Election season news from here and there

What have things come to when national political organizations and are pouring time, attention and tens of thousands of dollars into local school board races?

That’s what’s happening in Denver, where Oregon-based Stand for Children and New York-based Democrats for Education Reform are backing “pro-reform” board candidates and an opponent is getting positive media coverage from progressive sites like The Nation, Slate and The Daily Kos.

Much of the attention has focused on the southeast Denver race between Anne Rowe and Emily Sirota. SFC and DFER are supporting Rowe. But Sirota, who is married to the progressive blogger, author and radio personality David Sirota, isn’t exactly lacking for influential friends.

Emily Sirota studied political science at Indiana University and then worked in Washington, D.C., for Sen. Evan Bayh and Rep. Baron Hill, a pair of moderate Hoosier Democrats, where she met her husband. She later worked for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer before moving to Denver.

Colorado has been out in front of the current wave of education reform, with the state or some districts adopting merit pay, test-based teacher evaluations and vouchers ahead of the rest of the country. If Sirota, who’s being seriously outspent in the campaign, could pull off an upset, it would send an interesting message.

Wake County, N.C.

The Wake County school system in Raleigh, N.C., adopted a remarkable student-assignment plan in the 1990s that sought to avoid segregating rich and poor students in different schools. The goal was to have no more than 40 percent of students in any school qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches.

The system won national acclaim, but some people didn’t like busing students to achieve socio-economic balance. A couple of years ago, a Republican majority took over the school board, killed off the diversity plan, and replaced it with a plan that relies on neighborhood and magnet schools – prompting a federal civil-rights investigation and criticism by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Now the pendulum has swung again. Democrats picked up four seats in school board elections this month. Control of the nine-member board will be decided in a run-off election on Nov. 8.

Indianapolis

While Indiana seems to have dropped the ball on early childhood education, Melina Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for mayor of Indianapolis, is trying to do something. She proposes using money from the sale of the city water system to develop and support pre-kindergarten programs.

Matthew Tully of the Indianapolis Star explained her proposal in a recent column.

Some might argue that the mayor of Indianapolis has no statutory role in education – except for authorizing charter schools – so Kennedy should keep out of it. But as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Jim Heckman keeps pointing out, there’s no more powerful investment that than supporting high-quality early education. On this issue, Kennedy is doing the right thing.

It doesn’t really seem like the education issue has caught on in the mayoral race, however. There’s a lot of awareness of the challenges facing Indianapolis Public Schools. But it’s one of only 11 school districts in the city. Indianapolis and Marion County adopted Unigov in 1970, but they kept their Balkanized public school systems. When residents of non-IPS districts go to the polls Nov. 8 to vote for mayor, most of them probably won’t be thinking much about education.

Chatting about charter schools

Indiana has been in the charter-schools biz for a decade, so this is a good time to step back and assess what we’ve learned and where we go next. That’s the thinking behind a policy chat Thursday in Indianapolis, sponsored by the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

The public event, at 6 p.m. at the Indianapolis Convention Center, brings together charter-school operators, authorizers and advocates with researchers who have studied charter schools. It’s co-sponsored by the Education Policy Student Association at IU.

Panelists include former Sen. Teresa Lubbers, author of the state’s 2001 charter-schools legislation; Russ Simnick of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association; Gretchen Gutman of Ball State University, which authorizes many of the charter schools in Indiana; and Kevin Teasley of the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, a charter-school operator backed by Indianapolis corporate heavyweights.

Also on hand: Notre Dame sociologist Mark Berends, who directs the federally funded National Center on School Choice and the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity; and Jonathan Plucker, director of CEEP at IU, who will moderate.

Given the otherwise pro-charter make-up of the panel, maybe the academics can keep things grounded. Plucker has been skeptical about some claims of charter-school success, and Berends’ studies have produced complex and sometimes confounding conclusions about charter schools and other types of school choice – e.g., see Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column on the book School Choice and School Improvement, which Berends co-edited.

Charter schools were supposed to find innovative ways Continue reading

America’s real education crisis: rising income inequality

There are plenty of reasons to be upset about the vast and growing gulf between rich and poor in America. One of the best, as economist Richard Murnane pointed out last week at Indiana University, is what’s it’s doing to children.

Speaking at the inaugural Economics of Education Seminar at IU Bloomington, he said income inequality is undermining the education of low-income students – and threatening the national ideal of equal opportunity. “Educational attainment has been the path to socio-economic mobility throughout our nation’s history,” he said.

Murnane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, drew much of his talk from Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools and Children’s Life Chances, which he co-edited with Greg Duncan of the University of California-Irvine. The result of a five-year project by a team of researchers and experts, the new book should inform the national debate over education policy.

He showed that, for three decades after World War II, the growing U.S. economy was a “rising tide that lifted all boats.” But starting around 1980, some boats got lifted while others were swamped. The rich began getting a whole lot richer; those at the bottom stood still. The trend accelerated after 2000.

Over the same period, neighborhoods and schools have become more economically segregated. A child from a low-income family is increasingly unlikely to be in class with children who are not poor.

Why does this matter? Murnane cited data showing that schools serving the many poor children have more students with achievement and behavioral problems, making learning difficult for all. Student turnover is high in such schools, causing disruptions not only for students who are constantly changing schools Continue reading

Grading schools: Does complexity defeat the purpose?

Indiana began awarding letter grades to schools this year based on the idea that it’s a clearer and more transparent way to hold schools accountable and inform parents and the public about how they are performing.

After all, the thinking went: Everyone knows what an A means? Everyone knows what an F means. But do we?

Watch just a little of the video of the Oct. 5 State Board of Education meeting, and you may wonder. Members spent nearly five hours discussing criteria for calculating grades, and they seemed no closer to consensus when they were done than when they started.

Or try reading a version of the proposed rule that the board is considering to create the new letter-grade metrics. You’ll find language like this: “Highest growth passing rate is the percentage point increase of identified passing students at the lowest performing high growth passing rate school within the top quartile of schools ranked from highest to lowest by the percentage point increase in passing percentage students.”

Department of Education staff tried to simplify the rule by giving it to the board in an easy-to-follow PowerPoint presentation. But it was still slow going – made slower by the board’s tendency to argue over philosophy and details every step of the way.

And state officials are working on a deadline. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett indicated he’d like to have board approval of the rule before Indiana submits its application for federal waivers under the No Child Left Behind law, due Nov. 14. Continue reading

Rethinking whether it’s OK to leave children behind

Back in 1989, Bill Clinton, then the governor of a small Southern state, gave a speech at a meeting of journalists in which he defended the National Governors Association for approving education goals that included a pledge to make the U.S. No. 1 in math and science performance by 2000.

Maybe it was an unrealistically high bar to set, Clinton admitted. “But what are people saying? That we should shoot for being third or fourth?”

That bit of historical trivia comes to mind with current plans to rewrite the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

A Senate bill to reauthorize the law would essentially do away with the toughest accountability provisions in the last iteration of the law, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. It would drop the expectation that schools make “adequate yearly progress,” a measurement that takes into account whether low-income students, special-needs kids and racial minorities are passing standardized tests. It also eliminates the provision that all students should be “proficient” in math and English by 2014.

What are they saying? That we should leave some children behind?

The proposed ESEA rewrite, put forward by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., drew generally positive reviews from the nation’s teachers unions, the Obama Administration and even some reform-minded education policy groups.

But a half-dozen civil-rights, education and progressive organizations chided the proposal for moving the government away from enforcing goals and targets for student achievement. “Yes, the states need and deserve more flexibility than NCLB afforded them,” the groups’ leaders wrote in a letter to Harkin and Enzi, “but our students need the federal government to establish an accountability framework that includes long-term statewide goals, interim goals, and an unambiguous demand for gap closing.”

It’s easy to focus on the bad things that NCLB did. It narrowed the curriculum, unfairly stigmatized schools and caused undue focus on the percentage of students who passed standardized tests, not whether all kids were making gains. And of course, the “100 percent proficient” requirement won’t be reached this side of Lake Wobegon.

But the law also changed the national conversation on education and brought long overdue attention to achievement gaps. It made it hard for schools to hide their disadvantaged students behind acceptable average scores. And it codified the expectation that, as Terry Spradlin of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy said last week in a different context, there should be no “throw-away kids.”

Sure, Congress and the administration should fix what’s wrong with the law. But as Bill Clinton might say, let’s don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Teaching about the civil rights movement: a lesson in the news

Civil rights pioneer the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth died Wednesday, and while his passing generated a few news stories, you have to wonder how many Americans knew who he was – and whether there’s a lesson there regarding what schools are teaching.

Just last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report that gave 35 states, including Indiana, an F for the way they treat the civil rights movement in history standards and curricula. The report compared state requirements with core knowledge identified by civil rights historians and educators.

“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said the SPLC’s Maureen Costello.

The study looked at whether states integrate the study of civil rights with other social movements, provide context, and link it to current events and the practice of citizenship. Often, it found, states largely ignore the movement in early grades and focus on a handful of high-profile leaders.

The SPLC says Indiana doesn’t have specific requirements for teaching about the civil rights movement before high school. Guidelines for addressing the movement in 11th-grade history are reasonably strong, but teachers don’t have to follow them, it says.

“Despite fairly detailed suggested content, Indiana’s low score reflects the state’s decision not to require specifics about the civil rights movement,” the report says. “If the suggested content were required, the state’s grade would be a high C … Instead, Indiana’s disappointing score reflects a reluctance to give direction to teachers, students and school districts.”

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron told School Matters that Hoosier teachers are given flexibility to offer social-studies content that’s relevant to the students they teach. For example, elementary teachers are to “explore actions individuals can take to contribute to the common good,” which can be a prompt for looking at the accomplishments of the movement.

It seems likely that the national emphasis on student performance in math and English, as vital as those subjects are, could push history and social studies to the margins – and that the civil rights movement may be relegated to brief mention around Martin Luther King Jr. Day or during Black History Month. And some teachers are sure to find the story more compelling and necessary than others.

“The civil rights movement is a defining moment in this nation’s history,” Damron said, “and we certainly encourage schools across Indiana to include lessons on this important subject in their curriculum offerings.”

Let’s hope they do, and that at least a few teachers and students made note of the passing at age 89 of Fred Shuttlesworth, a courageous and rough-hewn man who endured a bombing of his parsonage, assaults, fire hoses, dozens of jailings and a vicious battle with Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor to fight for integration and equality. “He was the first black man I met who was totally unafraid of white folks,” U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first black federal judge, told the Associated Press.

The Indianapolis Star got things just right Thursday: at the top of the front page, two obituaries – Steve Jobs on the left, Fred Shuttlesworth on the right. Apple founder Jobs changed the way we work and play. Shuttlesworth and his civil rights peers changed the way we see ourselves and each other. They made history, and we should be sure our children understand that.

Bennett on reform: Get on board or get left

Education reform in Indiana is like a railroad track, state Superintendent Tony Bennett told a Bloomington, Ind., audience today. One rail is the competition provided by private-school vouchers and more charter schools. The other is new teacher evaluations and limits on collective bargaining.

The cross-ties? Those are accountability, as in the A-to-F letter grade system for schools and state takeover of low-performing schools.

It’s an interesting metaphor; a little clunky, maybe, but good for keeping the conversation going.

“Quite honestly, I see that railroad track as the big divide,” countered Monroe County Community schools Superintendent Judith DeMuth, who joined Bennett and others for a panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.

Noting that Bennett admits to being influenced by school reforms in Florida, she said, “In Florida there are haves and have-nots, and I don’t want to see that for my children and grandchildren.”

While Bennett focused on the structural reforms that the Indiana legislature passed this year, DeMuth and Steve Kain, superintendent of Richland-Bean Blossom schools, had other priorities in mind. They said Indiana needs to provide adequate resources for public schools, which haven’t yet made up for the $300 million in funding cuts they suffered two years ago.

And they called for more state support for early childhood education. Indiana boosted funding for full-day kindergarten this year, but not enough to cover the full cost. It’s one of 10 states that don’t fund public pre-kindergarten programs, said panelist Terry Spradlin, director of education policy for the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University – who, in the spirit of transparent accountability, gave Indiana grades of C and “incomplete” for early childhood programs.

But this was mostly the Tony Bennett show, and the superintendent has in fact become quite adept at selling his views on education, even to a somewhat skeptical audience.

He batted away a question about vouchers providing tax support for religious and political extremism, insisting he’s “pretty agnostic” about what types of schools should get public support. The point, he said, is that low-income parents should have the same choice for their kids that more wealthy parents have. “Why shouldn’t they go where their needs are best met?” he said.

He hailed education reform as one of the few public issues where there seems to be some bipartisanship, with Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supporting the same charter-school and merit-pay initiatives as Bennett and other Republican state officials.

He insisted that passionate disagreement and debate is ultimately good for education. “We have reached consensus for so long that we’ve gotten complacent,” he said.

He could take an old bluegrass hymn as his theme song: “Keep your hands upon the throttle, and your eyes upon the rail.”