Educate All Students, Support Public Education

April 28, 2013

No Rich Child Left Behind

Filed under: Poverty — millerlf @ 4:00 pm

April 27, 2013, NYTimes By SEAN F. REARDON

Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.

Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.

What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.

One way to see this is to look at the scores of rich and poor students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50 years. When I did this using information from a dozen large national studies conducted between 1960 and 2010, I found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.

To make this trend concrete, consider two children, one from a family with income of $165,000 and one from a family with income of $15,000. These incomes are at the 90th and 10th percentiles of the income distribution nationally, meaning that 10 percent of children today grow up in families with incomes below $15,000 and 10 percent grow up in families with incomes above $165,000.

In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.

The same pattern is evident in other, more tangible, measures of educational success, like college completion. In a study similar to mine, Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree has increased by 18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students has grown by only 4 points.

In a more recent study, my graduate students and I found that 15 percent of high-income students from the high school class of 2004 enrolled in a highly selective college or university, while fewer than 5 percent of middle-income and 2 percent of low-income students did.

These widening disparities are not confined to academic outcomes: new research by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and his colleagues shows that the rich-poor gaps in student participation in sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and church attendance have grown sharply as well.

In San Francisco this week, more than 14,000 educators and education scholars have gathered for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. The theme this year is familiar: Can schools provide children a way out of poverty?

We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American education and wave after wave of school reform.Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families.

Part of knowing what we should do about this is understanding how and why these educational disparities are growing. For the past few years, alongside other scholars, I have been digging into historical data to understand just that. The results of this research don’t always match received wisdom or playground folklore.

The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.

Before we can figure out what’s happening here, let’s dispel a few myths.

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, have been rising — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.

The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income children as we see in the population as a whole.

It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t important differences in quality between schools serving low- and high-income students — there certainly are — but they appear to do less to reinforce the trends than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

If not the usual suspects, what’s going on? It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.

My research suggests that one part of the explanation for this is rising income inequality. As you may have heard, the incomes of the rich have grown faster over the last 30 years than the incomes of the middle class and the poor. Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.

But rising income inequality explains, at best, half of the increase in the rich-poor academic achievement gap. It’s not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it’s that they are using it differently. This is where things get really interesting.

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages. It may seem self-evident that parents with more resources are able to invest more — more of both money and of what Mr. Putnam calls “‘Goodnight Moon’ time” — in their children’s development. But even though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich.

The economists Richard J. Murnane and Greg J. Duncan report that from 1972 to 2006 high-income families increased the amount they spent on enrichment activities for their children by 150 percent, while the spending of low-income families grew by 57 percent over the same time period. Likewise, the amount of time parents spend with their children has grown twice as fast since 1975 among college-educated parents as it has among less-educated parents. The economists Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, call this escalation of early childhood investment “the rug rat race,” a phrase that nicely captures the growing perception that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.

It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.

We’re also slow to understand what’s happening, I think, because the nature of the problem — a growing educational gap between the rich and the middle class — is unfamiliar. After all, for much of the last 50 years our national conversation about educational inequality has focused almost exclusively on strategies for reducing inequalities between the educational successes of the poor and the middle class, and it has relied on programs aimed at the poor, like Head Start and Title I.

We’ve barely given a thought to what the rich were doing. With the exception of our continuing discussion about whether the rising costs of higher education are pricing the middle class out of college, we don’t have much practice talking about what economists call “upper-tail inequality” in education, much less success at reducing it.

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have recently been taught to think.

So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.

But we need to do much more than expand and improve preschool and child care. There is a lot of discussion these days about investing in teachers and “improving teacher quality,” but improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments may be even more important. Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children.

This means finding ways of helping parents become better teachers themselves. This might include strategies to support working families so that they can read to their children more often.. It also means expanding programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership that have proved to be effective at helping single parents educate their children; but we also need to pay for research to develop new resources for single parents.

It might also mean greater business and government support for maternity and paternity leave and day care so that the middle class and the poor can get some of the educational benefits that the early academic intervention of the rich provides their children. Fundamentally, it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone.

The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.

Sean F. Reardon is a professor of education and sociology at Stanford.

April 26, 2013

Revealing Thoughts From Former TFA Teacher

Filed under: Teach For America — millerlf @ 11:19 am


By Lauren Blair Aronson

Unlike most of the people who drop out of Teach For America, as I did, I really like and respect TFA.

I think TFA does great and important work—but I also think it can do better. While internally TFA is a model of reflective practice, at times the organization has resisted outside criticism. This is not unreasonable, as much of the criticism leveled against it is less than constructive. But as a not-so-successful corps member who now works in education policy, I think I can offer some constructive criticism from my perspective as both a TFA insider and outsider.

Here’s the deal: More than two years ago, I joined nearly 48,000 people in applying to TFA. I was head over heels for the cause and proudly accepted my offer. I remained in New Orleans, where I had attended Tulane University, to serve a community desperately in need of great teaching.

I didn’t stay, though. I didn’t fulfill my two years as a corps member or as a 4th grade teacher at Nelson Charter School, where I had been assigned. In fact, I left after only nine months on the job. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. Nine percent of corps members leave before the end of their two-year commitments, a TFA official told me. And my personal experience tells me that many more corps members struggle to adjust to their work.

As an organization that serves the dual objectives of closing the achievement gap and engaging future leaders in education, Teach For America may find that my perspective—while not necessarily better, or truer—merits some consideration. That’s because, based on my experiences, I can offer two pieces of advice that could help TFA get smarter about recruiting and retaining talent in the classrooms.

First, recruit new talent honestly. Teach For America knows how to attract talent. The organization’s profile has gone viral on elite college campuses. Tulane, which does not have an undergraduate education concentration, sent 28 graduates to the organization in 2011—and many more applied. Among Ivy League institutions, 12 percent of graduating seniors applied to the corps in 2010, and the numbers keep rising. But just because students are ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the organization does not mean that they are aware of what it really means to join the TFA teaching corps.

More often than not, TFA paints an idealistic, rather than realistic, picture of what life in the trenches is really like. TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s June 2012 op-ed in the Huffington Post is a great example of this: The stories are indeed inspiring, but they are also a shiny misrepresentation of what to expect.

“While TFA does its best to provide professional support for corps members, sometimes it fails on providing them with a real human connection.”

When a corps member fails to live up to these success stories, he feels like the lone wolf who simply wasn’t cut out for the program. For instance, Teach For America told me that my leadership experiences as student body president would prepare me for the hardships in the classroom. The (very persistent) recruiter said that I was the “perfect candidate for TFA”—though I had no classroom experience—because I was a campus leader. As it turns out, my extracurricular successes at Tulane did not translate to successes (by TFA standards) in the classroom.

TFA should reconsider its approach and move to a more transparent recruitment process.

It should share some less-than-ideal stories of what life is like in the classroom. Show prospective or incoming corps members a struggling teacher’s classroom. Perhaps conduct a debriefing about possible pitfalls and solutions in the classroom. Don’t just talk about how TFA may be the “hardest thing a young adult will ever do.” That vetting strategy does not effectively weed out the weak among the Type-A, never-give-up applicants the organization attracts. Instead, that kind of truth-telling is like catnip to them.

Making the process more transparent may scare some people away, but TFA will be left with corps members who are not only mentally prepared for the real deal, but who are also joining the corps with the right mission in mind.

Second, motivate, don’t indoctrinate, recruits. While TFA does its best to provide professional support for corps members, sometimes it fails on providing them with a real human connection. I do not necessarily fault TFA for this, but the overarching TFA culture makes new teachers feel guilty for saying—or even feeling—anything that would go against the organizational grain.

At one regional meeting during training, the Greater New Orleans team addressed the need for some corps members to give up their urban placements and take jobs in the Louisiana Delta, a new addition to the region four hours north of the city. Most corps members had already been placed in schools in the city, and the corps members who did not yet have placements did not want to uproot the lives that they had just started to build.

The conversation stalled until a new corps member said: “Those kids need us in the Delta just as much as they need us in the city.” Definitely true. But the comments devolved into: “I already have a placement in New Orleans, but if I didn’t, I know I’d move to the Delta. We should be sacrificing everything for our kids,” and “I’m putting my students before my friends, my family, my health, and my sanity.”

To me, this showed an irrational lack of perspective. It’s the kind of mindset that leads to unhealthy behaviors that could be harmful both to teachers and those they are supposed to teach.

What if TFA adjusted its motivational culture to change that perspective? What if the organization provided a safe space for dialogue and even dissent? It could give reasonable people room to doubt and question TFA norms. This would mean not responding with one-size-fits-all, big-picture-driven responses when corps members express real concerns about the corps and their students. If TFA fails to do this, the organization will risk alienating great teachers—teachers upon whom TFA depends to continue a strong movement.

If TFA could start to engage with corps members as people—not cogs in the organizational machine—it would see a jump in retention, teacher performance, and, ultimately, student achievement.

There is a bright side, and I want to be clear: I believe in Teach For America. My shortcomings as a corps member were as much my fault as the organization’s. But, I hope that TFA, after reading my story, can find some value in the lessons learned by those who left the corps early. With some careful reflection, the organization could better attract and retain the high-quality individuals it—and many, many students—so desperately need.

Lauren Blair Aronson oversees external relations for education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. She previously served as a Teach For America 4th grade teacher in New Orleans.

Standarized Testing a Failure

Filed under: Standardized Tests — millerlf @ 7:31 am

The Coming Revolution in Public Education

Critics say the standardized test-driven reforms pushed by those like Michelle Rhee may actually be harming students.

John Tierney Apr 25 2013, The Atlantic

AP312514903178.jpg  Defendants in Atlanta’s school cheating scandal turn themselves in. (David Goldman/AP)

 It’s always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts. Is it when a few discontented people gather in a room to discuss how the ruling regime might be opposed? Is it when first shots are fired? When a critical mass forms and the opposition acquires sufficient weight to have a chance of prevailing? I’m not an expert on revolutions, but even I can see that a new one is taking shape in American K-12 public education.

The dominant regime for the past decade or more has been what is sometimes called accountability-based reform or, by many of its critics, “corporate education reform.” The reforms consist of various initiatives aimed at (among other things): improving schools and educational outcomes by using standardized tests to measure what students are learning; holding schools and teachers accountable (through school closures and teacher pay cuts) when their students are “lagging” on those standardized assessments; controlling classroom instruction and increasing the rigor of school curricula by pushing all states to adopt the same challenging standards via a “Common Core;” and using market-like competitive pressures (through the spread of charter schools and educational voucher programs) to provide public schools with incentives to improve.

Critics of the contemporary reform regime argue that these initiatives, though seemingly sensible in their original framing, are motivated by interests other than educational improvement and are causing genuine harm to American students and public schools. Here are some of the criticisms: the reforms have self-interest and profit motives, not educational improvement, as their basis; corporate interests are reaping huge benefits from these reform  initiatives and spending millions of dollars lobbying to keep those benefits flowing; three big foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton Family) are funding much of the backing for the corporate reforms and are spending billions to market and sell reforms that don’t work; ancillary goals of these reforms are to bust teacher unions, disempower educators, and reduce spending on public schools; standardized testing is enormously expensive in terms both of public expenditures and the diversion of instruction time to test prep; over a third of charter schools deliver “significantly worse” results for students than the traditional public schools from which they were diverted; and, finally, that these reforms have produced few benefits and have actually caused harm, especially to kids in disadvantaged areas and communities of color. (On that last overall point, see this scathing new report from the Economic Policy Institute.) 

Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding. Here are some reasons why I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.

  • It’s what history teaches us to expect. In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments  (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the “solutions” they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based “accountability,” top-down management, limitations on teachers’ autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves. (See William J. Reese’s op-ed piece Sunday on the early history of the “testing wars” in America.)
  • Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail. The policy alchemists’ notion that a “Common Core” or standardized curriculum, along with standardized tests, are appropriate measures for “fixing” American education is uninformed by an understanding of history and practice. Twenty-five years ago, two of our wisest scholarly analysts of educational reform, Richard Elmore and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, observed, based on their study of education reforms over the decades: “Reforms succeed to the degree that they adapt to and capitalize upon variability [from school to school and classroom to classroom]. . . . Policies that aim to reduce variability by reducing teacher discretion not only preclude learning from situational adaptation to policy goals, they also can impede effective teaching.” Today’s corporate reformers are flying in the face of experience.
  • Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail. The current crop of reformers also roundly ignored another fundamental principle laid down years ago by Elmore and McLaughlin on the basis of their exhaustive research: policies and practices that are based on distrust of teachers and disrespect for them will fail. Why? “The fate of the reforms ultimately depends on those who are the object of distrust.” In other words, educational reforms need teachers’ buy-in, trust, and cooperation to succeed; “reforms” that kick teachers in the teeth are never going to succeed. Moreover, education policies crafted without teacher involvement are bound to be wrongheaded. When the architects of the Common Core largely excluded teachers from involvement in its development, they simultaneously guaranteed its untrustworthiness and its ultimate failure.
  • Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed. A teacher’s instruction matters in student performance, but too many other things (a student’s socioeconomic background, upbringing, parental involvement, motivation) also matter for students’ test scores to be a reasonable indicator of a teacher’s merit. As The Nation magazine reported in 2011: “The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”Moreover, using students’ test scores for such judgments is poor policy from a procedural standpoint. The news reports in recent weeks that teachers and administrators in various jurisdictions (Atlanta and Washington, DC, for example) have cheated by manipulating test scores carry a powerful message, but not the one many observers may first think. The message is not that educators are venal or mendacious, but that rewarding or punishing teachers based on students’ test scores is a fundamentally flawed process that fails to take into account Campbell’s Law, one of the best-known maxims in the literature on organizational behavior: if you impose external quantitative measurements to judge work performance that cannot be easily and clearly measured, all you will achieve is a displacement of goals — in this case, some teachers and administrators will be more concerned with maximizing scores (even through cheating) than with helping kids learn.
  • More people are realizing that many of the organizations involved in “corporate reform” seem to need reforming themselves. A great irony of the corporate reform agenda is that the mission to bring business-like accountability and efficiency to public education has been hampered in part by the colossal incompetence of some of the companies involved. A good example is Pearson, which calls itself “the world’s leading education company,” a slogan which, if true, should give all of us great pause. This big testing company, like its testing-industry competitors, has been screwing up over and over again for more than a decade now, with news of its most recent colossal mistake coming just this past week. Moreover, despite their screw-ups, these companies are enriching themselves and their executives from taxpayers’ dollars – Pearson’s pre-tax profits soaring by 72 percent in 2011. And in the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up vein, we got the news in the last few days that Pearson is allowing embedded plugs for commercial products (LEGO and Mug Root Beer, anyone?) in the exams for which taxpayers are footing the bill. No wonder growing numbers of people are rebelling against the intrusion into public education of the sort of gross commercial greed and incompetence the testing-industry represents. (If you want to read a detailed and damning appraisal of the secretive and error-ridden testing business, read this 2003 report by Kathleen Rhoades and George Madaus of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.)
  • People wonder why reformers themselves aren’t held accountable. Accountability is a central tenet of the market-based reforms. So people naturally find it disturbing when the architects and advocates of the reforms elude accountability for wrongdoing they knew about. To be more pointed, it’s fair to say that the behavior of Michelle Rhee, the former DC school commissioner who was once the darling of the reform movement, has done genuine harm to her cause by countenancing or ignoring the misbehavior on her watch. (See here and here.)

There are more reasons why there is a growing rebellion against the reigning reform agenda. But you get the picture: the reforms are ill-conceived, and their implementation is leading to growing distrust and dissatisfaction.

Even if all this is correct, you may ask, where are these signs of growing rebellion?  Here are but a few: teachers in various cities (Seattle, for example) have refused to administer standardized tests, and support for their stance has spread; many parents are choosing not to let their kids take the standardized tests, preferring to “opt out,” and those whose kids go ahead with the tests are complaining vociferously about them; legislators in various states (even Texas!) are reconsidering standardized tests and expressing concerns about Pearson and the testing industry; corporate-reform proposals (vouchers and state-not-local authorization of charter schools) got stopped last week in the legislature of Tennessee, a state that previously was friendly to the agenda.

And here’s one more: When Gerald “Jerry” Conti decided a month ago to go public with his reasons for deciding to retire from his teaching career after 27 years at Westhill High School in New York, he leveled blistering and impassioned criticisms against the corporate reforms that, he says, are harming our educational system. Conti’s cri de coeur went viral on the Web,  embraced by a massive audience of teachers and parents, who found in it a clear and moving expression of their own dissatisfactions. Others are joining the chorus. See, for example, this recent plea by David Patten to “let teachers teach.”

What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can’t be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States. We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

For a broader summary of an alternative agenda, let’s turn to Diane Ravitch, the eminent educational policy analyst and most notable of those who once supported the accountability reforms and now ardently oppose them. This is an excerpt from a statement on Ravitch’s website, in which she lays out the rationale for a plea that people “take action now” to push back against the corporate reforms:

What we need to improve education in this country is a strong, highly respected education profession; a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, available in every school for every child; assessments that gauge what students know and can do, instead of mindless test prepping for bubble tests. And a government that is prepared to change the economic and social conditions that interfere with children’s readiness to learn. We need high-quality early childhood education. We need parent education programs. We need social workers and guidance counselors in the school. Children need physical education every day. And schools should have classes small enough for students to get the attention they need when they need it.

We cannot improve education by quick fixes. We will not fix education by turning public schools over to entrepreneurs. We will not improve it by driving out experienced professionals and replacing them with enthusiastic amateurs. We will not make our schools better by closing them and firing teachers and entire staffs. No high-performing nation in the world follows such strategies. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, which is not good enough for our children, nor can we satisfied with the Bush-Obama-Duncan “reforms” that have never been proven to work anywhere.

If I am correct that a new educational revolution is under way, it will need its own Thomas Paine, speaking “Common Sense” and urging action. Diane Ravitch is one voice advocating  that kind of action: at the bottom of her website, Ravitch provides suggestions about specific steps parents and teachers who think that corporate reforms are misguided, wrong, and harmful can take to “push back” against the corporate reformers. Anyone who agrees with her view can look there — or to their local school board and state legislators — for ways to carry the message forward.

April 25, 2013

Earth to Rocketship: More on Rocketship’s Fundamental Flaw from Scholastic Administrator

Filed under: Rocketship — millerlf @ 10:13 pm

In a January 5, 2013 posting titled “Rocketship Schools Coming Soon to an Urban Area Near You” (see below: article 2) I addressed some major issues concerning Rocketship. Following is an interesting point of view from Scholastic Administrator.

 A Cautionary Tale: Rocketship’s learning model works out some major kinks.

By Alexander Russo Scholastic Administrator Spring 2013

Hidden toward the end of a recent PBS NewsHour segment on blended learning was a surprising tidbit about impending changes for the much-admired Rocketship charter school network and its Learning Lab model.

The model—students spending 100 minutes a day in a computer room staffed by non-teachers—was “not really working,” reported PBS. The stand-alone labs would be gone within a year, and with them, presumably, the $500,000 in savings generated for each Rocketship school.

This wasn’t the only change. Rocketship’s relationship with the software company it had relied on had ended. Not long after, Rocketship announced the departure of its founder and one-man publicity magnet, John Danner.

What’s been going on with Rocketship? And what can administrators, reformers, and others learn from its experience with blended learning models and ambitious expansion plans?

Coordination between the labs and classrooms was always a concern. A feature we ran in our Spring 2012 issue [“Learning Labs101”] touched on this, noting how large the labs were and questioning whether the 60-minute computer sessions (supplemented with small-group tutoring) were too lengthy.

And yet, for the past couple of years, the seven-school Rocketship network has been one of the “it” education efforts in the nation—known for its embrace of blended instruction; low-cost, fast-growth expansion; and the ability to raise student test scores. Longtime education writer Richard Whitmire, author of the Michelle Rhee biography, The Bee Eater, was already working on a book about Rocketship. With its affordable, high-impact model, it was thought that Rocketship might be able to expand much faster than earlier charter-school networks.

Back in 2011, Danner sounded extremely confident about the model he’d developed. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, he boasted, “If you perfect things, like the way we develop teachers and individualized learning, [this model] should be pretty applicable in a lot of places.”

But, as is now obvious, not everything in the Rocketship model was working.

Of course, there’s no reason Rocketship shouldn’t change or improve its model—or any clear indications that the charter chain won’t continue to grow and succeed. Danner’s departure was long in the planning, according to Whitmire, and his new learning software company could help Rocketship thrive.

However, the company probably shouldn’t have touted the model—and begun shipping it out to districts around the country—before it was sure it had perfected it.

That’s the real lesson here: a warning against delivering, or accepting, premature claims of having figured something out. Vendors doing what Rocketship did run serious risks of disappointing schools they’re selling themselves to. Educators who don’t remember to scrutinize vendors’ claims closely enough need to remember they risk professional embarrassment, and school funds.

Since it’s clear that Rocketship is in transition, what might its 2.0 blended-learning model look like in the future? According to Rocketship’s marketing and communications manager Kevin Bechtel: “We envision a large learning space, shared by an entire grade level of students, with two teachers and Learning Lab aides.”

That sounds pretty good, though less dramatically different than other schools’ tech setups and perhaps not as inexpensive as the original model. Rocketship may very well recover and thrive. But hopefully with the next iteration, perfecting the model will take precedence over expansion.

Article 2 from 1/5/2013

Rocketship Schools Coming Soon to an Urban Area Near You

Rocketship Plans to Build an Education Empire According to a December 28, PBS NewsHour Report (See Link below.)

In a 9 minute TV PBS NewsHour report Rocketship  CEO John Danner stated that Rocketship Education’s  goal is for a million students to be attending their schools. This would be over 1600 schools nationally. If they contract the same lucrative deal that the City of  Milwaukee gave them , sending $600,000 annually back to national headquarters in San Jose, this will be nearly $1 billion profit annually  for Rocketship Education. Short-term they want 46 schools up and running in five years, eventually growing to 50 cities.

Rocketship clearly strives to be the largest chartering management organization in America. But with this aggressive expansion comes an increase in scrutiny. I have written about 3 of their “model” schools in San Jose raising what I consider serious issues. The NewsHour report adds to my trepidation, especially as they plan to flood the education market with their brand.

Questionable practices

  • Their main source for teachers is Teach For America, that is, uncertified teachers that enter the classroom with only 6-weeks of training. 75% of their teachers are from Teach For America.
  • Rocketship schools are also founded on use of “learning labs.” Learning labs are staffed by hourly employees who, as the report notes, “…lack teaching credentials.” Rocketship says that the “learning labs” save enough money for each school to hire 6 fewer teachers yearly, saving up to half a million dollars a year. The problem admitted in the PBS report is that the “learning labs” don’t work, even though students spend 25% of their day in the lab, sitting in front of computers. (See report below.) Yet Rocketship’s “success”, as claimed on their web site, is because “Rocketship has a very innovative instructional model that utilizes the Learning Lab as a place for students to master basic math and reading skills.
  • Rocketship does not offer arts or music in its curriculum.
  • Disturbing data from 3 of their “model” schools in San Jose data shows the low enrollment of special education students (They admit to 5% special education student enrollment.) While the San Jose school district has a special education population of more than 12%, the Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy has only 14 special education students total. Its sister school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary, serves only 15 special education students out of a total of 270 students. The newest school, Rocketship Los Suenos Academy, serves only 11 special education students. Keeping the number of special education students below 20, as shown in all three schools, means that special education is not considered as a subgroup required to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind.
  • In the selection of students Rocketship operates charters that enroll students via application. Therefore, it necessarily follows that the Rocketship will enroll a different mix of students than the low-SES-area neighborhood public schools.  As one observer stated, “If Rocketship thinks it has discovered the secret to effectively educating low-SES-area students, let Rocketship take over a low-SES-area neighborhood school — enrolling all the neighborhood school children and only the neighborhood school children — and let’s see how Rocketship’s model works when Rocketship has the same students as the neighborhood public school.”

To see the PBS report, go to:

Below is a transcript of the PBS, NewsHour report:


April 24, 2013

Milwaukee Vouchers Students Test Lower Than MPS Students

Filed under: Vouchers — millerlf @ 11:55 am

Wisconsin voucher students lag in latest state test


April 15, 2013

Money Behind Walker’s Voucher Expansion

Filed under: Scott Walker,Vouchers — millerlf @ 1:43 pm

$10 Million In 10 Years Drives School Agenda

Walker expanding program after millions in backing by voucher supporters

April 15, 2013 Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Madison – Wealthy campaign contributors and shadowy electioneering groups that back school voucher programs have spent nearly $10 million in 10 years in Wisconsin – much of it to help twice elect a governor who is trying to sharply expand the program, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

Spending by school choice backers included $2.8 million in individual campaign contributions to mostly Republican and conservative candidates for statewide office and the legislature from 2003 through mid-2012, and $7 million for outside electioneering activities, like negative mailings and broadcast ads, from 2003 through 2012.

More than half of the $9.8 million in campaign contributions and outside spending – $5 million – by pro-voucher groups and individual supporters since 2003 occurred in the first 19 months of the 2011-12 election cycle when Republican Governor Scott Walker, the lieutenant governor and 13 state Senate seats were targeted for recall because of the governor’s successful plan to slash public employee collective bargaining rights (see Bar Chart). In the previous four, two-year election cycles, campaign contributions and outside election spending by voucher advocates had ranged from $751,925 to $1.6 million.

Campagin Contributions and Outside Spending by School Choice Supporters for Legislative and Statewide Candidates

Those persistent, generous campaign contributions and millions of dollars more in outside election spending by mostly out-of-state interests are keys to the program’s survival and growth.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, also known as the school voucher or school choice program, started in 1990 serving 300 Milwaukee public school pupils at a cost of about $734,000. Today two programs spend about $158 million in taxpayer dollars to send about 25,400 Milwaukee and Racine school children to private and religious schools. During the 23-year history of school choice in Wisconsin, backers have successfully defended its legality in court; expanded it even under eight years of a democratic governor who opposed it; and repelled attacks about its educational quality, transparency, accountability and financial and mismanagement problems that led to criminal charges, convictions and prison time for administrators at some of the schools in the program.

Walker has received $2.35 million in campaign contributions and outside spending support from individuals and groups that back school vouchers since his first run for governor in 2006. Virtually all of that support – $2.2 million – came for his June 2012 recall race when mostly out-of-state school choice supporters contributed $1.1 million to his campaign and the Washington-based American Federation for Children spent $1.1 million on outside electioneering activities on Walker’s behalf.

Walker’s large bump in campaign contributions from school voucher supporters and outside spending by the American Federation for Children come amid his efforts before and after the recall election to expand the voucher program. During his 2006 and 2010 races for governor, Walker received no outside electioneering support from school choice groups, and $126,063 in individual contributions from supporters of the program.

But after Walker’s 2010 election and before his June 2012 recall the governor proposed a 2011-13 state budget that significantly increased funding, ended enrollment limits to increase the number of pupils who can join and geographically expanded the school voucher program beyond Milwaukee.

And Walker’s proposed a 2013-15 state budget currently being considered by the legislature continues to expand school choice. The governor wants to increase funding $73 million and potentially allow up to nine additional school districts throughout the state to join the program in the near future.

Over the years, school choice supporters have also targeted key members of the state’s legislative and judicial branches of government who develop, approve, fund and decide the legality of public policies like the voucher program (Table 1).

In the legislature, school choice backers focused their contributions and outside election efforts to help Republican legislators who were targeted in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, and legislative leaders and their fundraising committees. And four Wisconsin Supreme Court justices who are considered the court’s conservative bloc collectively received $233,350 from school voucher backers from 2003 through mid-2012. One of those justices, Pat Roggensack, received an additional $35,500 in contributions from school choice supporters in early 2013 while she was running for reelection.

After Walker, the other top recipients include Supreme Court Justice David Prosser who received $130,000 from four out-of-state contributors to help pay for recount expenses after his 2011 reelection to the bench, GOP Senator Alberta Darling of River Hills – one of nine senators who faced a recall election in 2011 – who accepted $57,800 and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate – one of the four committees used by Senate and Assembly Republican and Democratic leaders to raise campaign cash for elections – at $51,100.

In addition to substantial campaign contributions in key legislative races, groups pushing school choice expansion in the legislature have hired three former GOP Assembly speakers – Scott Jensen, John Gard and Jeff Fitzgerald – to lobby on the issue. Jensen works for the Washington D.C.-based American Federation for Children which has spent $4.4 million of the $7 million doled out by school choice backers since 2003 for outside electioneering activities.

Nearly two-thirds of the $2.8 million from school choice backers came from individuals outside the state. The Democracy Campaign found that $1.8 million or 63 percent came from contributors in California, Arkansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, Wyoming, Texas and Missouri among others compared to about $1 million, or 37 percent, from Wisconsin contributors.

Topping the list of school choice contributors (Table 2) to Wisconsin candidates were billionaires Richard and Betsy DeVos of Grand Rapids, Michigan who contributed $337,330 from 2003 through mid-2012 to Wisconsin candidates for statewide office and the legislature.

The DeVos family has backed the school choice cause nationwide for several years. Richard DeVos Jr. is a former unsuccessful candidate for Michigan governor, and his father of the same name founded Amway Corporation. Betsy DeVos is heavily involved with American Federation for Children and founded its predecessor All Children Matter which spent about $2.4 million on outside activities in Wisconsin elections from 2004 through 2008. Walker was the top recipient of the couple’s contributions at $252,600, including $250,000 during his recall election when state election laws allowed the governor and other officeholders targeted for recall to collect unlimited contributions from individuals.

Behind the DeVos family are Robert and Patricia Kern, owners of Generac Power Systems in Waukesha who contributed $302,700. Most of that, $200,000, went to Walker during his recall contest. Like many other school choice supporters, the Kerns have contributed mostly to Republican candidates and conservative candidates. The couple’s Kern Family Foundation supports school voucher and other alternative education programs, pastoral training and engineering education. Robert Kern was a major backer – to the tune of $250,000 – of All Children Matter between 2005 and 2007.

Rounding out the top three contributors were John and Josephine Templeton who oversee the Templeton Foundation in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and contributed $150,200 to Wisconsin candidates. In addition to school choice, the Templetons are long-time supporters of Republican and conservative candidates and causes across the country like the Cato Institute and numerous state efforts to ban same-sex marriage. They gave $100,000 to help pay Prosser’s recount expenses after his 2011 reelection, $50,000 to Walker for his recall campaign and $200 to two GOP legislative candidates.

In addition to spending by individuals and groups whose key issue is school vouchers, powerful lobbying groups like the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and two Milwaukee police and firefighter unions also back the program. WMC, the state’s largest business group, represents a wide array of powerful special interests like business, manufacturing, construction, road building, banking, natural resources, health care that made $63 million in campaign contributions to candidates for statewide office and the legislature from 2003 through mid-2012, including $20.2 million to the governor.

WMC and two conservative ideological groups – Wisconsin Family Action and Americans for Prosperity – which also back school voucher programs, have spent $24.2 million on outside spending since 2003 to help elect dozens of legislative and statewide candidates. These groups, which keep secret their fundraising and spending on election activities, spent an estimated $8.65 million on outside electioneering activities to help Walker win the 2010 general and 2012 recall elections.

Table 1
Contributions* From School Voucher Supporters
To Current Statewide Officeholders And Legislators

Name Party** Office Amount
Scott Walker R Governor $1,246,008
David Prosser NP Supreme Court $130,000
Alberta Darling R S08 $57,800
Committee to Elect a Republican Senate R Senate $51,100
Annette Ziegler NP Supreme Court $39,000
Michael Gableman NP Supreme Court $38,600
Tom Tiffany R S12 $34,950
J.B. Van Hollen R Attorney General $33,610
Terry Moulton R S23 $29,540
Republican Assembly Campaign Committee R Assembly $29,300
Pat Roggensack NP Supreme Court $25,750
Leah Vukmir R S05 $23,125
Scott Fitzgerald R S13 $20,650
Mary Williams R A87 $18,655
Joe Leibham R S09 $16,500
Mark Honadel R A21 $16,150
Lee Nerison R A96 $16,100
Luther Olsen R S14 $15,950
Sheila Harsdorf R S10 $15,900
Travis Tranel R A49 $13,500
Jeff Mursau R A36 $13,000
Jerry Petrowski R S29 $12,150
Rebecca Kleefisch R Lt. Governor $12,100
John Murtha R A29 $10,350

*Table shows current officeholders who received $10,000 or more from school choice supporters. Figures represent contributions to statewide officeholders from 2003 through June 2012 and to current legislators and legislative leadership committees from 2003 through July 2012.

**‘R’ means Republican and ‘NP’ means Nonpartisan.

Table 2
Contributions* From School Voucher Supporters
To Candidates For Statewide Office And The Legislature  

Name City State Employer Amount
Richard & Betsy DeVos Grand Rapids MI Alticor/Windquest $337,330
Robert & Patricia Kern Waukesha WI Generac Power Systems $302,700
John & Josephine Templeton Bryn Mawr PA Templeton Foundation $150,200
Dennis & Sandy Kuester Milwaukee WI M&I Bank $128,600
John & Christy Walton Jackson WY Walmart $122,100
Terry & Mary Kohler Sheboygan WI Windway Capital $117,875
Foster & Lynnette Friess Jackson WY Friess Associates $117,200
George & Susan Mitchell Whitefish Bay WI School Choice Wisconsin $115,500
William & Susan Oberndorf San Francisco CA SPO Partners $114,950
Jim & Lynne Walton Bentonville AR Walmart $109,600
San & Joanne Orr Wausau WI Wausau Paper $104,267
Roger Hertog New York NY Retired $100,000
Bruce Kovner New York NY Caxton Alternative Management $100,000
Howard Fuller & Deborah McGriff Milwaukee WI Marquette University/ New Schools Venture Fund $88,980
Richard & Sherry Sharp Richmond VA V-10 Capital Partners $88,300
John & Laura Fischer San Francisco CA Pisces $79,500
Virginia James Lambertville NJ Retired $67,550
Michael W. Grebe Milwaukee WI Bradley Foundation $61,700
Rex Sinquefield Westphalia MO Show-Me Institute $55,000
David & Julia Uihlein Milwaukee WI Uihlein Wilson Architects $54,900
William & Patricia Hume San Francisco CA Basic American Foods $40,400
John Bryan Lake Oswego OR Eos Inc. $35,500
David & Ann Brennan Akron OH White Hat Management $31,000
H. Fisk Johnson Racine WI S.C. Johnson & Sons $30,000
Andrew & Janice Fleckenstein Waukesha WI Fleck Foundation $27,700
Arthur Dantchik Gladwyne PA SIG Financial Holdings $24,500
Peter Denton Palm Beach FL Retired $24,100
George Hume San Francisco CA Basic American Foods $23,500
Alice Walton Millsap TX Walmart $21,950
Greg & Carrie Penner Menlo Park CA Walmart $20,000

*Table show contributors who gave $20,000 or more to statewide officeholders from 2003 through June 2012 and to current legislators and legislative leadership committees from 2003 through July 2012.

April 12, 2013

Separate But Unequal: Analysis by State Senator Chris Larson on Walker’s Charter School Proposal

Filed under: Charter Schools,Scott Walker — millerlf @ 12:48 pm

As you may know, the 2011-2013 Biennial Budget passed by Republicans and signed by Governor Walker gutted $1.6 billion in funding for our local public schools while also funneling money into private voucher schools. With the introduction of Governor Walker’s second budget, it appears the trend to devalue our children’s need for a quality education is continuing. Not only does the newly introduced budget provide a 0% increase in revenue limit growth, but it also continues to divert money to an unaccountable, unproven voucher experiment. This time around, the budget also tries to create a voucher 2.0 program by altering the existing format of our charter schools to make them more closely resemble their voucher school counterparts. Continue reading for more information about the proposed changes to Wisconsin’s charter and voucher school programs.

Implications of Creating a Charter School Board

While many Wisconsinites are aware of the proposed expansion of voucher schools in Wisconsin, the same cannot be said of plans to further privatize education in our state by creating a Charter School Oversight Board (CSOB), which would be attached to Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), but ultimately act independently.

Under Governor Walker’s budget, school boards could convert all of the public schools within the district to charter schools. Further, should the area school board opt to convert all schools into charter schools, all students in the district could be forced to attend them. Likewise, parents and teachers in the district would have no say about the decision. Being forced to attend charter schools created under this plan rather than a traditional school or a charter school run under the guidance of DPI should be concerning to parents for several reasons. Not only will the Board creating these charter schools be controlled by a one-party majority, but it will also face little public scrutiny, can opt to ignore the local school board, and will have sole discretion over the charter school’s budget, curriculum, and personnel policies and decisions.

The Board created would be comprised of the state superintendent and 10 other members–two appointed by the superintendent, two by the governor, and six by the leaders of the Senate and Assembly. Given that the Legislature and the Governor’s office are currently controlled by one party, that will allow the majority Republican members to dictate charter school policy.

Additionally, the CSOB would not be subject to any direct oversight by the Legislature, or the local school district. As a result, this new Board would be able to establish policies and standards without the public scrutiny of the rule-making process to which other agencies, including DPI, are currently subject. Such a provision also limits the input of parents and local government to craft educational policy that represents the needs and values of that community and those neighbors.

Finally, as stated in Governor Walker’s budget, all new independent charter schools must be established by contract and operated by a charter school governing board. The charter school operators are then granted sole discretion over the charter school�s budget, curriculum, and personnel policies and decisions. One such personnel policy granted is that DPI will be required to grant a charter school teaching license to any person who has a bachelor’s degree and demonstrates that he or she is proficient in the subject they intend to teach. The individual need not have had any teaching experience or experience with kids in general. Once they are granted a license, it is valid for three years and may be renewed.

While it may seem that school districts statewide will have the choice to go charter or not, Governor Walker sought to eliminate this local control option, as well. According to the budget text, approval for new, independent charter schools will be needed from home districts, unless the district meets the criteria of having two schools within the district with bad report card grades. In that case, the creation of CSOB will automatically be triggered, despite any voiced objections from the school board. While charter schools have become a valuable option for families across Wisconsin, it is something that should have oversight from those providing the funding–neighborhood taxpayers. Likewise, the creation of an independent charter school board should also be put before community members. Unfortunately, Governor Walker’s budget, as it stands, does neither.

How Voucher and Neighborhood Schools Compare

With the introduction of Governor Walker’s 2013-2015 Biennial Budget, our local public schools once again were dealt a devastating blow. Under the governor’s budget, private voucher schools will not only be allowed to expand across the state, but they will also see a $73 million increase in funding and spending authority. This means up to a $1,400 per-pupil funding increase for the 25,000 students in voucher schools. In this very same budget, 870,000 Wisconsin children were ignored when a $0 revenue growth limit was instituted in their public neighborhood schools. As we look to protect the opportunities available to our K-12 students, we should also ensure that the choices we are offering are quality, transparent options that will help guarantee all our children are receiving the best education possible.

One choice that still requires vast improvement is Wisconsin’s voucher schools. Not only do these schools lack the same accountability and transparency measures as their public school counterparts, but it appears we may be investing substantial taxpayer dollars in a choice that has not been proven to be any better for our children than our traditional neighborhood schools.
The issue of poor accountability and lack of transparency measures in voucher schools has been discussed since I was nine years old. Despite Governor Walker’s repeated promises to finally bring accountability and transparency to all schools receiving taxpayer dollars–including voucher schools–he has yet to follow through. Children, parents, and taxpayers deserve to have basic accountability measures in place for all schools receiving public funds.

In addition to widespread concerns over the lack of accountability and transparency in Wisconsin’s voucher schools, this program also comes at a substantial cost to taxpayers. In 2010, state law compelled Milwaukee Public Schools to levy over $50 million in taxes to subsidize the private and religious schools making up the voucher program, which amounts to 17% of the total Milwaukee Public Schools tax levy. This financial burden increased the financial responsibility of taxpayers in 2012 to 22.6% of the total Milwaukee Public Schools tax levy.

In truth, Milwaukee taxpayers are now being billed for both the largest school district in the state, Milwaukee Public Schools, AND the fourth largest, which is what the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has grown to be with 22,400 students in the last school year. The tax levy for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program already exceeds the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District by nearly $10 million and is expected to exceed Milwaukee Area Technical College�s in the next few years.
Unfortunately, by increasing the funding for Wisconsin’s voucher schools we are doubling down on a failed system. For those looking to get the most precise snapshot of just how voucher school students are performing compared to their public school counterparts, they should look at data recently collected by the Department of Public Instruction. This data analyzes how all voucher and public school students in 4th, 8th and 10th grade performed in reading, math and science during the 2010-2011 school year. According to the data, Milwaukee Public School students outperformed voucher students in eight out of nine categories.

The Milwaukee Shepard Express also recently compiled information to compare Wisconsin’s voucher schools to their Milwaukee Public School counterparts. Through data provided by the Public Policy Form Research Brief, February 2013; Department of Public Instruction; Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau; and the University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project, they were able to create the comparison chart illustrated below.


MPS Vouchers
Enrollment 79,130 24,941
Economically disadvantaged students 84% 79%
Minority students 86% 80%
African American students 56% 48%
Hispanic 24% 24%
White 14% 20%
Special needs students 19% 2%
Cost per pupil $9,812 $7,670
Religious schools 0 85%
Students proficient in reading (WKCE 2011-12) 60% 57%
Students proficient in math (WKCE 2011-12) 50% 41%
Able to discriminate? No Yes
Comply with open meetings and records laws? Yes No
Teach religious-based curriculum? No Yes
Licensed teachers required? Yes No
Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for special needs students required? Yes No
Students with disabilities proficient in reading 26% 18%
Students with disabilities proficient in math 25% 10%
Students with access to guidance counselors 100% 58%
Students with access to AP high school courses 100% 59%
Students with access to gifted and talented programs 100% 10%

It is clear that Wisconsin has to institute greater accountability and transparency measures in order to honestly examine whether the additional cost of this program is worth it to taxpayers, especially before it considers expansion. I encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join me in learning more about Wisconsin’s voucher program and whether or not it is truly a better option for Wisconsin’s children and future workers.


April 11, 2013

Texas Considers Backtracking on Testing

Filed under: Education Policy,Testing Issues — millerlf @ 5:52 am
By April 10, 2013 NYTimes

AUSTIN, Tex. — In this state that spawned test-based accountability in public schools and spearheaded one of the nation’s toughest high school curriculums, lawmakers are now considering a reversal that would cut back both graduation requirements and standardized testing.

The actions in Texas are being closely watched across the country as many states move to raise curriculum standards to meet the increasing demands of employers while grappling with critics who say testing has spun out of control.

The Texas House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill this month that would reduce the number of exams students must pass to earn a high school diploma to 5, from 15. Legislators also proposed a change that would reduce the required years of math and science to three, from four. The State Senate is expected to take up a similar bill as early as this week.

The proposed changes have opened up a debate in the state and beyond. Proponents say teachers will be able to be more creative in the classroom while students will have more flexibility to pursue vocational or technically oriented courses of study.

But critics warn that the changes could result in the tracking of children from poor and minority families into classes that are less likely to prepare them for four-year colleges, and, ultimately, higher-paying careers.

“What we all know is when you leave it up to kids and schools, the poor kids and kids of color will be disproportionately not in the curriculum that could make the most difference for them,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for racial minorities and low-income children.

Texas is currently an outlier in both the number of exit exams it requires students to pass and the number of courses its default high school curriculum prescribes.

Legislators raised the number of high school exit exams to 15 from 4 in 2007, a year after they passed a law to automatically enroll all high school students in a curriculum that mandates four years of English, science, social studies and math, including an advanced algebra class. (Students may enroll in a less rigorous course of study with the permission of their parents.)

Texas now requires more than double the number of end-of-course exams used in any of the eight states that currently mandate that students pass such exams, according to the Education Commission of the States. And only two other states and the District of Columbia set similar graduation requirements, according to Achieve, a nonprofit organization that works to upgrade graduation criteria.

Here in Texas, the backlash has been fiercest among parents and educators who believe testing has become excessive, particularly after a period when the state cut its budget for education.

On a recent afternoon, Joanne Salazar pulled out a copy of a testing calendar for the school in Austin where her daughter is a sophomore. “Of the last 12 weeks of school, 9 are impacted by testing,” Ms. Salazar said. “It has really started to control the schedule.”

Test critics also argue that standardized tests stifle experimentation in the classroom. “It turns our schools into these cookie-cutter manufacturing plants,” said Dineen Majcher, president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a grass-roots group.

Some educators say the tests do not account for students who learn at different paces. “We expect every student to perform at certain levels with the same amount of time,” said H.D. Chambers, superintendent of the Alief Independent School District west of Houston. “That’s fundamentally flawed.”

But at a time when about half of the students who enroll in community colleges in Texas require remedial math classes, Michael L. Williams, the state’s commissioner of education, called the proposed changes “an unfortunate retreat.”

“What gets tested gets taught,” Mr. Williams said. “What we treasure, we measure.”

Champions of more stringent graduation requirements say they also help push students — particularly those who do not come from families in which college attendance is assumed — to achieve at levels they might not have considered on their own.

Since the tougher recommended curriculum was signed into law, the proportion of Texas high school graduates taking at least one Advanced Placement exam who were from low income backgrounds rose to 45.3 percent in 2012, from 30.5 percent in 2007.

But some argue that the current recommended curriculum could drive more students to drop out if they struggle with advanced courses. (The graduation rate in Texas actually rose from 63 percent in 2007 to 72 percent in 2011, the most recent year for which state education agency data is available.)

Defenders of the current curriculum come from “the elitist in our society who devalue blue-collar work and believe every student must get a four-year college degree,” said Daniel Patrick, a Republican senator from Houston who has sponsored Senate versions of the education bill.

Representative Jimmie Don Aycock, the Republican from Killeen who sponsored the House bill (which passed 147 to 2), said the revised curriculum would give students more options, including community colleges or technical schools. “I don’t want them to have to choose up or choose down,” Mr. Aycock said, “but choose what’s right for them.”

Some business leaders say that without advanced requirements, students will not be prepared for the kinds of jobs employers need to fill. “The jobs of today require higher level skills,” said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Business Association.

Josh Havens, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the governor favored a curriculum that required four years of math and science and “does not support efforts that lessen the accountability and academic rigor that prepares our students for career and college.”

Senator Leticia R. Van de Putte, a Democrat from San Antonio, said she was proposing an amendment that would require four years of math and science, although allow students to substitute more applied courses for advanced algebra or subjects like physics. “This allows for relevance and flexibility while maintaining high rigor,” she said.

But some principals and guidance counselors, along with civil rights groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens, fear that low-income and minority students could slip through the cracks.

“It puts more of the onus on the school to make sure that kids are taking the most rigorous courses possible,” said Daniel Girard, principal of Akins High School in Austin. With large class sizes and shrinking budgets for guidance counseling, he said, “some adults may not push kids on the potential that is there when it’s not required by the state as a graduation plan.”

One morning last week, several high school seniors, all from low-income families, gathered in the Akins guidance office beneath dozens of college pennants hanging from the ceiling.

Nathaniel Buescher, 18, is considering offers from Columbia, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Texas and Yale. His mother immigrated to the United States from Mexico without a high school diploma, and his father never attended college. But his elder sister and brother both advised him to “take the hardest classes that are available.”

Proponents of the changes in the default curriculum say students can continue to select the most advanced classes. But those who want to take math or writing classes geared toward technical careers will be able to do so.

“There is a fundamental policy disagreement between those that think kids can’t make choices and will take the easy way out,” said Hector L. Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council and a member of Jobs for Texas, a coalition of employers and industry trade groups, “and those of us who believe that kids can make the right choices given the right support and direction.”

Even some students say, though, that standards help guide their choices.

“If they are allowed the option to not take a harder math class, of course they’re not going to do that,” said Anthony Tomkins, 18, a senior at Akins who plans to attend Texas A&M. “So forcing it upon us in the long run is actually a good thing.”

April 1, 2013

Alan Borsuk Gives a Chimerical Account of MPS Leadership

Filed under: Borsuk — millerlf @ 7:19 am

On March 24th Alan Borsuk wrote a column in the Journal Sentinel called “Signs hint at possible changes for Gregory Thornton, Milwaukee School Board.” I submitted the following letter to the editors but they chose not to run it.

Dear Editors,

On March 24 Alan Borsuk once again churned the rumor mill about MPS leadership (“Signs hint at possible changes for Gregory Thornton, Milwaukee School Board”).

This weekly column would better serve Milwaukee Journal Sentinel readers with some serious investigative journalism about the Milwaukee education landscape.

Here are some places to start:  Report on the lack of transparency and public input for the City of Milwaukee chartering process. Investigate what’s going on inside the classrooms of voucher schools like Travis Academy. Research the recently admitted fundamental flaw in the design of the Rocketship charter school program. Report on the failing grade of two-thirds of New Orleans Recovery District schools.

Instead of hard-hitting articles like these, we are given 600 words of conjectures with comments like “left me wondering,” “my guess,” “I could be wrong,” “maybe,” “speculation may start.”

Journal Sentinel readers should demand a higher standard.


Larry Miller

Critique of Scott Walker’s Destructive Policies Aimed at Milwaukee

Filed under: Scott Walker — millerlf @ 7:03 am

Walker loves Milwaukee? We’re not feeling it

By John Gurda March 29, 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It hasn’t been this bad since the 1950s. You have to go back more than half a century to find a time when Wisconsin’s highest elected officials were so antagonistic to the state’s largest city. Then, it was a rural bloc kept in power by skewed legislative boundaries. Now, it’s a Republican bloc that has manufactured the same advantage. The results are identical: legislation, passed or proposed, inimical to the city’s best interests.

The previous low point in city-state relations came in the years after World War II. Reapportionment, normally done once a decade, had not been addressed since 1921, a result of the Depression, wartime and political resistance.

Years of urban growth had shifted the balance of population to the cities, but not the balance of power. Although 55% of Wisconsinites were city-dwellers by 1950, most of the state’s legislators lived in rural areas. Bayfield County’s assemblyman represented 13,715 people, while his Milwaukee counterparts averaged 43,552 constituents each.

The rural legislators, most of them Republicans, didn’t hesitate to use their disproportionate power. They adopted formulas that increased state aid and lowered state taxes for their districts, sticking Milwaukee and her sister cities with the bills. The rural caucus also beat back attempts to consolidate their small rural schools, and they used city tax dollars to maintain some of the best rural roads in America.

In 1951, Milwaukee County received only $1 back for every $2.10 its residents paid in state taxes. It was not until 1954, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court intervened, that population alone became the basis for reapportionment, and it was not until 1964 that parity was finally achieved, again under court auspices.

Almost 50 years later, the imbalance has returned in a different form. Republicans considered population in their 2011 redistricting scheme, but they studied voting patterns just as carefully. The GOP packed likely Democrats into supermajority districts and gave their own party the statistical edge in contested areas. The results were not just anti-Democratic but anti-democratic. In 2012, Republicans won only 46% of the total votes cast for Assembly but took 61% of the seats.

Once they had stacked the deck, Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans proceeded to play some serious poker. Walker’s opening bets included a proposal to lift the residency requirement for city employees, a move guaranteed to do Milwaukee lasting harm. He denied that it was political payback for the support of the city’s police and fire unions, insisting that he was only supporting freedom of choice. The governor of the entire state followed that claim with a gratuitous slap at Wisconsin’s only metropolis. “If you want to keep people in the city,” Walker piously advised, “you should have a great city.”

Excuse me? Where do you suppose the Brewers and the Bucks play, governor? Which city is the home of such giants as Harley-Davidson, Northwestern Mutual and the Manpower Group? Where is the state’s most vibrant theater scene? Who’s got the greatest concentration of fine restaurants? The biggest zoo and the best museum? Where does the Calatrava spread its wings? Where will you find one of the most gorgeous urban shorelines on the Great Lakes? The world’s largest outdoor music festival? The state’s greatest range of housing choices or, for that matter, the greatest range of human beings?

No place in Wisconsin has the resources that Milwaukee has developed over the past 175 years, and they are here for the entire state to enjoy.

Yes, we have persistent, perhaps intractable, problems with poverty, problems we share with other great American cities, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. Eliminating the residency rule would only aggravate those problems by eroding the middle-income mortar that holds many of our neighborhoods together.

The pull of the suburbs has been a powerful force in American life for decades – not just in Milwaukee – and it’s clearly in any city’s best interests to make residency a condition of employment. Milwaukee’s rule has been on the books since 1938, and applicants still line up for jobs by the thousands. Those who are hired live among those they serve, and where’s the injustice in that?

Walker’s stance on residency is needlessly destructive, but it’s consistent with an anti-urban bias that runs like a thread through his political career. As Milwaukee County executive for eight years, he presided over the decline of once-exemplary transit and park systems. As Wisconsin’s governor since 2010, Walker worked with the Republican Legislature to make the deepest cuts to public education in the state’s history – cuts that Milwaukee, as Wisconsin’s largest and poorest public school system, felt disproportionately.

Along the way, Walker first demonized and then, through Act 10, disarmed members of the one profession with the greatest responsibility for shaping Wisconsin’s future. I know veteran teachers who are advising their younger colleagues to find other work, and applications to the state’s schools of education are down across the board. “The feeling is that Act 10 is doing a number on enrollment,” one dean told me. How’s that for a heartwarming legacy?

Perhaps Walker’s true colors shone most brightly during last year’s gubernatorial recall election. The governor didn’t just run against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; he ran against Milwaukee. His campaign ads showed polluted harbors and dead babies, and Walker actually said at one point, “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee.” You have to wonder if this guy even hears himself anymore. Most maps I’ve seen place Milwaukee well within Wisconsin’s borders, but Walker ignored geography to score political points.

The fact that he could shrug off the collateral damage his campaign was doing to Milwaukee’s image, and to its relationship with the rest of the state, is chilling indeed. I don’t doubt that our governor has firmly held principles, but that’s not where he lives. Beneath the rhetorical camouflage is a ruthless and calculating politician who will exploit any weakness, make any promise and press any advantage to get in office and stay there.

But Walker is a specific kind of politician currently in vogue: an ideologue who sees the world in black and white. His outlook makes him, among other things, a tireless polarizer. Walker instinctively pits “the hardworking taxpayers of Wisconsin” against public schoolteachers, “all of us” against “the greedy few,” public employee unions against each other, and now Milwaukee against the rest of the state. Is his strategy effective? Clearly. Divisive? Oh, my.

Walker is not evil, as some of his more hysterical detractors would have you believe. He reminds me, rather, of Mr. Magoo, a hopelessly nearsighted soul who bumbles through the world oblivious to his surroundings – and to the genuine harm he’s causing. That, to me, is the tragedy of life in Wisconsin under Walker. As he divides to conquer, our polarizer-in-chief has us all swimming in a sea of false dichotomies. By phrasing the major issues in terms of us vs. them, Walker has transformed the broad middle ground of years past into an uninhabitable minefield.

“We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee” is one blatantly false dichotomy. Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin have been mutually dependent since the very beginning, first as markets for each other’s products and now as complementary halves of the same whole. Milwaukee is the urban yin to rural Wisconsin’s yang, and together they constitute a satisfyingly complete experience.

I am both a Milwaukeean and a Wisconsinite, with as much affection for the North Woods and the Driftless Area as I have for the modest metropolis of my birth. Walker would prefer that we not see our commonalities. In a world that can surely be both/and, he’ll choose either/or every time.

There have been a few bright spots, including state support for road work on Milwaukee’s lakefront and some much-needed economic development partnerships, but those bright spots don’t begin to make up for the blind spots. We’re back to the 1950s, with one faction clinging to a gerrymandered majority and lording it over the rest of us. Walker’s bid to end the residency rule is a sign that he and his fellow Republicans are determined to drive yet another wedge into the body politic.

“I love Milwaukee,” the governor declared on these pages a few weeks ago. He certainly has an odd way of showing it. With friends like Walker, who needs enemies?

John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian, writes a monthly column for Crossroads.


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