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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

siren's song.jpg

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.

Schools and conventional wisdom

Posted by Jim Stergios September 5, 2012 11:00 AM

conventional wisdom fortune cookie.jpg

Facts are, as John Adams famously noted, “stubborn things.” But facts are also what makes politicians of good will less stubborn; that is, it is empirical evidence that allows both major parties to to coalesce around reforms that will work. Compromise for compromise’s sake, or hewing to conventional wisdom, is most often pandering with an eye toward one’s own ambitions. But, armed with facts, people of even the most strongly held principles can come to very surprising positions.

We’ve been hearing a lot about how education may be the area for compromise between the two major parties. What's driving this coalescence? Hard choices by the Obama administration? Empirical evidence? Or it is conventional wisdom?

With Labor Day now behind us and the Democratic National Convention beginning, we are in for two months of debate on issues that will necessarily go well beyond the “fairness” narrative of the left and the “job creator” narrative of the right. It’s a useful moment to take stock of how the past four years have changed education reform debates.

On the substance, Rock the Schoolhouse readers will know that I give the legacy of President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan a mixed review, with early positives and later negatives. The shortest hand way to put is this: The first year used the bully pulpit well to expand charter schools and, importantly, in a way that upheld appropriate state legislative prerogatives (in all but four states, such expansions went through state legislative processes). The debate over charters is forever changed, though one hopes that states will not just expand charters but learn some lessons from Massachusetts, which has made no bones in closing underperforming charter schools.

The last three years have, unfortunately, been less successful, turning into an increasingly disappointing exercise in hubris, with numerous federal and state administrative moves that centralize in Washington DC decision-making on academic standards and tests, teacher evaluations, student data (a story to be told), curricular content and instructional practice. The fight against expanding school choice options right in the president's backyard is wrong-headed. And the continued emphasis on using stimulus money to boost teacher employment levels is not nearly as important as getting great teachers into the classroom.

We’ll see how the Democrats talk about education at their convention, which reportedly will be more lightly attended by union officials than in the past, but without a doubt they will spend more time discussing education than the Republic conventioneers did.

If the Republican convention showed us anything about Republicans' views about education, it demonstrated just how successful the Obama administration has been in politically scrambling the decks. No longer is it clear which party is for standards, testing and charter schools (used to be Republicans), and which is for centralized policymaking in DC (used to be Democrats).

Republicans have always had within their midst a cadre of policymakers who believed that they could counter union power from the center—from DC—with prescriptive standards and testing as their core tools. The Fordham Institute and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander fall within that camp, comfortable with a level of control in DC that even the architect of the Great Society programs, President Lyndon B. Johnson, did not countenance. The justification for this convergence is “international competitiveness,” the driving force for DC-based policymakers since A Nation at Risk, if not 50 years before.

At the Republican national convention, Jeb Bush and Condoleezza Rice made focused on this line of argument, with Bush noting:

Of 34 advanced nations in the world, American students ranked 17th in science, 25th in math. Only one-quarter of high-school graduates are ready for their next steps.

Since the time when he was governor of Florida, Bush has been a passionate advocate of a nearly comprehensive set of education reforms. He and Rice showed passion in their descriptions of how high a priority education reform should be in a possible Republican or Democratic administration:

Bush: “The first step is a simple one. We must stop prejudging children based on their race, ethnicity, or household income.”

Rice: “We have been successful because Americans have known that one's status of birth is not a permanent condition. Americans have believed that you might not be able to control your circumstances but you can control your response to your circumstances.”

Bush went on to tout his reforms in Florida, such as school accountability via an A to F grading system, the establishment of tough 3rd grade reading accountability, a top-notch virtual school program, expansion of parental choice, and charter schools. These reforms were important and have had sizable effects on the state’s performance relative to other states on national assessments.

Here in Florida, in 1999, we were at the bottom of the nation in education. For the last decade, this state has been on a path of reform… Today, more students are reading on grade level, passing rigorous college prep courses, and graduating from high school, and perhaps most exciting, those traditionally left behind are showing the greatest gains.

Among African-American students, Florida is ranked fourth in the nation are academic improvement. Among low- income students, we are ranked third for gains. Among students with disabilities, we are ranked first. Among Latino students, the gains were so big, they require a new metric. Right now, Florida's fourth grade Hispanic students read as well or better than the average of all students in 21 states and the District of Columbia.

His is a strong record on many fronts, but also one with chinks in the armor, and overstatements of accomplishment. This summer, the Florida school grading system has run into a buzz saw this year, with sometimes wildly changing school grades and a loss of confidence in the accountability system’s objectivity and reliability.

The progress of Florida’s Hispanic students on the NAEP is impressive but in reality only slightly better than in Massachusetts (which would not think of heralding itself a miracle state as regards Hispanic achievement and, whose Hispanic students, like those in other states, scored below Florida’s when NAEP began providing more consistent student performance data in 1993).

Most importantly, there are distinct limitations to Florida’s reforms. The Sunshine State as a whole rose to join the top 10 states on the national assessments and then more recently fell out of the top 10, suggesting that the changes sufficed to rise in the rankings, but not to sustained performance at the top level. As they say, the higher the altitude, the tougher the climb.

What has always been missing from Florida’s reform efforts is a strong focus on academic standards. That same lack of focus on academic content can be seen in the work of other education reformers, such as former NYC School Superintendent Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who made frequent changes in direction on standards without a coherent liberal arts vision for their schools.

That’s why when Governor Bush began speaking of academic standards at the convention, one is not sure what he is suggesting. He recognized that a number of states have made real progress in improving the quality of public education:

We must have high academic standards that are benchmarked to the best in the world. You see, all kids can learn. Governor Romney believes it, and the data proves it. While he was governor, Massachusetts raised standards, and today their students lead the nation in academic performance.

Even during Governor Bush’s two terms, Florida did not show particular passion for academic standards; and recently his energetic boosterism for a key initiative of the Obama administration—to create nationalized standards and tests—seems out of place when he speaks of “high academic standards that are benchmarked to the best in the world.”

Why? As Sandra Stotsky, a national expert on academic standards who has worked with states across the country and is the individual most responsible for Massachusetts’ now-defunct state standards which were internationally benchmarked, noted in testimony to the Utah Education Interim Committee in August:

Common Core’s standards for English language arts are neither research-based nor internationally benchmarked… To judge from my own research on the language and literature requirements for a high school diploma…, Common Core’s ELA standards fall far below what other English-speaking nations or regions require of college-intending high school graduates.” In fact, that is the main reason that [Stotsky] and four other members of the [Common Core] Validation Committee declined to sign off on Common Core’s standards.

Governor Bush’s embrace of national standards and tests has cost him support from key education policymakers in the Republican Party. One noted to me by phone while she was at the convention that “Jeb’s advocacy for Race to the Top smacks of too much comfort with big government bureaucracy and the usual ‘Let’s make the states comply with federal dictates.’” Those are tough words—and in some sense merited if you are a Republican surprised by Bush’s embrace of having the federal government fund and in part direct the development of national standards, tests and curricula. After all, even LBJ’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act expressly prohibited such a thing.

I know, like, and respect, and have publicly debated Governor Bush on this point. He is serious about K-12 education—but he has too great a faith in big centralized solutions (a cynic might say that’s a long-standing trait of the Bush family’s governing philosophy).
The Common Core he is supporting around the country has never been tested and there is no evidence to suggest it will accomplish anything. That’s a remarkable background for a policy pushed onto 50 million schoolkids. Even more remarkable is that it breaks the very provisions of the education law LBJ signed to put limits on the expansion of the size and scope of the federal role in education.

A focus on the law and empiricism would follow Bush’s admonition that “We must stop excusing failure in our schools.” That is true of not putting up with failure in specific school systems—and especially urban school districts. But it equally applies to the failure of the federal government during the 33 years of the USDOE’s existence to improve the quality of education in the country. Failure to move the needle is not the only vestige of federal education policy, but so is the lack of continuity and settlement in policy (the latest example of which is the whiplash-inducing support for and then retreat from the DC Scholarship program within the one jurisdiction the constitutionally delegated to the feds.).

If Governor Romney stakes out a clear position on academic standards during the final 60-plus days of the campaign, he should follow the Massachusetts example, not the, let’s admit it for what it is, a somewhat politically self-serving celebration of Florida’s progress—and an inaccurate representation of Florida’s good reforms at that.

After all, Florida made faster progress on the NAEP before it got itself bogged down in its current embrace of federally imposed and highly bureaucratic teacher evaluation processes, curricular standards, curricular materials and instructional practices.
Instead, Governor Romney would do well to embrace Bush’s admonition to “start rewarding improvement and success.”

Rather than impose all kinds of new explicit or de facto federal mandates, a Republican administration would do well to create a real Race to the Top, which simply rewards states for results—not compliance with federal rules. If we are so taken with the narrative of falling behind other countries and losing our competitive edge as a result, a trope that is present since the 1983 A Nation at Risk report and continued in both Governor Bush and Secretary Rice’s remarks at the RNC, then a focus on results rather than what bureaucrats in DC think will work is the way to go.

My own view is that in domestic matters the feds are not good at all the details needed to be effective in delivering public services of most any kind. That’s especially so with education (and I would argue health care), where big bureaucratic structures are anathema to the kind of creativity and relationships that make for good teaching and great learning. The feds are, however, good at spending.

So why not have the federal government provide base funding for those states that want to measure themselves on multiple assessments (SAT, ACT, the international Trends in Math and Science Study and PISA tests). And the feds could provide a financial reward to those states that improve the most on these tests outside the government’s control.
That would encourage governors, state legislators, and state education officials to experiment and innovate. It would allow us to reward only that stuff that works—not the stuff we’ve been hoping might work for 35 years. And it would allow states real flexibility as to whether they want to be part of the effort.

Pay for results, not compliance with the federal government’s growing pile of rules and regs. What an idea.

It sure beats the conventional wisdom in both parties right now.

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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