- Finding out that there is yet another Broad-type academy for leaders, this one run by Jon Schnur, of the New Leaders for New Schools group. Interestingly, they place leaders but don't pay their salaries (Broad pays half), nor do they expect their leaders to get hired after residency. The Times points out about these self-styled reformers: They have been building in strength and numbers over the last two decades and now seem to be planted everywhere that counts. They are working in key positions in school districts and charter-school networks, legislating in state capitals, staffing city halls and statehouses for reform-minded mayors and governors, writing papers for policy groups and dispensing grants from billion-dollar philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Teach for America’s founder, Wendy Kopp; and the New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein could be considered the patron saints of the network.
- Explanation of the sudden reform surge: Why the sudden shift from long-simmering wonk debate to political front burner? Because there is now a president who, when it comes to school reform, really does seem to be a new kind of Democrat — and because of a clever idea Schnur had last year to package what might otherwise have been just another federal grant program into a media-alluring, if cheesy-sounding, contest called Race to the Top. It has turned a relatively modest federal program (the $4.3 billion budget represents less than 1 percent of all federal, state and local education spending) into high-yield leverage that could end up overshadowing health care reform in its impact and that is already upending traditional Democratic Party politics.
- (Fifteen states, including New York and California, now operate under union-backed state laws mandating that seniority, or “last in/first out,” determines layoffs. These quality-blind layoffs could force a new generation of teachers, like those recruited by Teach for America, out of classrooms in the coming months.)
- So how did the stars align for RTTT? First there’s the rise of the reformers who seem to be in daily communication through e-mail and blogs. The standard profile is someone who went to a prestige college, joined Teach for America for a two-year stint and found the work and the challenges so compelling that he or she decided education should be more than a layover before a real career. Great and what about them? Although Schnur is a cheerful, modest type, there is a strain of self-righteousness that runs through the reform network. Some come off as snobs who assume any union teacher is lazy or incompetent and could be bested by young, nonunion Ivy Leaguers full of energy. And others see tying teachers’ pay to their students’ improvement on standardized tests as a cure-all. But most — especially those who have taught and appreciate how hard it is — understand that standardized tests are far from perfect, and that some subjects, like the arts, don’t lend themselves to standardized testing.
The second force at work is a new crop of Democratic politicians across the country— including President Obama — who seem willing to challenge the teachers’ unions.
- Third, there’s the boost given to school reform by high-powered foundations, like the Gates Foundation, which have financed important research and pilot reform projects, and by wealthy entrepreneurs, who have poured seed money into charter schools.
- And fourth, there’s the charter-school movement, which has yielded an increasingly large and vocal constituency of parents whose children are among the more than 1.5 million students attending more than 5,000 charter schools. This one is interesting to me because, of course, we don't have them here in Washington State so the lobbying by charter school parents wouldn't be all that apparent.
- However, "If unions are the Democratic Party’s base, then teachers’ unions are the base of the base. The two national teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the larger National Education Association — together have more than 4.6 million members. That is roughly a quarter of all the union members in the country. Teachers are the best field troops in local elections. In the last 30 years, the teachers’ unions have contributed nearly $57.4 million to federal campaigns, an amount that is about 30 percent higher than any single corporation or other union. Money AND foot soldiers - it's mother's milk to any campaign.
- Didn't know this: Bredesen (Governor of TN) points to an earlier development in his state that, he says, had “broken the ice.” In 2009 the Gates foundation provided a $90 million grant to the Memphis school system — the state’s largest — on the condition that teachers there allow 35 percent of their performance ratings to be based on student test scores. Bredesen’s icebreaker was emblematic of the forces of reform coming together around the Race.
- Charter schools are not always better for children. Across the country many are performing badly. But when run well — as most in Harlem and New York’s other most-challenged communities appear to be — they can make a huge difference in a child’s life. So by the time the Race rules were issued, the charter cap had become something that many New York parents, particularly in neighborhoods with underperforming schools, cared a lot about. In Harlem, for example, about 20 percent of all age-eligible children are now enrolled in charters, and in April, 14,000 other children submitted applications in the lottery for next year’s 2,700 open seats. So we get the chicken or egg story. Are people choosing/wanting charters because they are fleeing bad public schools OR are they choosing something better? Are all their charter choices better AND what is holding back the public schools from reform on their own?
- There a very interesting example of public versus charter schools on page 4 where one school is divided down the middle with one side charter and one public. Guess who comes out better in this example? The charter. What's weird is how the charter is able to figure out, to the dollar, its costs but not the public school.
- Klein’s response is that while charter schools can never be a substitute for a public school system, they can demonstrate how public schools can be improved, while creating healthy competition for a system that used to be a monopoly. “Parent choice can only make all schools better,” he says, paraphrasing a favorite line on the placards of the parents who picketed Perkins in Albany last winter and in Downtown Manhattan last month when he held a hearing about charters. Really? If only we have market competition, we will have better schools? Again, I just don't buy the business model theory. We did try a version ourselves (which Ms. Finne says wasn't carried out properly) and it didn't catch on. I think what hasn't been tried is truly reforming poor performing schools. Meaning, start over completely from top to bottom with a new staff and then ASK parents what would make them stay and how they (the parents) could help. I believe buy-in from the community around a neighborhood and within the school is vital to a successful school.
- Interesting (and I wonder how this will play out): To make this expression of commitment unambiguous, the Race application included the exact M.O.U. that was to be signed. The contest instructions also stated that if the wording of the M.O.U. for any local school system was changed to make it “conditional,” the box should not be checked. So New York checked ALL the boxes for their schools districts but in an appendix had phrases like “consistent with any applicable collective-bargaining requirements.” and “Nothing in this M.O.U. shall be construed to override any applicable state or local collective-bargaining requirements.” Apparently Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California and - one of the winners - Delaware all did the same thing. (In Delaware’s case, however, the core of its commitments — like how teachers will be evaluated — did not require a union sign-off, explained Donohue, the Delaware state teachers’ union president. The collective-bargaining caveat in the M.O.U., she said, “has to do with other, smaller aspects of the plan, like extending school days at turnaround schools, which I am sure we will agree on.”)
- There is a little bit about Washington, D.C.'s chancellor (superintendent) Michelle Rhee. Rhee says “I’m not big on the collaborative, warm and fuzzy approach,” she says — and became a hero of the reformers." Part of that is okay and part isn't. She doesn't have to group hug everyone but yes, I would think compromise, consensus and yes, collaboration would be part of it. Somehow she got a very strong contract. Two clauses now make it possible for Rhee to fire any teacher with tenure, no matter which track he or she chooses (lockstep compensation or performance-based pay), if the teacher is evaluated as “ineffective” for one year or “minimally effective” for two years. The criteria used to define “ineffective” or “minimally effective” are, according to another clause, “a nonnegotiable item” determined solely by Rhee and her staff. She got the teachers to sign a contract with evaluation criteria for teachers being determined only by Rhee and her staff? She is tough.
- There was also some discussion of the bills in various legislatures around the country dealing with teacher pay and assessment. While Governor Crist in Florida vetoed one, there is apparently another one moving through the Colorado legislature. Their bill would have student achievement growth to be 50% of a teacher's evaluation. It wouldn't dismantle tenure but would allow a tenured teacher have yearly evaluations and to get probation and eventually dismissal if found unsatisfactory. What is really interesting is this bill would: put a lot more pressure on principals by basing at least 66 percent of their evaluation on a combination of growth in student scores and increases in teacher effectiveness. (This info from an article at Ed Week.)
- How RTTT applications are vetted: " Joanne Weiss, who runs the Race program for Secretary Duncan, began last summer to recruit experts, called “peer reviewers,” to score the applications in a way that would inoculate the decisions from charges of political favoritism. Five vetters were assigned to each application, and the score was the average of their individual scores. Duncan would reserve the right to override the point scores, but if he did, he would have to explain himself because the scores would be released publicly. Department of Education regulations required that the scorers not only have no financial interest in the outcome of their decisions, but not even an appearance of a conflict, both in terms of money and potential bias." "This pretty much eliminated people involved in operating school systems or those who are active in Schnur’s reform network, yielding vetters who were academics, education foundation staff members (but not at places like the Gates Foundation that finance reform projects) and long-retired educators."