A teachers union negotiating with a public school district to eliminate seniority rules? That's what's happening now in Washington, D.C., according to today's Washington Post . This comes on the heels of a recent Post article that highlighted the inner conflict roiling the Washington Teachers Union. That piece quoted union president George Parker citing charter schools' encroaching market share in the district as a major culprit:

"We have lost 1,500 members in 10 years, all because of charter schools. Our very survival is dependent on having students remain in [traditional] public schools," Parker said. "If we don't get on the ball in terms of improving our schools, the charters will have the majority of our students."

Mike said it yesterday : Washington, D.C., is the new "it" town for education reform.

I was reviewing a federal evaluation report that came out last week on small schools (also known as schools within schools or small learning communities). The idea is that large high schools are made impersonal, in part, by sheer magnitude; thus, efforts should be made to cut down on class sizes as to render a more individualized and personal education to students. As most folks who follow ed policy know, the Gates Foundation has done the most in recent years to bring attention (and money) to this issue. So I was interested in what the researchers at Abt Associates had found.

Turns out that reading about the key study finding (i.e., most schools are creating freshmen academies and career academies) wasn't as interesting as another thing I noticed. And that is that most teachers received little more than three days of professional development per year related to teaching in small learning communities--these would be things like tailoring instruction to individual student needs. Talk to most any teacher and she will tell you that differentiating instruction based on student ability is one of the hardest things to do in a classroom; my former professor in graduate...

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....