Liam Julian

Don't let anyone tell you that ed reformers are a ragged bunch. The crew I'm observing right now is as sartorially sophisticated as they come. Especially noteworthy: Ben Wildavsky, wearing a particularly natty sport coat, and our own Amber Winkler, whose skirt is multi-hued, multi-pleated, and strikes one as a fresh burst of springtime.

Update: Rick Hess just arrived; he's sporting a heather green polo, another shirt draped casually around his shoulders, and he's dancing.

Liam Julian

We're throwing a little soiree at the Fordham offices. The crowd is filing in, and one question is on many minds: How's the food?

Meat on a stick I give two thumbs up. It's a little dry, but it's still red meat and it's on a stick. Fresh fruit and crackers are a nice touch, but the mini eggrolls steal the show: each bite is truly packed with egg roll-ish flavor, and smoky notes linger long after the last bite. Well done, eggroll chef.

It's twenty minutes into his speech, and Cory Booker is finally starting to talk education. He describes walking into excellent charter schools in Newark--Northstar, KIPP--and seeing "what's possible."

Now he's describing walking around Newark, asking parents where the "good education" is. Their answers are sophisticated. They know, they all know. He decries what "our Democratic party does too often, the 'infantalization' of poor people, thinking they don't know what's best for them." Provocative!

And...the education discussion is over.

As is the conference, save for more networking. That marks the end of our liveblogging. To recap: there was more talk about the "stuff" of education than I expected, though still not a lot; and nobody (as far as I heard) talked about the crisis in Catholic schools. That's a lost opportunity. Maybe next year.

UPDATE: Booker got a standing ovation nonetheless.

I'm hardly the first person to note the striking similarities between Cory Booker and Barack Obama. (Whitney Tilson, for example, discussed this connection long ago.) But their commonalities are overwhelming. Both men are black, highly educated, eloquent, inspirational, former community organizers and exude post-racial post-partisanship. (Booker reported going for a run on the national mall this morning, listening to Alicia Keyes and Neil Diamond on his iPod. It doesn't get much more post-racial than that.) And, as with Obama, I can't help but sense that the audience wants to like Booker, is soothed by his soaring rhetoric, but can't quite get a handle on the substance of what he's saying.

UPDATE: Now he's talking about fighting crime in Newark and is getting more specific. The police department's gang task force worked 9 to 5 but "gangs don't tend to work a 9 to 5 schedule." Big laugh. He's got the audience again. But when is he going to connect this to education

After a long hiatus for lunch and some break-out sessions, the liveblogging returns. As someone who's helped to organize many an education conference, I can't help but be impressed by the full room this late in the day. It's either because:

a) People really want to hear Newark mayor Cory Booker speak. (He's about to start.)

b) Everyone is hanging on for the final late-afternoon networking session. (Networking is what today is all about, after all.)

c) These overachieving edu-preneurs want to demonstrate their boundless energy and stamina.

Not everyone is staying till the very end, however. One friend just ducked out after spotting the high school choir now sitting at the front of the hall. He has a rule: "I leave when the kids start singing."

One clear message from today's conference is that Washington, D.C., is the new "it" city for education reform activity. The jealousy in the room is palpable. First, there's Michelle Rhee (speaking now), who is dynamic, entrepreneurial, and fearless. There's Adrian Fenty, who is putting every bit of his political capital into turning around the District of Columbia Public Schools. There's competitive pressure from charter schools, which enroll 30 percent of the city's students. And there's even a reform-minded teachers union president, George Parker; Rhee just mentioned his recent Washington Post op-ed . Consider this concluding line:

The old-school paradigm of union rigidity must give way to a new-school approach of working productively with school leaders to improve student achievement.

Ah, watch the reformers from other cities swoon.

Andy Rotherham might not want to throw Randi tough questions, but D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was more than happy to do so, standing up to ask a question about Randi's dishonest defense of NYC's "rubber rooms" and Absent Teacher Reserve. And yes, it ruffled Randi, who cut her off repeatedly, and then just said that The New Teacher Project's recent report on the subject "had no relationship to the truth." Finally, some excitement!

Update: Now former NYC city council member and regular Randi-basher Eva Moskowitz is asking a question and just said she's disappointed that "the gloves aren't being taken off." Now we're getting somewhere!

"If [teachers unions] are really really really so bad, then why wouldn't the schools in states that are union-free do so much better than the states that have unions?"

To be fair, this is hardly a rant, it's a throw-away line. (As one friend just BlackBerried me, "Andy [Rotherham, the session's moderator] is letting Randi get away with murder." Without tough questions, her rants are on reserve.)

This statement is a real conversation-stopper. But it just doesn't hold up. The states that have made the greatest gains in student achievement since the 1990s--particularly for disadvantaged students--are, by and large, Southern, union-free (or union-lite) states, such as Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. But even more important, as is clear from the updated NCTQ database on teacher union contracts, in states without collective bargaining, teachers associations simply get contract-like provisions into state laws and regulations. Like rushing water finding lower ground, teachers will organize and find a way to protect their weakest members, whether they're allowed to bargain collectively or not.

* Previous rants here and here....

Liam Julian

I read Bob Herbert columns when I have trouble sleeping, and so it was that I noticed his piece, published Saturday, about high schools--how they're not preparing students for college and work, and how too many students drop out.

Herbert's source was Bob Wise, the affable president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, and a former governor of West Virginia. Herbert deserves praise for writing about the sorry state of education for grades 9-12, but he disserves the topic by oversimplifying and misrepresenting it. What is never mentioned is that graduating more kids from high school and ensuring that high-school graduates are prepared for college and work, the two goals Herbert lauds, are not necessarily complements. In fact, the easiest way to mint more high-school graduates is by making high school easier, making a diploma worth less, and shuttling kids through the grades. The challenge is setting high standards and keeping them, while also setting up support networks and alternative routes for students who have difficulty meeting tough academic expectations.

It's bad policy to argue with a man named Wise, but the former governor's quote--"The best economic stimulus package is a diploma"--is true only if diplomas have...

We're only 15 minutes into the main event, and already two of my three questions have been resolved. Yes, someone has spoken about education... and that someone was none other than UFT president (and AFT heir apparent) Randi Weingarten. She brought up Sol Stern's "instructionist vs. incentivist" dichotomy and argued for a greater focus on teaching and learning, Core Knowledge-style. And Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High, called for more innovation in curriculum and pedagogy. (His vision won't satisfy the "what works" crowd, though, as he wants a less conservative, more progressive approach.)

And what about attire? Most men are in suits but there are plenty of open collars, too (mine among them).

No mention of Catholic schools yet.

More later.