Governance

Last year, Kansas City Superintendent John Covington made headlines when he stabilized the hemorrhaging Kansas City School District (which had lost 75 percent of its students in the past four decades) by shutting half of the district's schools, selling the central office building, and axing close to a quarter of the administrative staff. And he did all of this with the backing of the school board and community leaders. So imagine their surprise (and ire) when Covington, who has been at the helm of KC schools for about two years, abruptly resigned last week?only to take the wheel of Michigan's nascent state-run ?reform school district,? the Education Achievement System (EAS). Finger-pointing and fist-shaking aside, there are a few big takeaways to be drawn from Covington's departure?and his arrival in Motown.

First: KC should have seen this coming?and should have planned for it. The lifespan of an urban supe is akin to that of an American Newt (which, for the non-zoologists out there is about three years). And it's even shorter for those, like Covington, who are brought in as transformational leaders. Dynamic leadership can jumpstart a district's success, but it needs to be buttressed by a smart?and painstakingly articulated?transition plan. The Center for Reinventing Public Education made this point (though they were speaking specifically to charter schools) back in December in their report ?You're Leaving? Sustainability and Succession in Charter Schools.?

Second: When it comes to high-quality district leaders, the educational landscape is reasonably...

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This is not a good time to be taking on the anti-bullying legions, but Winnie Hu does a terrific job describing the newest runaway behavioral modification fad in schools in her front page New York Times story from the other day, Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools on Spot. The law,? according to Hu,

  • Has 18 pages of ?required components? for the antibullying policy that each school must adopt;
  • Requires each school in the state to have an antibullying specialist and an antibullying coordinator;
  • Sets up a system to grade each school on its antibullying efforts and ?educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.?

There's more, of course.? ?I think this has gone well overboard,? Richard Bozza, head of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, tells Hu. ?Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day.?

If schools have felt burdened by being turned into social service agencies, their new anti-bullying duties should seal the deal:? they have to do everything.? (I would be curious to know what Geoffrey Canada thinks of this.)

In my February post, Stop the Anti-bullying Bus, I Want to Get Off, I wrote,

In the hell of good intentions, the anti-bullying campaign has got to be on one of the lower rings.

In that post I detailed the anti-bullying policy in my own district, in New York, which was nine, single-spaced pages long (one-third the length of the district's entire Code of Conduct)...

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Mike's ?Stop the Madness!? plea to New York makes a lot of sense. ?But, for better or worse, education governance is nothing if not political, which, as we know, is nothing if not a tad bloody.? And New Yorkers were reminded of that again yesterday, when the state's comptroller pulled the plug (New York Times) on a multi-million-dollar no-bid contract to Wireless Generation to set up a data-base for New York City's schools.

The intricate system of checks-and-balances that is a hallmark of our aging republic often seems more checks than balances. And the subject of Mike's madness essay yesterday,? a court battle between State Ed and the state's teacher union (round 1 to the union), sure seems worthy of an insanity verdict.? And today, as I read comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's decision, I would tend to agree with State Ed spokesman Johnathan Burman, who told the Times' Sharon Otterman,

The comptroller has allowed political pressure to get in the way of vital technology that would help our students.

In this case, however, perhaps political pressure was a good thing.

Indeed, the $27-million Wireless Generation contract to monitor student performance is the result of a rather tangled web ? WG was purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation in November, just after it announced it was giving Joel Klein, who had pushed the WG contract forward as the city's education chancellor, a job.? Given WG's sterling reputation (it was already running a successful data system...

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It's back to school ? and perhaps to court -- for the New York State Board of Regents (NYBOR) and the New York State Education Department (NYSED).? On Wednesday a state judge in Albany ruled that student test scores on state exams could not be used for 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation and that NYBOR's and NYSED's cut scores for grading teachers was unfairly slanted to favor those student scores. (See Jacob Gershman in the Wall Street Journal, Sharon Otterman in the New York Times, Rachel Monahan in the Daily News,Geoff Decker at Gotham Schools, ?Yoav Gonen in the NY Post, Robert Lowry at the New York Council of School Superintendents, and the National School Boards Association.)

[pullquote]It was pretty radical, by New York standards, ordering school districts to evaluate teachers using student performance data as one of the key measures of teacher competence.[/pullquote]

The ruling was the result of a suit filed in June by New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the Empire State's famously powerful (it claims 600,000 members) ?teacher union. Though the decision received wide coverage (per above) and throws New York school districts a curve (they are supposed to have an evaluation policy in place by September 1), it's not clear that the decision will have any major implications for other states that are considering linking teacher evaluations to test scores (except as inducement to make sure their regulations correspond to their laws). It is,...

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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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