Board's Eye View

This year might be known as après moi le deluge for teacher unions. Tenure laws are being rewritten, teacher evaluations are more likely to include student performance, and, in 2012’s ‘Wow' moment, the National Education Association, the nation’s oldest and largest teacher union, announced that it had lost 100,000 members in just the last two years. This surely doesn’t signal the end of teacher unions (keep an eye on Chicago), but the age of arrogance, I hope, is on the wane.

Why am I rooting for teacher unions’ decline?

Why am I rooting for teacher unions’ decline? Because, as I suggested in my last post, their dominance in school governance these last several decades has not seemed to work—for the students, the taxpayer, or the country. But even if our schools were working, we would need to be wary of union power because it violates some basic democratic principles; towit, free association and free speech. 

One of my objectives as a member of a school board—a not-so-hidden agenda, if you will—was to help create an environment where it was safe to discuss how to improve our schools, how to get our kids a better education. This was premised on a belief that debate and discussion are good and lead to better outcomes. At minimum, I assumed that, from a policy and governance perspective, two heads were better than one and that an engaged community would be more apt to deliver a good education than an unengaged...

When I entered the education reform movement, as a parent and member of the school board, a dozen or so years ago, it didn’t take long to realize that teachers were the tip of a very long spear: The public faces of a hugely complicated (and from what I could see, ineffectual) system. A million (it seemed) rules and regulations, another million (it seemed) interest groups. But it also didn’t take long to understand that most of the rules and regulations (the ones that counted) either came from or favored the teacher union and the most important interest group was also the teacher union.

Teachers are the public faces of a hugely complicated system.

The point was made clear to me (there’s that spear) when I chaired a district task force on student academic performance. About the second or third meeting of the group, which included parents, community members, teachers, and administrators, a teacher interrupted someone suggesting a longer school day. “We can’t talk about that—that’s a negotiated item,” he said. Before that meeting was done, we had touched the “negotiated item” button several more times. I finally informed the teacher that there was nothing the task force couldn’t discuss and he was out of order; he never returned, nor did the other teachers who had signed on to the committee. The administrators stopped coming as well. The rest of us forged on, produced a report with fifty different improvement recommendations, and presented it to the board, where it has...

While this weekend had plenty of noteworthy education news, today I would like to note the passing of a friend of mine, Staley Keith, who made me understand something about schools and racism. He died just after the Center for Civil Rights Remedies released a troubling study on race and school suspensions and would have nodded knowingly had he seen it. Writes Gary Orfield, head of the Civil Rights Project, which published the study,

The findings in this study are deeply disturbing. Students who are barely maintaining a connection with their school often are pushed out, as if suspension were a treatment. The statistics on the use of suspension for African American and special education students are cause for great concern. We already know that African American males are disproportionately placed into categories of special education that are associated with extremely poor outcomes. We now see that these same students face incredibly high rates of suspension. Every dropout costs society hundreds of thousands of dollars over the student’s lifetime in lost income, and removing a large number of students from school undermines a community’s future. In a society that is incarcerating a large number of African American young men, with terrible consequences for their families and communities, these results are simply unacceptable. We can and must do better for young people whose future is at stake.

As Mike pointed out the other day, the report, called “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion...

There has been a spate of “scathing” reports and comments lately about for-profit schools, which bring out the kissing-cousin questions of whether schools are “businesses,” whether it’s good to “privatize” them, and whether we need more “regulation.”

And all the words in quotation marks in that sentence are meant to draw attention to the fact that the field is littered with misunderstandings, misstatements, and just plain gobbledygook.

Our public-education system is failing too many children; why wouldn’t one consider doing something different?

But first, a word from Whitney Tilson, who summarized things rather succinctly in an August 8 email blast:

All of the fraud, sleaze, etc. that’s recently been uncovered in the for-profit ed sector warrants its own email. This is probably one of the few areas Ravitch and I would generally agree on, though I suspect I’m much more open to for-profit providers – but there needs to be VERY strong regulation, oversight, audits, etc. Otherwise it’s an invitation for disaster.”

You know that something is amiss if Tilson says he agrees with Diane Ravitch. But he has a shotgun list of bad news about private- and quasi-private-sector education. He calls attention to a recent New York Times story which noted that:

  • a federal judge upheld the Department of Education’s right to regulate unscrupulous for-profit schools that leave students with big debts and valueless credentials,”
  • “a Senate committee released a blistering report showing that many of these schools pocket huge
  • ...
Andrew Blumenfeld

This is the fourth post in a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?

Andrew Blumenfeld is a senior at Princeton University. He began serving a four-year term on the school board in La Cañada, California in December, 2011. Andrew is also a founding member of Students for Education Reform.

When I decided to run for a seat on the La Cañada Board of Education in Los Angeles, I needed to be aggressive. That I had graduated from this district was certainly a mark in my favor. I suspected that benefit would be overshadowed by two concerns: (1) that graduation happened only two years prior (I was twenty years old), and (2) I was a junior at Princeton University—as in, New Jersey.

Luckily, my passion could be characterized as “aggressive.” As a student, I had been frustrated by the uneven quality of the education in my district; I was tired of some standardized test scores blinding leadership to problems; and I had recently become a founding member of Students for Education Reform—an organization allying college students with the plight of student-focused education advocacy.

Considering the entrenched adult interests in education politics, it’s tempting...

Though two headlines yesterday about the just released Civil Rights Project study on school suspensions—“Suspensions Are Higher for Disabled Students, Federal Data Indicate” (New York Times) and “Researchers Sound Alarm Over Black Student Suspensions” (Education Week)—suggest our continued ambivalence about race (see Mike’s post here), I would like to take a moment to praise Chris Christie and his New Jersey education team for a watershed event on teacher evaluations and tenure that might just have some salubrious effect on student discipline.

On Monday, the Garden State governor upset a century-old teacher-tenure law, codifying a statute that creates a new teacher-rating scheme and also streamlines the process for firing both teachers and administrators. 

As Heather Haddon noted in the Wall Street Journal, the Garden State is not the first to reform teacher evaluation and tenure rules—remember Wisconsin?—and Christie did not get the legislature to put an end to last-in-first-out seniority rules which a number of other states have managed to kill, but the law signed by Christie “was most significant for where it occurred: in a blue, East Coast state with a strong organized-labor movement and a Legislature controlled by Democrats.”

The New York Post called the new law a “coup.” 

Yet Barbara Keshishian, head of the New Jersey’s teachers union said that the “legislation moves us in the right direction by making it harder to earn tenure, and less expensive and time-consuming to remove teachers who are not performing well.”

“Yes,” opined the...

It started as a fairly typical funding-equity lawsuit and ended with a startling Wall Street Journal headline, “Michigan City Outsources All of Its Schools.” The story, about the poor performing and all-but-bankrupt Highland Park school district, raises all kinds of questions about our nation’s public-education system. (More from my colleague Bianca Speranza about implications for Ohio of Highland Park's plan here.) Why is it failing our poor children (which I wrote about last week)? Can it be fixed? Can it be fixed by turning schools over to charter-management organizations (CMOs)? And if we do turn them over to CMOs, do they have to be nonprofits?

As many defenders of the status quo are beginning to realize, the road to improvement cannot be paved with the same defective asphalt.

According to a report by Jenny Ingles in the web-based Take Part, in early July the ACLU and eight students from the Highland Park school district, located just outside of Detroit, filed a class-action suit against the state because students in the district weren’t learning: On a college-ready state exam, 90 percent of the district's eleventh graders failed the reading portion, 97 percent failed the math section, and 100 percent failed the social studies and science portions.

The suit, part of a long tradition of “adequacy and equity” litigation, argues that such failure is a violation of the state’s constitution, which mandates a public-education system. “This is not a system of public education,” says Kary...

When Jesus said (according to Matthew), “the poor you will always have with you,” he might have added, “and so too the debate about whether schools can educate them.” Paul Peterson has written one of the better essays on the seemingly interminable battle between those who believe that you have to cure the poor before you can educate them and those who believe that educating the poor will help cure poverty.

But there is some good news to report: The pendulum might be swinging, ever-so-slightly, toward the believers (in school).

The pendulum might be swinging, ever-so-slightly, toward the believers (in school).

First, Del Stover reports that a summer session of the Council on Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) concluded that “[t]ending to children’s social, emotional needs [is an] important part of delivering education.” It’s the “part of” part that is encouraging; the source of the problem of educating the poor may be outside the schools, but the solution is inside the schools. The CUBE seminar, according to Stover, included a presentation by Barbara Cavallo, head of Partnership with Children, a New York City social services agency. Cavallo described the many challenges (to learning, to life, to everything) faced by poor children—and what schools could do to overcome them. Cavallo’s counselors, according to Stover, “work with teachers and principals to develop a school-wide plan to create a safe and supportive school climate.”

And, according to Stover, the training is paying the kind of dividends that school reformers have...

Melanie Kurdys
Former school-board member

This is the third post in a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?

Melanie Kurdys, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a BS in math and worked in Systems Development for IBM, AT&T, and Owens Corning Fiberglas, is a fulltime mom of three children, and has, for the last twenty years, lived and volunteered in schools in Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia, and California. She served on the Portage, Michigan, School Board from 2007-2011 and on the Portage Curriculum Committee from 2004-2006.

I was on my local school board, but lost my last election because I was part of a six to one majority that voted to pay off our superintendent to get her to leave before her contract expired.

A compulsory monopoly cannot be led, directed, bribed, or coerced into better performance.

When I started on the board, in 2007, I was in the minority, five to two. I am a fiscal conservative, strongly believe in using data to make decisions, and was relentless in my effort to show that the student achievement in our district was unacceptable—for hundreds of children every year and getting worse. The community has...

On July 12, the South Carolina Board of Education decided to maintain the status quo at seven low-performing schools around the state, likely ensuring yet another school year marked by low achievement rates. The state board voted against a takeover or instituting any meaningful reforms of these chronically failing schools, abdicating its responsibility to ensure the best education for hundreds of children.

What these schools require are fundamental changes in school governance.

South Carolina is not alone in refusing to take bold action and intervene in lousy schools but its continual resistance to school-governance reform in the face of persistent low achievement indicates that a new model is needed in the Palmetto State.

The state school board did approve school improvement plans that include teacher evaluation (including, but not limited to, tying teacher employment and pay scales to student performance) and the consolidation and reorganization of schools. But these plans are merely a tweak to the status quo. The seven schools they apply to need more than tweaks—each received an “at-risk” grade for at least eight consecutive years. What they require are fundamental changes in school governance. Even members of the state board who voted for these reforms expressed doubt that those in charge will have much success turning these schools around: Member Barbara Clarke stated, “Yes, we’re making some gains [in our school report card]. But we’re not making all that much gain for the monies that’s being poured.”

Ms. Clarke need only look to...

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