Why Does Public Education Need To Be Scripted?

A young and popular principal in the DC public school system quit to open a cupcake shop instead.

Bill Kerlina recently opened up to the Washington Post about the frustrations that led to his resignation. He said that there was no support for teachers — “reform” means just firing them — and some parents were racist and entitled.

Considering that the school he worked at is across the street from the prestigious Sidwell Friends private school, he said that it could learn a lesson or two from its neighbor:

One way to lure neighboring families — restricting the number of out-of-boundary seats — would be a “horrible mistake,” Kerlina wrote, as “the diversity at Hearst is what makes it a great school.”

He offered another solution: Move the school toward “inquiry-based learning,” stressing group activities, hands-on projects and student curiosity. It’s standard practice, he said, at the private school across 37th Street NW.

“The reason people spend [more than $30,000] a year to send their children to Sidwell is because they believe in inquiry-based learning,” Kerlina wrote. “DCPS does not — the approach is too scripted and doesn’t allow for students to think outside of the box.”

I know that not all public schools are the same, and there are some pretty damn good ones. But “white flight” — or more like “upper middle class flight” — is something I have noticed in not just DC and New York, but the San Francisco Bay Area.

As someone who visited the local public schools, I was frustrated by not only the way foreign language was implemented, but the “teaching to the test” — which I saw firsthand — was a turnoff, big time. There is no comparison to that and inquiry-based learning, especially if your child has already been learning that way.

Which leads me to the point of this post: President Obama and a lot of members of Congress send their kids to private schools. Why the heck would they think that this scripted testing culture would be good for public school children and not their own? It doesn’t make sense.

I was also struck by the disparity between the DC public schools and its suburbs. Why? Did any of you read this story? What did you think?


LinkedIn Talk With Michelle Rhee — My Comments Included!

The online professional network, LinkedIn, recently hosted a conversation with former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Corporate America loves Rhee’s ideas for “education reform,” like dismantling the unions. You could say that LinkedIn moderator, Steve Cadigan, and the audience were receptive to her.

Nonetheless, the conversation raised much food for thought and fodder such as the “last hired, first fired” policy guiding school layoffs during tough economic times. Also, are there ways to evaluate teachers? Is there a way to allow low-performing teachers to train and prove themselves that won’t negatively impact students? What can be done about the achievement gap between low-income minority students and everyone else? Here is what Rhee had to say about this and more — I added my own thoughts and comments throughout the piece:  

Steve Cadigan: What do you hope to achieve with (your organization) StudentsFirst?

Michelle Rhee: The concept behind the organization is a simple one. Our education system is ruled by special interests. You have the text book companies, the teachers union and testing companies…and there is no group advocating for children….It is time to start a movement in this country that is dedicated to putting kids first and to fixing public education in our country.

Steve Cadigan: Have you found receptivity? Are people joining your cause?

Michelle Rhee: We launched this initiative on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the power of Oprah is amazing. The first week (after we launched on the Oprah Show), we had 100,000 members. Now we have more than 340,000 members….In California alone we have 55,000 members. It’s our most popular state by far.

Steve Cadigan: I was curious what the demographics are of the members?

Michelle Rhee: One of the demographic groups we are interested in is teachers. About 15% of our members are teachers. We want the teacher voice….Right now we have a monolithic teacher voice in the country and that is the teachers union. But a lot of the teachers I talk to don’t (agree with) the teacher union leadership. Parents of school-aged kids are frustrated with the system. But we also have grandparents and people who used to be an educator a long time ago. This is a diverse group of members, and they take action….Our open rates and click rates are much, much higher than the industry standard.

Steve Cadigan: We do have many thousands of teachers on LinkedIn. How have you been able to leverage social media in your campaign and reach out?

Michelle Rhee: I have to say I am very technologically not savvy. I’ve had special needs I’ve had to overcome. (laughter) When I was Chancellor, I didn’t do Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn….So when I came out of that job, my staff immediately got me signed up for all of those things. I remember saying something on Twitter and getting slammed for it. People told me I wasn’t supposed to do that….(OTOH), I had a chat online with a group of special education teachers. It was a great way to engage with a large group of people across the country…I was impressed with the level of respect people engaged with back and forth. We covered a wide range of topics in a short period of time. For example, for the teachers out there, almost always a teacher will come up to me and say, “I am with you, but I am a teacher and I can’t say I am with you. You’ve got to speak out and be vocal.” A lot of the teachers feel that way. They don’t want to speak out. They don’t want to be ostracized. I think that social media can really be a transformational force for that.

Steven Cadigan asked her about StudentsFirst’s “strong advocacy” around its “Save Great Teachers Campaign”.

Michelle Rhee: We wanted to start a national issue campaign on one thing we can get lots of people to agree on. We targeted the “last in, last out” policy, or “LILO”. You have to be the last teacher out, regardless of quality. But it has a detrimental impact on kids: you end up firing the best teachers. You end up firing more teachers because the junior teachers tend to be paid less. This impacts schools in (struggling areas) like the inner city where the newest teachers tend to work, and their teaching staff is decimated. (Layoffs) should be based on quality and not seniority if we are going to put kids first.

Elisa’s Note: Okay, I have to stop right there. Considering that StudentsFirst aims for 1 million members and to raise $1 billion, can’t local parents and Rhee’s organization raise the money to keep teachers? I feel the same way about vouchers, by the way. If you support vouchers, which Rhee does, why not give money to a private school and earmark it for low-income students?

Steve Cadigan: What is the goodness they are trying to realize with that policy?

Michelle Rhee: I have no idea….People oftentimes ask me, “What are we going to do about the teachers union? We have to get the teachers union to (embrace change).” The point of the teachers unions is to protect their members. When school children start paying union dues their interests will be met. The teachers unions are effective because they have millions of dollars and millions of union members. They can get politicans elected….We need a counter to that….As chancellor, I ran it as a mother. I have two children, and put them in the DC public schools. When I made decisions I knew they would impact my own kids….I’ll give you an example. I was meeting with legislators and someone said, “We want to give people who are ineffective in the classroom three years in a row to improve.” So here’s the thing. I made the decision to let go of ineffective teachers after one year…I told the legislator that, “If what you want to keep those people in the classroom, then you need to do what they did in Florida, which was to warn parents that their teacher was deemed ineffective.

(The legislators) are coming from a different perspective in terms of job security and training.

Steve Cadigan: That’s great. You’ve got union issues, differences district from district, state to state, federal issues. We are always looking for someone to blame, whether it’s the economy or the climate. How do you decide on where to make change?

Michelle Rhee: Everyone is always looking for the silver bullet…”What is the reason for the problem?” it’s never that simple. There is no one thing….In terms of when I started StudentsFirst, what I decided to do was focus on…human capital, making sure there was a quality principal leading every school, and making sure that there was a quality teacher in every classroom; school choices so that families don’t feel that they are (stuck); and accountabilty in tax dollars we were spending.

Steve Cadigan: When you’re going after something as entrenched as the education system, how do you find the courage or conviction to keep going forward?

Michelle Rhee: When I first got to DC, I was told that you have a honeymoon period. Mine was about 11 weeks. A columnist in the Washington Post wrote a column saying, “I like Michelle Rhee. I just wish she would be nicer.”…During my first 100 days on the job, I announced I wanted to close 23 schools in the district, and people went nuts…There were protesters outside my office. I got in at 11 o’clock at night and my mother says, “Are you okay?” “I’m fine. I’m making myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”…I’ve always been one of those people. I’ve never been concerned (about what others think of me)….One of the things that drives me crazy is how much we are willing to compromise away just to get along. We are willing to turn a blind eye (to problems) in the name of harmony among adults….If we know this is better for kids, why are we willing to go halfway? As you can see, I will never be a politician. (Laughter)

Elisa’s Note: Her answer was much longer, but I actually appreciated her passion for change, even if it means pissing off people. As someone whose husband’s job revolves around making waves — he, too, is frustrated with our insistence on “compromising away” on issues like healthcare — I did feel kinship with her here.

Steve Cadigan: Great answer. What did you think of the documentary Waiting for Superman, (in which Rhee was featured)?

Michelle Rhee: I had no idea what that movie was going to be about. My mother and father, who throughout my career could never figure out what I was doing — “Could you please go to lawschool now, or be a doctor?” — my mother’s comment was like, “Did you not know they were filming? Could you have combed your hair?” (Laughter) When (film director) Davis (Guggenheim) approached me about participating in the movie, I told him at first that I was not interested. My fiance (and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson) said, “You gotta do this.”…I was very skeptical. I didn’t know how you were going to do a documentary on education in 90 minutes. He far exceeded my expectations. He made it very easily understandable to normal people. You see actual kids and families. It shattered the expectations that people had about inner city parents.

Elisa’s Note: Have you seen Waiting for Superman? I am doubly curious now.

For the last 15 minutes of LinkedIn’s conversation, Rhee took questions from the audience.

On measuring teachers:
Michelle Rhee: That’s a good question. A lot of what you hear is that we don’t have a problem measuring teachers, but we don’t have a perfect tool. There is no perfect tool for measuring anything in the world. The evalutaion tool (we used in DC) was that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on the academic growth of their kids, 40% based on observations of classroom practice, some done by surprise and some by outside experts, 5% on community approval and 5% contribution to their community like leading extracurricular activities.  

Whether Rhee has encountered teacher opposition to the evaluations:
Michelle Rhee: You know I run across a lot of teachers who are angsty right now. There is a lot of rhetoric that teachers are being attacked and being blamed. “When you move to an evaluation system, you just want to evaluate based on test scores.” What I tend to see more with teachers is not that people are opposed, but they want to know is it going to work? It makes sense to a vast majority of teachers when we get beyond the scare tactics and get to the nuts and bolts of how things would work.

A man who has continuously voted “yes” on tax parcels, wondered why taxpayers aren’t seeing a return on investment:
Michelle Rhee: If you say it’s for the kids, it’s hard to say you are against it. We have more than doubled the amount of moeny we are spending per child, and the results have gotten worse. The U.S. along with Belgium is in the quadrant you don’t want to be in that it spends a lot of money, but doesn’t get results.

Elisa’s Note: Yes and no. We are No. 3 in terms of per pupil spending, but this is an average and does not take into consideration more affluent areas that are able to collect more money in property taxes, and thus, have more resources for students and better reputations. Depending on where a student lives, there are many kids in this country receiving less than the $7,000 per year.

More telling to me is what little priority education is in this country. We are No. 37 in terms of our GDP — 5.7% — devoted to education spending. Cuba is No. 1, devoting 18.7% of its GDP on education.

I thought I would clear that up and get to the second part of Rhee’s answer:  

Michelle Rhee: Where are we spending the money? We spend billions and billions of dollars compensating teachers for their Master’s degrees. There is no correlation between having a Master’s degree and effectiveness in the classroom.

Elisa’s Note: I was actually surprised to hear this. My understanding is that many people choose not to teach because they graduate with too much debt, and can’t afford to work for such low wages. Then again, as someone whose kids attend a school, in which the faculty largely has degrees and credentials from other countries, I find the credentialing process for teachers in this country quite onerous and superfluous. The Spanish immersion programs in this country, for example, would benefit from the expertise of native Spanish teachers who studied and taught in their home countries. Unfortunately, many are prohibited from teaching in U.S. schools because they don’t have degrees or credentials from the U.S. and/or don’t speak English — which, minus some communication issues with English-only parents, has not been a problem at our school.

At the end of the LinkedIn event, there was a softball question on whether students should get to evaluate their teachers. Rhee thought their opinions were important.

In terms of training teachers in technology, she said there were “infrastructure” problems at the public schools. For example, she remembered during her first year of teaching, no one was able to use the thousands of computers delivered to the school because the outlet plugs were incompatible. But even if this were not the case, the building’s circuitry couldn’t handle that many computers plugged in at once.

How to help StudentsFirst:
Michelle Rhee: One, you can help us raise some money and get us more members. We want people to become engaged. I’ll give you a specific example. If you look at school board elections, they are usually off-cycle elections…These are people who drive school policy. We need more people to run for office, willing to put politics aside and put students first…I often talk to groups, in which someone says, “What she’s talking about is problems with the inner city, minority kids.” This is a national problem that we have. The top 5% of our students, these are the students who go to the tony private schools, they rank 23 out of 29 in the globe. We have to make people understand that this is something that impacts your world today.

Elisa’s note: I couldn’t find any information about this, not even on the StudentsFirst website. My understanding is that we do have an achievement gap in this country between minority and white students, but that our more affluent (and white) students were on the same playing field as students abroad. What do you all think? Have you seen the statistic Rhee espoused about our top students?

Finally, Rhee was asked by a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District about the achievement gap. In this case, the teacher has noticed a gap in performance between her African American and Pacific Islander students and Caucasian students. Rhee gave a very candid “Tiger Mom” response. Check it out:
Michelle Rhee: It’s not any one thing. Our poor minority kids are attending low-performing schools. If you are a poor African-American child in this country, you have a 47% chance of being in a  failing school. The second thing is we have a very, very low expectation (of these students). These don’t come from bad places….Our poor minority kids are coming from tough home environments….I think one of our things as a nation is that we have gone soft. We have lost our competitive edge and competitive spirit. I have two daughters, 12 and 9, and they play soccer. They suck, like bad. But if you were going to their rooms today, you would see trophies and ribbons that you would think I was raising the next Mia Hamm. “You actually aren’t good at soccer. You have to practice every day.” They look at me like I’m crazy because they can’t square that with everyone telling them they’re great….If we continue to build a culture in which we are allowing kids to celebrate mediocrity then we are going to lose overall as a nation. This lowered expectations is a significant part of the problem.

Yes, Michelle Rhee really did broadcast to the world that her daughters “suck, like bad” in soccer.

In related news, she considered Teach for America the catalyst that got her into the field of education. Here is easily the best story on Teach for America that I have read, courtesy of Teacherken on Daily Kos. Enjoy!

Oh, and feel free to talk all things education in this post.  


Seeking Out Questions for MT Interviews

Hi all,

I’ve been experimenting with various ways to conduct interviews at MotherTalkers. I have done live-blog chats, but the downside to those is there is a limited window to ask questions.

So I am wondering if I can seek out questions ahead of time for a Q&A instead? That way, people can drop them throughout the day here, on Facebook, or at my e-mail: elisa at mothertalkers dot com.

I would like to interview Dr. Martha Howard of Chicago Healers, practitioners of holistic medicine. Her e-mail caught my eye because she offered these tips to protect our children from indoor pollution:

Formaldehyde in new clothes, carpet, wallboards and furniture made of particle board or with particle board backing.
Lead paint and other toxic paints. Children’s rooms should be painted only with non-toxic no-VOC paints. Even latex paints can emit toxic fumes over a long period of time, worsening allergies and asthma.
Mercury in any form—especially as a preservative in vaccinations, or in dental materials
Food dyes, additives, and artificial sugars. The so-called “generally recognized as safe” food dyes are made of coal tar. MSG and aspartame are neurotoxins (see Russell Blaylock MD’s comprehensive book, Exitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.)
Plastics that contain BPA
Fire retardant chemicals in pajamas and bedding
Sunscreens with “gender bending” chemicals like homosalate, octylmethoxycinnamate, octocrylene, oxybenzone. Use California Baby hypoallergenic sunscreen, Desert Essence sunscreen, or Aubrey Organic Sunscreen on all children (and on adults too!)
Shampoos and lotions are full of chemicals. Desert Essence makes a good line of shampoos, conditioners and lotions that are chemical free.

There are many things you can do to not only avoid indoor chemical pollutants but also keep your kids healthy in general.

Good indoor air filtration (with charcoal and zeolite in the filters, not just HEPA filters) can help limit exposure to airborne pollutants.  
Drink filtered water
Give children fresh, mostly organic unprocessed foods. This doesn’t have to be complicated. A turkey sandwich with whole grain bread, Applegate Farms or Hormel natural turkey (no additives, MSG, nitrites or nitrates—both big causes of cancer), and an organic apple are a great lunch, rather than packaged “cracker and cheese” or many of the items that are currently offered in school lunches.
Become active in advocating for better indoor air quality and better food at your child’s school
Stay informed about air and water quality and pollution hazards in your neighborhood and your town.

As someone with a son that has allergies, I am wondering what I can do to build his tolerance of his allergens. For example, I was told that offering him locally grown honey may help him “outgrow” his allergies of local grass and weeds. I wonder if there is any truth to that. What other questions do you have for Dr. Howard?

The other doctor I am interested in interviewing, is Dr. Michael Goldberg, an expert on children with autism. (See the photo of his book on the right.)

His office recently reached out to me with this advice for summer:

  1. Have a behavior chart just like at school. A smile can be used for good behavior, or a big frown just like the teacher would give for bad or aggressive behavior.
  1. Avoid daily bribery.
  1. Keep a regular sleep schedule, even if it is lighter outside because of the longer summer days. Be soothing yet firm.  
  1. Recruit siblings to help. Explain that their sibling is ill and they can help make that person feel better. Siblings can be the best therapists.
  1. Work with the child fifteen to twenty minutes a day on the computer to keep up academically and reward them with something they enjoy if they do that.
  1. If the child is in a special needs class, make sure he/she are also spends time with role models who are not developmentally challenged.

Summer Eating:
Dr. Goldberg advocates omitting certain foods from an autistic child’s diet. Doing so can have a positive impact on their behavior.

Foods to Avoid:

  1. Dairy
  1. Chocolate
  1. Whole Wheat
  1. Whole Grains
  1. Limited Amounts of Sugar

Do you have a child with autism or work with children who are autistic? What would you like to ask Dr. Goldberg?

Finally and lastly, there is Michelle Rhee, renowned “education reformer”, er teacher union buster. Despite my many disagreements with her, I am attending one of her events this Friday to try to understand the buzz around her. I have a lot of my own questions, but wondered if you have a burning desire to ask her anything? If yes, please drop that here, or on Facebook, or at my e-mail at elisa at mothertalkers dot com. Thanks!  


Detroit Public Schools and Teacher Pay

Here is a story for education geeks everywhere. The beleaguered Detroit school system has lowered teachers’ pay – which is already lower than the suburbs, by the way — and has as many charter schools as traditional public schools. Yet the district is hemorrhaging students and money, according to a story in the New York Times.

These stats were especially discouraging:

Since (Emergency Financial Manager) Mr. Bobb arrived, the $200 million deficit has risen to $327 million. While he has made substantial cuts to save money — including $16 million by firing hundreds of administrators — any gains have been overshadowed by the exodus of the 8,000 students a year. For each student who departs, $7,300 in state money gets subtracted from the Detroit budget — an annual loss of $58.4 million.

Nor have charters been the answer. Charter school students score about the same on state tests as Detroit district students, even though charters have fewer special education students (8 percent versus 17 percent in the district) and fewer poor children (65 percent get subsidized lunches versus 82 percent at district schools). It’s hard to know whether children are better off under these “reforms“ or they’re just being moved around more.

Even though Bobb’s efforts don’t appear to be paying off, the Republican-controlled legislature just approved a bill to give emergency managers like him the power to void contracts of public workers, including teachers. Also, there is talk of converting the entire school district into charters, which could generate significant savings since charter schools typically hire young and non-union teachers for less pay and no pensions.  

But considering the results so far, I’d like to delve into this discussion: why are teachers respected so little in this country? The bias against teachers couldn’t be anymore obvious than this good food for thought posed by Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times:

Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.

These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.“

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

Before crying out that teachers are less important than lawyers or doctors, read this:

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

A teacher better than 93 percent of other teachers would add $640,000 to lifetime pay of a class of 20, the study found.

Kristof said he is no fan of the teachers union for the reasons some of us have expressed here. It is difficult to fire an ineffective teacher with tenure, and come layoff time, usually younger and enthusiastic teachers are the first to go.

And yes, unionized teachers do receive more generous pension plans than other employees, but that’s because they have practically foregone pay increases. Countries with high-achieving students recognize the importance of strong teachers and compensate them accordingly.

Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found….

Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000 (in the U.S.), would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.

Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.

Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.

I am sure that this essay writing service won Kristof no friends in either the teachers unions or among education reformers. For that, I thank him. What say you?


Michelle Rhee Speaks (Again)

This time she got a cover and personal essay in Newsweek. Her goal? To sign up 1 million members for her new non-profit StudentsFirst and raise $1 billion in its first year of operation.

But first she took a swipe at the “special interests” in education — er, the teachers unions — and used her prominent pulpit to ask everyone to take to the streets and fight against the “bureaucracy” plaguing our public schools.

The teachers’ unions get the blame for much of this. Elected officials, parents, and administrators implore them to “embrace change” and “accept reform.” But I don’t think the unions can or should change. The purpose of the teachers’ union is to protect the privileges, priorities, and pay of their members. And they’re doing a great job of that.

What that means is that the reform community has to exert influence as well. That’s why I’ve decided to start StudentsFirst, a national movement to transform public education in our country. We need a new voice to change the balance of power in public education. Our mission is to defend and promote the interests of children so that America has the best education system in the world.

I have a couple questions for Rhee. One, is if we were to break up the teachers unions, what would happen? Would people stick with the profession — ideally in the same schools — or would there be a lot of staff turnover and even more insecurity for students?

My other question is more of an observation. Whenever we talk about education reform, we tend to imply that all schools need to be improved to catch up to the rest of the world. There is a problem with that and it is called the achievement gap. Our white students fare very well, even compared to their European counterparts. Our minorities — and even when that is further broken down, Latino and African-American boys — are more prone to low test scores and dropping out. It seems that if we are serious about raising everyone to academic excellence then we must talk about the students who really need the help rather than paint the picture that it is systematic of all American students and schools. It’s not.

We then must create programs to target those goals, which is my next question. What exactly is the goal of reform? To send everyone to college? To create the world’s top scientists? To make sure our population has basic literacy and math skills? A combination of all these things by placing students in different tracks? These are all different goals that have to be defined by the schools.  

From the moment I resigned, I began hearing from citizens from across this country. I got e-mails, calls, and letters from parents, students, and teachers who said, “Don’t give up. We need you to keep fighting!” Usually, they’d then share with me a story about how the education system in their community was not giving students what they need or deserve. I got one e-mail from two people who have been trying to open a charter school in Florida and have been stopped every step of the way by the school district. No voices have moved me more than those of teachers. So many great teachers in this country are frustrated with the schools they are working in, the bureaucratic rules that bind them, and the hostility to excellence that pervades our education system.

The common thread in all of these communications was that these courageous people felt alone in battling the bureaucracy. They want help and advocates. There are enough people out there who understand and believe that kids deserve better, but until now, there has been no organization for them. We’ll ask people across the country to join StudentsFirst—we’re hoping to sign up 1 million members and raise $1 billion in our first year.

Studentsfirst will work so that great teachers can make a tremendous difference for students of every background. We believe every family can choose an excellent school—attending a great school should be a matter of fact, not luck. We’ll fight against ineffective instructional programs and bureaucracy so that public dollars go where they make the biggest difference: to effective instructional programs. Parent and family involvement are key to increased student achievement, but the entire community must be engaged in the effort to improve our schools.

Though we’ll be nonpartisan, we can’t pretend that education reform isn’t political. So we’ll put pressure on elected officials and press for changes in legislation to make things better for kids. And we’ll support and endorse school-board candidates and politicians—in city halls, statehouses, and the U.S. Congress—who want to enact policies around our legislative agenda. We’ll support any candidate who’s reform-minded, regardless of political party, so reform won’t just be a few courageous politicians experimenting in isolated locations; it’ll be a powerful, nationwide movement.

I read all this, and I am still unsure what StudentsFirst hopes to achieve. I don’t think there is disagreement that the needs of students should come first. But the million, or billion, dollar question is how do we get there?

If I had one piece of advice for Rhee — not that she’d care — it is to be more specific as to what “reform” means. How do you tackle the “bureaucracy” of public schools, which here in Berkeley, California, I’ve heard referred to as the “democratic process”? Implementing curriculums that work — again, see my posts on IB — is mighty expensive, which is why even the most involved parents fight them. Would Rhee’s organization fund these programs in public schools? That would entail re-training teachers, who I am assuming wouldn’t fight it, unless there was no money to back it up. And that’s not an unreasonable expectation IMHO. I don’t think it is fair to ask a teacher to fly herself to Atlanta, Georgia, for an IB training, for example, without compensating her.

OTOH, I am all for allowing parents to start their own schools or do what they deem best for their children’s education whether they be traditional public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, independent schools, co-ops or homeschooling. Hopefully, this would provide parents everywhere with more choices.

In this sense, I share the frustration of Rhee and the Florida parents she mentioned in her letter. But in order for this to be a real movement, they would have to bring on board impoverished, minority families whose children are the ones really struggling. That’s the billion-dollar question.  


Tuesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

MAJOR UPDATE: And how could I forget that today is our FABULOUS Gloria’s birthday? Let’s wish her a great one, ladies. Abrazos Gloria! -Elisa

Sorry for the paltry post today, but everything that could go wrong went wrong yesterday. I needed to fax something and guess what? My printer and fax machine were down. I couldn’t get the bloody things to work, DH my handyman is on a book tour, so I headed to downtown Berkeley to use Fed Ex’s. Then, my BART pass for public transit was rejected. Turns out that I had DH’s pass and the credit card he had on file had set off the fraud detection. Long story short, he has to fix that today so I bought another pass. By the time I faxed that contract in downtown Berkeley, it was time to pick up the kids at school and take them to swimming class. I wasted my day doing…NOTHING! Ugh!

But here are a couple interesting news items:

An educator at the Huffington Post bashed the movie Waiting for Superman for oversimplifying the issues that plague our public schools. She offered ways parents can partner with schools for real education reform.

Britain’s Chancellor George Osborne plans to scrap child subsidies for those making 44,000 pounds, or $69,900 a year, or more, according to the UK Guardian. Osborne says he plans to use the additional revenue, about a billion pounds in savings, to pay down the country’s deficit.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Tuesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

The Huffington Post ran good food for thought on why merit pay for teachers is a bad idea. A study by the Economic Policy Institute laid to rest two myths: one is that the private sector overwhelmingly relies on merit-based pay, when only seven percent of workers actually participate in such a system. The other, is the assumption that good teachers are driven by money. The study found that other factors, like, the purpose of the job and autonomy given on the job, were the primary drivers. Anyways, this is a topic we have discussed here before, so this column is definitely worth a read.  

In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to strike down state laws that lock up juveniles for life without the possibility of parole, if they have not committed a murder, according to the Washington Post.

Good on the Episcopal Church for consecrating its first openly gay woman, according to CNN. In related news: Portugal’s president is about to sign a law legalizing gay marriage, according to BBC News.

I came across a lot of interesting stories for this edition. Here is a Daily Beast article about how women who marry a much older man — or younger man — have an increased risk of death compared to women who marry men their age. The reason is that both these women face added pressures with the age difference. For the younger women, it is the stress that comes with being their husband’s caregiver. For the older women, it is the added pressure of having to look hot to keep up with their younger husbands.

This is sad. Almost 11 years after his mother died of a drug overdose, Tyler Lambert, the 25-year-old son of late Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato, committed suicide, according to the New York Daily News. Lambert died of a gunshot wound to the head.

In less macabre news, Sandra Diaz-Twine won Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. She is the only player to ever win the million dollars twice. So now I must ask you Survivor fans: do you think the right contestant won? As some commenters in the CBS thread pointed out, there are folks who feel that Russell Hantz got robbed the second time. Of course, you all know where I stand. I was rooting for Sandra all along. And, as other commenters pointed out in the CBS thread, part of the game is to get the jury, who you had a hand in voting out, to award you the million dollars. It is not only a physical and strategic game, but a social game, too. Despite all his bullying and “controlling the game,” Russell was never able to sway the jurors, which makes me believe that he is far from the best player. The best villain, yes, but hardly the best player.

Until next season…What are you watching nowadays? What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Midday Coffee Break

What’s up?

When you are asked whether you want to pay with debit or credit, always opt for debit. According to a story in the New York Times, your bank will charge the store — and ultimately you, if the store is forced to raise prices — 75 cents for every $100 spent when you sign for a purchase rather than punch in the 4-digit code of your debit card.

Daddy Dialectic’s Jeremy Adam Smith wrote a great piece for Mothering magazine on how fathers can inject a little sanity into kid sports.

The Washington Post ran an editorial about Randi Weingarten, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers union.

One-third of American adults are considered obese, but that rate has been slowing, according the Wall Street Journal.

Newsweek has an article on the uptick in men-on-men sexual harassment claims.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Midday Coffee Break

What’s up?

The Colorado parents of “balloon boy” will plead guilty to charges related to the hoax, according to the Associated Press. Richard Heene will plead guilty to attempting to influence a public servant, which is a felony. His wife, Mayumi Heene, will plead guilty for making a false report to authorities, a misdemeanor.

Jonathan Alter over at Newsweek made a compelling case for the candidacy of Alan Khazei who is running for the seat held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Khazei, Alter argues, is an education reformer with little name recognition who has built his candidacy around improving the state’s schools.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Public Vs. Private School Debate Rears Its Head on Slate

Don’t worry, this actually wasn’t a mommy war. Slate actually ran helpful tips how we can all help the public schools regardless of our personal school choices.

Here is what mother and daughter team Patty Stonesifer and Sandy Stonesifer had to say to a west Los Angeles mother who wanted to help the public schools but send her own children to expensive private schools.


Eloise, the public education failure in this country is huge, and fixing it needs to be a national priority. Thirty percent of American eighth-graders never make it to graduation; 1.2 million students will drop out of high school this year. We rank 21st in science education and 25th in math education among the top 30 industrialized nations. As you know, our country’s future requires deep and broad reform of our public school system. I encourage you to follow, learn, and act on key education decisions that affect all students in California, and you can do that through the Education Trust’s West Coast affiliate. On a national basis, you can learn about what is going on across the country and how you can take action related to the three pillars that are part of the Strong American Schools effort (raising American education standards, putting effective teachers in every classroom, and increasing time for learning). There is some limited good news: The stimulus plan included href=”40 billion for schools, and while most of that will go to prop up state investments in education in times of decreased revenue, about $15 billion of it is discretionary for the new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who plans to use it reward and accelerate education reform efforts….


…(A friend who is an education expert) made the excellent point that accepting the public education system as it is would be a far better example of “letting the government off the hook” than sending your kids to private school. While making the right personal decision about your children’s well-being is important, so is the public responsibility that you have to advocate for all kids in the same way you advocate for your own. And she underscored what research shows (and every parent knows) to be the most important determinant of success at any school: quality teachers. How we ensure the best teachers are attracted and retained in the system, however, is hotly contested. Performance pay, changes in teacher training, better data systems to track student progress, or any of the other numerous teacher incentive programs will require that we begin to make real efforts at reform and track the evidence of what works. The New Teacher Project, started by Michelle Rhee, the current chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, works to help ensure all kids have access to the highest-quality, effective teachers possible.

In President Obama’s first town hall meeting, his answer to the question “How do we know what makes an effective teacher?” was, by some reports, the most animated exchange. Our education guru says that the most well-meaning parents who flee public schools (and probably even well-meaning parents who have their kids in public schools) often end up unconsciously supporting bad policy decisions when they think they are doing what’s best for kids. One of the best examples of this can be found in your home state of California, Eloise. California pushed through a huge statewide class-size-reduction effort in the primary grades. While it cost the state billions of dollars, the effort actually ended up diminishing teacher quality without showing any clear educational benefits. Though “conventional wisdom” still says that smaller class sizes are the most important factor in a child’s educational success, the only thing the research shows to be anything close to a “silver bullet” is ensuring that children end up with a high-quality teacher for an extended time.

Finally, returning to the dilemma of the parent making the decision one child at a time:It’s important to remember that there are great private schools and great public schools. So rather than worry about one type of school over the other, you should focus on identifying your child’s and family’s needs and do your best to find a school that meets them. The Department of Education’s Guide to Choosing a School for Your Child and the Great Schools site both provide good tools and resources for deciding what factors are important to you and finding schools that meet those needs.

What other tips would you have for Eloise in west Los Angeles?