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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., last Friday visited a private Catholic school, St. Mary's Academy in New Orleans, for a tour and a discussion with local education officials and families. The purpose of the visit, (gumbo and sazerac aside) was to promote Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's education agenda, much of which has landed in court. "We want to explore what has been gained in terms of experience to see how we can learn from this at the federal level," Cantor said after the event.
Jindal, a rising star in the Republican party, last year announced an ambitious education plan for Louisiana that has been cheered by school choice advocates and booed by teachers' unions. The plan forms a virtual battleground for a difficult education debate in a state whose schools are ranked among the very worst in the country. Louisiana is the perfect place for radical school proposals, and Jindal doesn't shy away from the task. His plan includes private school vouchers, severely weakened teacher tenure, and fast-tracking for charter schools.
Last week, a Louisiana court threw out Jindal's teacher tenure evaluation measure, saying it violated the state constitution because it contained too many unrelated provisions. Late last year, the same court said the voucher program was unconstitutional because it diverted local tax dollars to private schools.
Jindal is unbowed by the setbacks. "When we embarked on this path of reform, we knew this would not be an easy fight because the coalition of the status quo is entrenched and has worked to hold Louisiana teachers and students back for decades," he said in response to the most recent court ruling.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten cheered the ruling, saying elected officials can't force radical changes on the education system without consultation and deliberation. The court decision "should be a wake-up call to so-called reformers determined to ram through top-down dictates that undermine the voice of educators and public schools at all costs," she said.
What does Jindal's plan--and Cantor's interest in it--signify about Republicans' views on education? What is the impact on the public school system from school choice initiatives like Jindal's? What is the impact of eliminating the benefits of teacher tenure? Is it a direct attack on the teachers unions? Where can Democrats find common ground with Republicans in this conversation?
Education Secretary Arne Duncan had a rough week. I can't recap his shenanigans leading up to the sequestration any better than Education Week's Alyson Klein. Check out her post on the topic here.
Let's just say that Duncan took one for the White House team in his impassioned pleas to stop the automatic budget cuts that went into effect Friday. And it wasn't pretty. He got four "Pinnochios" from the Washington Post's fact checker Glenn Kessler for his "the sky is falling" statements about "teachers now getting pink slips." The conservative Heritage Foundation gleefully used the Washington Post's watchdog to point out that funding for non-teachers has actually grown over the last several years.
The gaffe speaks to the real confusion about the impact of the budget cuts on education. Duncan certainly misspoke, even using the White House's state-by-state data. And some of the White House's claims--400,000 students affected, for example--are hard to prove.
But the haziness of the data doesn't mean that the cuts aren't coming and that schools aren't going to be negatively impacted. National School Boards Association President C. Ed Massey wrote in an op-ed late last year that for every $1 million in federal funding a school district receives, sequestration would cut $82,000. That's still true. Last week, he said that in Boone County, Ky., his home, the 20,000-student school district will have to eliminate about 15 jobs funded by Title I grants. According to the Center for Education Funding, the sequester would lead to the largest education cuts ever at the federal level. They would bring the total K-12 budget back to the level of the fiscal year 2004.
How and when the sequester will hit is as hard to predict as a tornado. Looking at the White House numbers, big states like California and Texas are screwed, with almost 300 schools at risk. But remember, those are just estimates. States will play a role, too, in crafting their own school budgets.
What should educators most fear about the budget cuts? What are the red herrings in the debate? How can schools prepare for the cuts? What should educators expect from the federal government in its handling of the sequester? What should they expect from state governments and school boards? What message is most important for lawmakers to hear from the education community? To the extent educators already are making that argument, is anyone listening?
I am one step ahead of my 10-year-old son on my iPhone skills, but that's only because I know my iTunes password and he doesn't. He can text faster on the cheap cell phone I bought him than he can type on the cheap laptop I bought him. How am I going to keep up when he starts using those tools to keep up with his friends? And how will I handle the kids who think he's weird?
Kids pick up technological skills faster than emotional skills, which can only escalate the damage they can do to one another without proper training on social media. That means we all need to learn up. I still find it odd that people announce major life events--pregnancies, engagements, deaths, births--on Facebook. But then again, I also learned to type in a high school class on an IBM Selectric. (My teacher thought I had an outstanding future as a secretary.)
Digital literacy needs to be a family affair, a school affair, a community affair. The most recent disturbing statistic on cyberbullying came from the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, showing that 25 percent of teens who dated said their love interests threatened or harassed them online. Other research shows as many as 30 percent of teens have been involved in some form of "sexting"--or text messaging of sexual content. The Web site "Love is Respect" spells out some of the signs of digital abuse, including "Puts you down on status updates" and "Uses sites like Facebook, Twitter, foursquare and others to keep constant tabs on you."
The education system hasn't totally caught up with this phenomenon. The Cyberbullying Research Center has many suggestions for schools and parents, like making sure that cyberbullying is part of all anti-bullying training materials. But there are no easy answers. An insightful story on Spotlight" explains the delicacy of teachers' involvement on Facebook or Twitter. Should teachers just stay away? Or should they engage?
How can Luddite adults (like me) stay on top of the digital communications that tech-savvy kids use and learn from? How can schools stay on top of it? What are the essential skills that kids need to learn in a digital environment? How should they be taught? How can adults prevent emotional scarring from digital abuse? Can teen communications be monitored? Should they be monitored?
President Obama got religion on early childhood education last week, proposing for the first time in his State of the Union address that all four-year-olds have access to high quality preschool. His start point is slightly less ambitious than universal pre-K, making sure that "low- and moderate-income" kids have access to it first. Not a bad start.
We already know the reasons that governments should invest in early education. "Studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own," Obama said.
We have covered pre-K issues on this blog, including a post in January on universal preschool. But the president's proposal adds new life to the conversation, along with new questions.
The First Five Years Fund, for example, was thrilled at the attention to a long-neglected issue, but the group also insists that educators need to pay attention to the first three years of life. The group's executive director Kris Perry said Obama's announcement "will go down in history as the turning point for building a stronger America through better education." She also noted that Obama's proposed boost in Early Head Start--providing quality care to disadvantaged kids from birth to age three--is a critical component of for "success in pre-school, school, career, and life."
The only problem, as always, is that these investments cost money. And Congress controls that process, not the White House.
How much did the president boost the early childhood education movement by highlighting it in his speech? Is this the right direction for him to go in education? How will states collaborate with the federal government to make sure four-year-olds get to preschool? What happens if states aren't willing? How can non-government advocacy groups help with the effort?
Since when did the conversation about education in the United States morph from leaving no child behind to finding and keeping science and engineering college majors? Answer: Since President Obama figured out that linking education to a skill-based economy was the best way to call attention to an issue normally relegated to the third tier of politics.
Last year's State of the Union address marked a noted departure from the president's previous speech--he emphasized higher education and barely touched on pre-K through 12 issues. Previously he had touted innovations in teacher training and student achievement.
This year, a big part of Obama's speech will focus on overhauling the nation's immigration system. One of his biggest selling points for his immigration plan is the economic growth that will come from allowing highly skilled foreign college graduates and entrepreneurs to remain in the country. These are, after all, the job creators. The more controversial parts of Obama's immigration plan--how to structure a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or special visas for agriculture workers--will be couched with less detail and lots of wiggle room.
The dearth of science, technology, and engineering college graduates is bad enough that lawmakers from both political parties feel comfortable asking to bring in more skilled foreign workers. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., last month introduced legislation to increase the number of visas available to skilled foreign workers. No one expects that bill to proceed on its own in the Senate when Obama is seeking something more comprehensive, but clearly the lawmakers want to call attention to the issue.
The bottom line is that skills sell. In politics, that's golden.
What happens to our home-grown kids? A recent survey from information technology association CompTIA, Youth Opinions of Careers in IT, found that while 97 percent of teens and young adults report loving or liking technology, only 18 percent report a definitive interest in a career in technology.
College is also out of reach cost-wise for a lot of families. Employers and college administrators alike bemoan the lack of shorter and cheaper ways to get people up to speed tech-wise through associate's degrees or certificate programs. Expect Obama to include a line about community colleges in his State of the Union speech, and to repeat previous complaints about the cost of college. Again, the selling point is about the skills.
How can skills be integrated into conversations about pre-K through 12 education? What can government do to encourage kids to be more interested in math and science? Is there any danger to looking at education through the lens of worker skill development? What are the advantages of encouraging foreign students to come to the United States for keeps? Why are there fewer American college students pursuing science and technology majors?
Give credit to Education Secretary Arne Duncan for showing up at a hearing last week where hundreds of irate students and parents complained that the department's position on closing schools has resulted in harm for low-income students of color.
Allegations of civil rights violations and the legal-speak "disparate impact" are too tame to reflect the raucous, angry tone of the meeting. "I came here to demand. I ain't asking for, not a damn thing. I am telling you that I am demanding an education for our children. We pay the money. We send our money to the schools. They are our schools. They are our children. It is our money. That is our attitude," cried Helen Moore, an education activist from Detroit. Her speech was greeted by cheers.
The meeting in Washington D.C. made an unusual splash for a close-to-the-ground grassroots movement, dubbed "Journey for Justice," that spans 18 cities. The group's members are protesting school closings, "turnaround" school reorganizations, and the expansion of charter schools in communities of color. They say the "top-down" decisions to close schools, because they are under-enrolled or otherwise deemed as "failing," has had devastating impacts on poor students and kids of color. The coalition is asking the Education Department to stop school closings by instituting a national moratorium and demanding a face-to-face meeting with President Obama to make their case.
The timing couldn't be better. The meeting came in the wake of an announcement by District of Columbia School Chancellor Kaya Henderson that she plans to close 15 schools, most in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Other cities like New York and Chicago are facing similar dilemmas.
Duncan, meanwhile, is a strong supporter of turnaround efforts for failing schools, which the administration generally defines as those with the bottom 5 percent in achievement scores. Duncan argues that if a dramatic reorganizing of the schools doesn't work, the school should be shuttered. Those are tough words to hear for a community that is invested in its local schools, particularly if there aren't other convenient options.
Are the activists right when they say that school closings are civil rights violations? Do school closings disparately harm disadvantaged communities? How can the impacts of school closings be mitigated? What are some good reasons to close a school, and who should decide? Are dramatic turnaround efforts that don't involve closure harmful? Are there examples of productive turnaround efforts? Is there any way to address failing schools without someone getting hurt?
Attention state legislators: Your universities need your help. (And for that matter, your K-12 public school districts could stand some attention.) Here's the deal. They can do all sorts of good things for you--produce graduates, keep tuition rates stable, provide the bridges from high school to college to jobs--but it's awfully hard for them to focus on any of that when they're wondering what their funding will be next month. We know you're struggling to balance your budgets, and it's not a simple task to feed all the hungry chicks in your nest. But trust me, all you need to do is provide the tiniest bit of certainty and your university presidents can do amazing things. They're very smart. Here's how it can work:
Example One: In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich recently reached an agreement with the public universities and community colleges to tie their funding to student completion. Four-year universities will have 50 percent of their state funding (about $600 million) linked to the number of students who graduate with a degree. In community colleges, all funding will be linked to students who complete a course or a credit.
The Ohio deal is a game changer because for the first time, all the state's higher education institutions will focus on student completion rather than enrollment. It also shows that universities can actually work with state lawmakers if they are willing to be proactive and cooperative. Tangentially, some unhelpful cultural barriers were broken, like community college presidents mingling with research university presidents. "In my world, the notion of me sitting down with a community college president, and then a dialogue, and then a conclusion, and then a process, and then a relationship--it was something we didn't do," said Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee, who led the schools in the talks.
Example Two: In New York, the City University of New York and the State University of New York recently reached an agreement with the state budgeteers for level funding over the next five years. In exchange, the schools agreed to limit tuition increases to $300 per year. CUNY's graduate school is using their new-found budget certainty to shorten the time it takes for students to earn and advanced degrees and focus on making sure their graduates are employed. That means decreasing the size of incoming classes by 25 percent, increasing stipends, and targeting the curriculum to areas where students can easily find work. (Sorry, Chaucerian Ph.Ds.) CUNY's plan has been in the works for 10 years, according to the school's Graduate Center President Bill Kelly. It was only finalized once the funding was secure. "Until the agreement with the state was realized, it was very difficult to make any proactive plan," he said. "At the root of it is 'Where are the resources to do this?'"
School administrators have lots of great ideas about how to improve student achievement, close gaps, and offer career training. College presidents of all stripes showed they are serious last week when they penned an open letter calling on all higher education institutions to make college completion and retention a critical goal.
Each school will have a different way of increasing graduation rates, but those ideas are mere fiction until the educators get the green light to take the first step. They are paralyzed if they are preparing for a money drought. Since most of the money for schools comes from states, it's up to the state legislatures to make school and university leaders feel comfortable enough to experiment with new models.
How can state legislatures work better with higher education institutions? How can they work better with school districts? What barriers do state education systems face in encouraging innovation in their schools? Does regional diversity or the variety of schools hurt the efforts? How can collaborative environments be fostered between state legislators and schools? What planning can be done even when budgets are insecure?
Two years ago, I sat in the 8th floor of the Watergate building at a National Journal dinner on education. The main attractions of the event were researchers from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who were about a year into a three-year intensive study on teacher evaluations. As they described their research, the diners were incredulous.
"Teachers let you videotape them?" Yes. They analyzed 13,000 digital video lessons.
"Weren't they upset at you reviewing them?" Actually, the teachers in the study were thrilled to have the feedback. They were happy to go over their videotapes with an observer.
The final report on the project was released last week. It found that teacher effectiveness can, in fact, be measured in a scientific manner. The process is highly labor intensive, and some evaluative factors can't be measured with raw numbers. If you do it right, it requires time, narrative, and observation. The report says the results are the most stable when they rely on a combination of classroom observations (ideally by multiple evaluators), student surveys, and student achievement measures. The report is sprinkled with cautionary notes: Make sure to include prior test scores of students when looking at achievement or their gains will be overstated. Don't weight a single measure too heavily or teachers will lean towards it and neglect others. Make sure to use observers from outside the school.
The biggest impression I gleaned at the dinner from the researchers was respect. This was serious science by serious researchers who genuinely wanted to find an answer. Their work is good news for teachers. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten virtually crowed in response. "The days of haphazard or check-list observation of teachers must end," she said in a statement. "Teacher evaluation is both an art and a science that requires time, tools, training and trust--ingredients that teachers and principals should have but too often don't."
That said, it's hard to imagine how cash-strapped school districts can implement such a rigorous evaluation system. That's another chapter to be written.
What is most surprising about the Gates' findings? What are the easiest ways teacher evaluations can be tweaked to more accurately reflect effectiveness? How important are student perception surveys? What lies ahead for videotaping teachers' lessons? Do we need to learn anything more about measuring student achievement? Is the task laid out by Gates too daunting for schools to handle?
It goes without saying in education circles that the earlier a child acquires language and literacy skills the better. Toddlers who grow up in vocabulary-poor environments, often economically poor and minority families, find themselves far behind their more affluent classmates in kindergarten. If they don't catch up by third grade, it's almost impossible to get them through the public education system without serious and costly intervention.
That proclamation is the easy part. It's much more difficult to create a nation of ready-to-learn kindergarteners. Oklahoma and Florida lead the states in terms of enrolling four-year-olds in state-funded pre-K programs, with more than 70 percent of those kids in some form of pre-school. The national average is only 28 percent. Head Start, which is federally funded, enrolls about 1.1 million kids. The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates that since 2005, more than half of the country's three- and four-year olds were not enrolled in any kind of pre-school or nursery school.
Obviously, this is a problem--one that lots of education organizations are tackling. The NAACP recently released an education report calling for universal pre-K. "Regrettably, for many low-income children of color, introduction to formal schooling is a traumatic experience," the report said. Unlike many school-related problems, this one has an easy fix--just give those kids high-quality pre-school. The only trouble is that it costs money, and NAACP is pleading for state governments to at least protect existing funding as they deal with budget woes.
On the federal level, Head Start is one of the programs that would be subject to automatic cuts in a few months if lawmakers don't figure out how to stave off the "sequester" that was part of the 2010 debt ceiling deal. The National Head Start Association says the cut--almost $600 million--would drop 200,000 kids from the program.
Not everyone agrees with the concept of universal pre-K. In his 2009 book Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn (a contributor to this blog) argues that it would be far more effective to target scarce resources to the most at-risk kids early in their lives, perhaps even before birth. A widespread skimpy program for all four-year-olds doesn't do much for anyone except, perhaps, offer a day-care windfall for some families.
So what do we do? Does it make sense to focus on early education in state governments, particularly when Title I funds also could be on the chopping block? What can we realistically expect our state governments to do? What can the federal government do? Is there a role for the private sector in early education? Let's not forget the parents. If there were an effective public service announcement to parents about early education, what would it say?
Last Friday, I was all set to put up a blog post about preparing toddlers for kindergarten, but the events at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., made kids sounding out words seem a little less relevant. (Stay tuned, pre-K conversation will be coming up in a future post.)
For now, I want to the experts to talk about school safety. It is an essential ingredient to a workable learning environment. It doesn't take a licensed therapist to understand that kids can't learn anything when they don't feel safe. In a recent student opinion poll from My Voice, 42 percent of the respondents said there was violent crime in their community and more than half said bullying is a problem in their school.
In 2009, the Education Department and the Justice Department did a joint study on crime in schools. The study found that 75 percent of public schools recorded one or more incident of violent crime, and 25 percent reported that bullying occurred between students on a daily or weekly basis.
"Schools should be safe havens where young people can learn and prosper, and anything less than that is unacceptable," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder when they released it. I don't think anyone would disagree with that statement.
From bullying among classmates to deranged gunmen invading an elementary school classroom, it seems as though students are less mentally and physically safe than we all would like to believe. What must be done to bolster school safety? How can communities make sure that schools are protected beyond basic law enforcement? Are there things that federal and state governments can do? Do gun rights have any place in this conversation? How can students become engaged in discussions of their own safety?