more than $10,000 per pupil per year in public schools, for a total of more than $550 billion. That represents more than 4 percent of GDP devoted to K-12 education in 2010. Of that amount, federal spending was more than $47 billion. Clearly, if money were the solution, our schools would be problem-free.

More money alone does not necessarily equal better performance. After years of trial and error, we know what does work, what has actually made a difference in student advancement, and what is powering education reform at the local level all across America: accountability on the part of administrators, parents and teachers; higher academic standards; programs that support the development of character and financial literacy; periodic rigorous assessments on the fundamentals, especially math, science, reading, history, and geography; renewed focus on the Constitution and the writings of the Founding Fathers, and an accurate account of American history that celebrates the birth of this great nation; transparency, so parents and the public can discover which schools best serve their pupils; flexibility and freedom to innovate, so schools can adapt to the special needs of their students and hold teachers and administrators responsible for student performance. We support the innovations in education reform occurring at the State level based upon proven results. Republican Governors have led in the effort to reform our country’s underperforming education system, and we applaud these advancements. We advocate the policies and methods that have proven effective: building on the basics, especially STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) and phonics; ending social promotions; merit pay for good teachers; classroom discipline; parental involvement; and strong leadership by principals, superintendents, and locally elected school boards. Because technology has become an essential tool of learning, proper implementation of technology is a key factor in providing every child equal access and opportunity.

Consumer Choice in Education
The Republican Party is the party of fresh and innovative ideas in education. We support options for learning, including home schooling and local innovations like single-sex classes, full-day school hours, and year-round schools. School choice – whether through charter schools, open enrollment requests, college lab schools, virtual schools, career and technical education programs, vouchers, or tax credits – is important for all children, especially for families with children trapped in failing schools. Getting those youngsters into decent learning environments and helping them to realize their full potential is the greatest civil rights challenge of our time. We support the promotion of local career and technical educational programs and entrepreneurial programs that have been supported by leaders in industry and will retrain and retool the American workforce, which is the best in the world. A young person’s ability to achieve in school must be based on his or her God-given talent and motivation, not an address, zip code, or economic status.

In sum, on the one hand enormous amounts of money are being spent for K-12 public education with overall results that do not justify that spending. On the other hand, the common experience of families, teachers, and administrators forms the basis of what does work in education. We believe the gap between those two realities can be successfully bridged, and Congressional Republicans are pointing a new way forward with major reform legislation. We support its concept of block grants and the repeal of numerous federal regulations which interfere with State and local control of public schools.

The bulk of the federal money through Title I for low-income children and through IDEA for disabled youngsters should follow the students to whatever school they choose so that eligible pupils, through open enrollment, can bring their share of the funding with them. The Republican-founded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should be expanded as a model for the rest of the country. We deplore the efforts by Congressional Democrats and the current President to kill this successful program for disadvantaged students in order to placate the leaders of the teachers’ unions. We support putting the needs of students before the special interests of unions when approaching elementary and secondary education reform.

Because parents are a child’s first teachers, we support family literacy programs, which improve the reading, language, and life skills of both parents and children from low-income families. To ensure that all students have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society. We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with abstinence education which teaches abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. Abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against out-of-wedlock pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS when transmitted sexually. It is effective, science-based, and empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes and avoid risks of sexual activity. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referrals, counseling, and related services for abortion and contraception. We support keeping federal funds from being used in mandatory or universal mental health, psychiatric, or socio- emotional screening programs.

We applaud America’s great teachers, who should be protected against frivolous litigation and should be able to take reasonable actions to maintain discipline and order in the classroom. We support legislation that will correct the current law provision which defines a “Highly Qualified Teacher” merely by his or her credentials, not results in the classroom. We urge school districts to make use of teaching talent in business, STEM fields, and in the military, especially among our returning veterans. Rigid tenure systems based on the “last in, first out” policy should be replaced with a merit-based approach that can attract fresh talent and dedication to the classroom. All personnel who interact with school children should pass background checks and be held to the highest standards of personal conduct.

Improving Our Nation’s Classrooms
Higher education faces its own challenges, many of which stem from the poor preparation of students before they reach college. One consequence has been the multiplying number of remedial courses for freshmen. Even so, our universities, large and small, public or private, form the world’s greatest assemblage of learning. They drive much of the research that keeps America competitive and, by admitting large numbers of foreign students, convey our values and culture to the world.

Ideological bias is deeply entrenched within the current university system. Whatever the solution in private institutions may be, in State institutions the trustees have a responsibility to the public to ensure that their enormous investment is not abused for political indoctrination. We call on State officials to ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left.

The Democratic Party platform on K-12 education is coming tomorrow.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Waiting for the candidates to debate education

Posted by Jim Stergios September 12, 2012 08:15 AM


There are many lessons to learn from this year’s two major party conventions, many of which extend beyond education—the focus of this blog. The “scriptedness” of the events was only outshone by the color coordination of the sets and clothing. Viewers and attendees came away feeling like the proverbial man behind the curtain (as in the Wizard of Oz) had projected words onto the teleprompters and that those stepping to the mikes were little more than political actors. The exceptions—Clint Eastwood’s chair routine and Mayor Villaraigosa’s handling of the vote to re-insert “God and Jerusalem” into the Democratic Party platform—were cringe-inducing as much for the substance as for the contrast from the rest of the convention schedule.

The second takeaway for me was that both parties have lost any sense of the civic attachments that once characterized and distinguished this country. In the second book of Democracy in America, Tocqueville recognized our lively political associations but he famously heralded “those associations that are formed in civil life without reference to political objects":

The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies , in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

The Republicans made a nod to these non-governmental associations, but almost exclusively in terms of family, church, and the kids’ sports teams. While important to many of us, the repetition of these three forms of associations gave the sense that these are the start and end of the American associationism, which is what the original Bill of Rights aimed to protect. The Republicans did not recognize the earthquake in associationism caused by social media (admittedly many of which are vapid or “futile”, but many of which aren’t); worse, they omitted any thought of the “cause-focused” associations that are to this day so important. Think people fundraising to help a neighbor in need, to build a YMCA or fight cancer through the PanMass Challenge; the numerous support networks for immigrants; volunteers in non-profits; those for and against Abolition, Prohibition (+ and -), women’s right to vote, expanding the teaching of US History in our schools, same-sex marriage, and more.

The Democrats made a nod to many of the causes—at least the ones dear to progressives—but when they spoke of what binds us together, they spoke almost primarily of government. Through government, their issues would be addressed and associations nurtured, even financially supported. If Republicans communicated a fairly pedestrian and highly suburban view of associations, Democrats communicated that such associations are no longer non-governmental.

This impoverishment on both sides has affected how the major parties discuss education.
A number of speakers including US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Bill Clinton, and the president all made arguments that their efforts have elevated standards around the country—something that states and local were incapable of doing. Readers of this blog know (1, 2, 3 and many others) that my view is that this is a top-down imposition where states and localities are fully capable of having these discussions in the open and that they are issues that parents must associate about and discuss. The same is true of all the rhetoric on teacher evaluations, testing and all the rest.

Democrats actively involved in the national party often now come with a view that the party is to create a “more perfect union” that is vertically integrated and that integrates non-governmental associations. The brouhaha over the screening of Won’t Back Down is just another sign that the party is having an internal debate on the extent to which parents can have a say in the education of their children.

The most controversial thing to happen at the Democratic National Convention this week may end up being a movie screening.

On Monday afternoon, a Hollywood film called "Won't Back Down" -- which opens in theaters nationwide on Sept. 28 -- will be shown to a select crowd of convention-goers in Charlotte, N.C., just as it was one week prior at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

But unlike Tampa, where the promoters had little concern about making waves with the party establishment and had no trouble when they ran the idea past the Republican National Committee, the request for a Charlotte screening went to the highest levels of the Obama administration…

In Tampa, the movie received an overwhelmingly positive response. During one pivotal scene involving Viola Davis' character and her son, people could be heard crying throughout the theater.

In Charlotte, the film's promoters are expecting protests outside the theater, and possibly some inside as well.

Why all the fuss?

"Won't Back Down" stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single mother determined to get her daughter out of their failing public elementary school and Davis as a teacher at the school who joins with her to gather parent and teacher signatures behind a proposal to take over the school.

It's a movie about the push for school choice, a movement that has been gaining momentum around the country for the past several years. It is also a film about teachers' unions, who are one of the Democratic Party's biggest and most loyal sources of political contributions.

If Democrats are having an internal battle over choice, Republicans are having an internal debate over elements that go to a broader education agenda beyond choice. Given a desire to move away from most things stemming from the Bush administration, there should be no surprise that it is hard to find a Republican who today supports NCLB and its mixed record: Conservatives and middle-of-the-road Republicans both feel the need to move on. But they are a little lost at sea on education. There is no clear agenda beyond choice. While all Republicans support parental choice, the main agenda outside of that belongs to establishment Republicans, like Jeb Bush, who embrace US Ed Secretary Duncan’s centralization of standards, tests, curricular materials and instructional practices in Washington. (A recent RTS post discussed the weakness of the Bush establishment view.)

My wishes for the two parties? They’re simple:

  • That the Democrats stop substituting government for associations, and not insist that the government is the glue that holds us together. Our rich store of associations means that what holds us together is a lot deeper and nimble than anything government bureaucracy. We just need to find how to leverage these American qualities—especially when the alternative is to undertake policies that break three federal laws.

  • That the Republicans provide a real alternative to the Democrats’ vision of a centralized Ministry of Education, but not simply based on a vision of individual choice—however important that is. While “Won’t Back Down” is inspirational, and its clear emphasis on parental association and bootstrapping may prove a big addition to urban school reform, a major party needs more than that. They need a vision.

A real debate on education would be so good for the country. But until Republicans settle on a course, there is no way for them to champion education as a major cause. The risk to their party is not small: They are handing an issue (that they championed at the state level for over a decade) back to the Democrats.

Republicans can’t blame the unions if they themselves can’t settle on a coherent set of ideas.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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