Governance

Having been stiffed by many a good (and bad) source (including a few educators) in my career as a journalist, I was tempted to advise Michael Winerip to lay off Michelle Rhee for his Eager for Sptlight, But Not If It Is On a Testing Scandal column in today's New York Times. But despite some petulant prose ? ?she preens for the cameras? -- and questionable assessments ? has Rhee's reputation really ?rested on her schools' test scores?? ? Winerip is right: Rhee really should discuss the brewing Washington, DC, public school cheating charges that a USA Today reporting team unearthed last May.

Is DC different than Atlanta, which Winerip has written about (see here)?? You bet.? The reporting on the latter case (by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) was ongoing, for several years, before it hit nationwide scandal status.? And Atlanta's superintendent, Beverly Hall, was in charge of the district, before, during, and after the scandal broke ? she retired just before the hugely damning governor's investigation was released in July.? Rhee, in charge of DC schools for barely three years, can hardly be said to have presided over a cheating scandal, but not talking to USA Today, a reputable national news outlet, surely doesn't do her protests of innocence (on the ?Tavis Smiley? show, according to Winerip) any good.

Face it; one of the more egregious faults of our public school system is its lack of responsiveness ? to students, parents, the public, the press, reality,...

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The Times Fernanda Santos profiles five New York City schools to give us some lessons in austerity. Though there are not a lot of new ideas ? lay off teachers, lay off teachers, lay off teachers ? the fact that principals have some autonomy about how they tighten their belts is good news.? With budgets cut over two percent, Santos writes,

To make ends meet, principals have trimmed after-school programs, shrunk their support staffs and tightened their schools' use of things like printing paper, markers and Post-it notes. They have dismissed coaches who used to help teachers prepare for their lessons, and teachers whose salaries they could no longer pay.

The best part of the story is the sense of ownership of the challenge on display. Everyone is upbeat! Principals and their assistants are rolling up their sleeves and getting back into the classroom and the hallways.? "I don't need anyone walking the halls," says one principal. "I can do that myself." If they can keep the kids learning, we may be on the right track. And New York continues to show us how to transform a school system into a system of schools.? Hopefully, these principals all have copies of Stretching the School Dollar.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

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The other day Michael Winerip raised what has come to be an increasingly contentious question in the public education reform debate ? the use of private money for public purposes. Though he unfortunately veers off into a spat between long-time contenders for control of New York State's public school system (and doesn't touch the deeper questions), Winerip's story is nonetheless a good one: a state education department whose budget has been slashed 35 percent in the last two years, solicits ?private donations to set up a panel of 13 ?research fellows,? paid as much as $189,000 each, to advise the state's education commissioner on matters of education policy. ?As Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch, herself one of New York's richest, told Winerip:

People in the department were burning out?. This was a great way to enhance our capacity.

Sounds reasonable. These are tough times and deep-pocketed individuals are stepping up to the plate to help out. Is that a good idea?? Aside from Jay Greene's recent advice (which is old advice), that ?Philanthropists with billions of dollars to devote to education reform should build new institutions and stop trying to fix old ones,? the question posed, by innuendo, by Winerip, is whether this sort of private? salting of the bureaucracy is kosher.? The Board of Regents had no say in the selection of the research fellows, who went on to make a number of recommendations, the most contentious of which was to increase the importance of student test...

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So suggests Sam Dillon in his New York Times report this morning, ?State Challenges Seen As Whittling Away Federal Education Law.?? Dillon tracks the origins of the newest revolt against No Child Left Behind to Montana, where its education secretary, Denise Juneau, wrote to Arne Duncan last April informing him that the Big Sky state wasn't going to follow what was once considered the nation's premier accountability law.

?We won't raise our annual [NCLB-mandated] objectives this year,? Juneau later told a group of school chiefs from ten rural states, Dillon reports. And ?we're not asking for permission.?

Dillon says that ?half a dozen other states have joined the chorus in recent weeks, using less defiant language but still asking for relief from the testing mandates.?? But he quotes Larry Shumway, superintendent of schools in Utah, another breakaway state, sounding pretty inflammatory:

Pretty soon all the schools will be failing in America, and at that point the law becomes meaningless?.? States are going to sit and watch federal accountability implode. We're seeing the end of an era.

That may be how it looks to some failing states.? But the picture is far more nuanced than that; in fact, if you throw waivers and cheaters and union-busters into the debate, one might say that we're experiencing a bit of an accountability brain freeze at the moment.? And the Republican-controlled House of Representatives seems content to do nothing about it.

But before wading into the politics of it,...

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About three-quarters of the way through Alan Schwarz's story in today's New York Times, "Atlanta School Year Begins Amid a Testing Scandal,? a parent of a first grader is quoted as saying, ?But I love the principal.? Was she named?? No. Was her previous school named?? No. Are the cheaters still there?? No?.?

Finally, I thought. Schwarz had written (paragraph three) that ?nearly 200 teachers and principals admitted to tampering with standardized tests to raise students' scores? and I had immediately wondered, What happened to them?? Fired?? Does Atlanta have a rubber room large enough to hold all the suspects? Did they find replacements?? Major administrative headache, I would think. So, I was relieved to see a parent ask similar questions and expected that would lead to the answers to my questions. Unfortunately, not.

Since inquiring minds might want to know, I checked the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and, according to a July 28 report, found out that all the implicated educators, including 38 principals, are being put on administrative leave -- though it is? unclear when exactly that would go into effect.? In the same story the district says that 41 of the 179 implicated have already quit or retired. Sounds like an administrative nightmare to me. Says the AJC:

Superintendent Erroll Davis, who has been adamant that none of the employees will work in front of the district's children again, plans to start termination proceedings as quickly as he can.

So, where are they today,...

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If there is a silver lining to the cheating scandals, it is the increased scrutiny being paid to the testing industry, including the education systems that administer the tests.

In New York, for instance, as Philissa Cramer of Gotham Schools reports, ?mounting anxiety? over recent events has prompted new State Education Commissioner John King to convene a task force to review the state's testing procedures.? (See also Sharon Otterman in the Times.)

Cramer describes it as ?a fast-moving process to tighten test security before it risks following Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey into cheating scandals.?? It better be fast. The Empire State has been just a hare's breath in front a testing scandal for years, up to now, able to bury the problem in the weeds of bureaucratic inefficiencies.? (See my post of yesterday.)

In 2007 the New York Post reported that,

In 2000, for example, numerous teachers told The Post that educators had dumbed down that year's Regents history and geography exams to a laughable extent. Other reports have exposed grading scams - dubious practices, like "scrubbing," in which teachers find ways to get extra points to kids just below a pass/fail threshold. Other times, so many kids failed that results were simply scrapped, as with the math Regents a few years ago.

In January of this year, a Post headline put it bluntly:? ?Teachers Cheat: Inflating Regents Scores to Pass Kids.?

The Wall Street Journal did its...

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The more I read RiShawn Biddle ? he of Dropout Nation -- the more I like him (even though I don't know anything about him). ?He wrote a wonderful short essay last week on Bruce Baker of Rutgers, whom he called the ?poor man's Diane Ravitch? (and who, he says, "has devoted so much of his career attempting to prove that spending more money on education? leads to better results.?) ?But today he's taking on a favorite subject of mine, the ?the myth of differences between urban and rural schools.?

Having grown up in rural America (Oregon), lived and worked in urban America (Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.) for several decades, and having now settled down in upstate ?high needs rural? New York (this, according to the official New York State Education Department's designation), I have a strong opinion on the subject of rural and urban educational needs.? And that opinion is, Right on RiShawn!

[T]he idea that the nation's education crisis is only limited to the nation's big cities is false, as are arguments that schools serving suburban students are somehow immune from the same problems of abysmal curricula, laggard instruction and cultures of mediocrity in which only some kids are considered capable of learning. The fact that one out of every four fourth-graders in a suburban school ? and that young male fourth-graders (including half of all those on free- or-reduced lunch plans and one-fifth of those who are not) ? are performing

...
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The debates surrounding Ohio’s biennial budget and other education-related legislation during the first half of 2011 were intense, and it’s no wonder. The state headed into the year facing a historic deficit, federal stimulus money was vanishing, and school districts were preparing for draconian cuts. Meanwhile, despite decades of reform efforts and increases in school funding, Ohio’s academic performance has remained largely stagnant, with barely one-third of the state’s students scoring proficient or better in either math or reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Achievement gaps continued to yawn between black and white students and between disadvantaged youngsters and their better-off peers.

 Revised considerably by the General Assembly, Governor Kasich’s budget plan (House Bill 153), a 5,000-page document that both funded the Buckeye State through fiscal year 2013 and included dozens of education-policy changes, was signed into law on June 30. The Ohio House and Senate were also engaged during the spring in passing other legislation that impacts schools.

It’s time to take stock. To what extent have Ohio’s leaders met the challenges and opportunities before them in K-12 education? What needs to happen next?

Michael Winerip is on a roll. After a good piece of reporting on the Atlanta cheating scandal a couple of weeks ago, he has turned in a solid story about the testing mess rolling into Pennsylvania. ?As Winerip notes, the Pennsylvania scandal came to light on July 8, when The Notebook, a small Philadelphia-based education newspaper, reported that some 60 schools in the state, including 22 in the City of Brotherly Love had unusually high test erasure marks, a sign of test tampering.? Winerip says it is 89 schools, with 28 in Philly, but the eye-popping story here is that the Pennsylvania Department of Education had actually commissioned the study which was the basis of the July 8 story. It received the report in July of 2009, ?and, it would appear, ?sat on it until The Notebook was tipped off about it.? That's the scandal here.

And Winerip suggests that PDE's initial response to the latest news ?is not encouraging:

State officials have directed school districts and charter schools with suspicious results to investigate themselves.

This, of course, is another startling reminder of the inability of the system to police itself.? As Winerip points out, it took years of dogged reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the state took the charges seriously.

But these cheating scandals appear to be the tip of a rather large iceberg, one which suggests (if I may change metaphors) that the line between bureaucratic indolence and criminality is indeed...

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Jeff Smink's New York Times essay, ?This is Your Brain on Summer,? about summer learning loss, makes me think of my childhood summers in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley, where I am now vacationing. ?Our summers then (a few decades ago) began in late May, when we were let out of school to help bring in the local strawberry crop.? I can't recall if there was an age limit, but seven-years-old was not too early to begin your summer job, especially if you had older brothers and sisters to lift you aboard the flatbed trucks (or the idled yellow school buses chartered by some of the farmers). ?It helped that some of the same people who worked in the schools were there to chaperone our endeavors -- these were field trips with a purpose. Our mother was up at 4:30, making sack lunches, would wake us at 5, feed us our Cheerios or pancakes, and hot chocolate, and hustle us out the door by 5:30 to meet the truck (or bus), a half mile away. ?We worked the fields, generally, four to six hours a day, four or five days a week for four to six weeks.? We had fun ? and made some money. After the strawberries were harvested, the taller kids among us ? those who could reach five foot high ? would help bring in the string bean crop.? That took you through August. ?Back to school in September.

Smink, the vice president for policy for...

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