A Grave Injustice

A homeless Connecticut mom was convicted and sentenced 12 years in prison for four charges of drug possession as well as sale — a sad occurrence that happens in our criminal justice system every day.

But this sentence includes charges of the mom “stealing” her son’s education in a good school district, something I just can’t get behind. Read on in Clutch magazine:

While the sentence also takes four charges of drug possession and sale into account, the sentence also requires that McDowell pay a $6,200 fine for stealing what the state has calculated was $15,000 in educational services.

McDowell’s case attracted the support of education and civil rights advocates who argued that because she was living in a van and occasionally sleeping at a shelter in Norwalk, where she enrolled her child, she should not have been required to send him to school in the city of her last permanent address, which is located in Bridgeport. Instead of using that old Bridgeport address, McDowell used that of a babysitter who lived in Norwalk to send her son to kindergarten.

Does this twelve year sentence make any sense? It’s a shame that McDowell got caught up in drugs, whether she was selling them or using them, and it’s clear that she was doing everything she could to make a life for her child — she’s no Nino Brown….What’s disgraceful is the idea that a parent who lacks a permanent address can be separated from her child for using the address of a friend to “steal“ a free education for him.

I agree. Also, what is the homeless to do? If you live in a van or a homeless shelter — why shouldn’t your child be allowed in that school district? Personally, I would like to see more flexibility for parents to send their children across school district lines, re-allocate the money, do what is necessary to give parents more choices within the public school district.

What a tragic case.

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Wednesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

The Washington Post ran a story on why “neutral” or bans on talking about homosexuality in public schools only increase the stigma of gay students. The article profiled families living in Michele Bachmann’s district in Minnesota.

Also in the Washington Post: a study has shown that men’s testosterone levels drop when they become fathers. Their hormone levels further take a dip the more involved they are with their children.

I loved this list of “102 Things NOT to Do If You Hate Taxes.” Forward to all of your libertarian friends!

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

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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?

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Wednesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

Out of the 14,000 school districts across the country, less than 2 percent have a Latino or Latina superintendent, according to the blog Latina Lista. The good news is there is a new development program to address this disparity.

In somewhat related news: the New Latina blog had a helpful article on raising bilingual children.

In fitness news: Kaiser Permanente recently sent out this e-mail blast to its members on the benefits of walking 30 minutes a day for five days a week. The walk, by the way, can be split up in two 15-minute intervals to receive benefits such as:

-reduce the risk of heart disease
-decrease new cases of diabetes
-strengthen your bones
-improve memory,
-and it may even help prevent or help cure certain cancers.

My big news: I just signed up for my first full marathon, which will take place in Palo Alto on October 30. Yes, I am insane. Actually, I was inspired by my friend Joe Sudbay, over at AmericaBlog, who is 50 and has run seven marathons! We went out for a run together in Minneapolis, and I was just so inspired. He has been kind with his encouragement and running advice.

Have any of you run a full marathon? Tips? What else is in the news? What’s up with you?

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

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What To Do About Disruptive Students?

While I don’t think there is consistency in schools across our country, I do feel for the public schools in that never before have they been entrusted with so much from educating students to counseling them and even feeding them.

I am especially sympathetic to teachers who must manage huge classrooms with high-poverty, special needs and/or disruptive students. Take for instance this letter I recently spotted in the Circle of Moms message board:

Hello moms ok need some support. My 12 year child was bullied by his teacher. My son has ADD/ADHD and has a need to whistle to focus. Sometimes he does it and does not know he is. Anyhow his teacher got upset at this habit and placed DUCT TAPE on his mouth in front of all his classmates and for 45 minutes of the class. My son was embrassed and he could not breath properly. I went to the principle and confronted teacher and he tried lying about incident. My son was brought in and then the teacher confessed. The teacher still works at this school and we have taken it to Super Intendent and nothing elese will be done. He will be allowed to stay teaching. My son now has to do science alone without his classmates because I refuse to put him in this classroom enviroment with this man. What elese can I do any legal advice out there. Oh and we are a military family overseas. Please any help.
Let me add we have been to the security forces and family advocate offices and they say it does not warrant as a crime.
A very sad mom :(

Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee did the same thing, by the way, to her class of 35 and their lips were bleeding from pulling off the tape. Clearly, classroom management in these circumstances is difficult for everyone.

OTOH, I feel for the mother who wrote to Circle of Moms — the other moms urged her to secure an attorney — as I believe in that democratic ideal that every child, regardless of circumstances, should have access to a good education. Let me ask you all this: how do you think a school district should balance the needs of its special needs students and/or disruptive kids with the rest of the class? Have you seen good models that work?

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Corporate Sponsorship of Public Schools?

The Los Angeles Unified Board of Education just approved a measure to seek corporate sponsors of athletic stadiums and gear for students like drums for the band, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Critics are uncomfortable with the move because they say it is the public and not private companies that should fund schools. From the L.A. Times:

Under the approved rules, the district superintendent could ink agreements up to $500,000, with school-board approval required for larger amounts. Sponsors would not be able to sell or market specific products to children; instead, they would have “branding“ opportunities.

Examples could include signs on scoreboards or naming rights to auditoriums or athletic fields or a brand name on a drum purchased with a corporate donation.

“Let me tell you, this is all advertising,” L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said, adding, “we’re not going to put advertising where it offends.”

….One estimate put potential annual revenue at $18 million, but Cortines cautioned that such expectations might be overly optimistic. The district already was able to preserve some sports programs with a fundraising effort that netted about $1.5 million.

“We’re asking for help from our corporate community,” said board President Monica Garcia. “We’re trying to get help.”

It’s a shame the corporate community has hemmed and hawed about taxes that would actually benefit the public schools. What do you all think about these corporate sponsorships?

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More on the Education Wars…

With the release of Waiting for Superman, which was made by the same filmmaker behind An Inconvenient Truth, literally, everyone is talking about the state of our public schools. According to every pundit and their mother, it’s bad, and it’s all the teachers unions’ fault.

You know this movie — and topic — has made it to the public consciousness when HBO host Bill Maher and R&B singer John Legend are sparring over it on a Friday night. (Disclosure: My husband was on the show, too. This is what he contributed to the topic: “Teachers don’t get paid shit.”)

Aside from my husband’s erudite comment — LOL! — Maher’s and Legend’s stances represented the extremes of this debate. Maher blamed the high dropout rates in certain high schools and low performance of minority students on the impoverishment of their parents. Legend blamed poor performing schools on poor performing teachers. Here is more detail on their perspectives: Maher’s can be found at the Huffington Post and Legend’s at the Daily Beast.

I am saddened that either the media or reality has pitted teachers against parents. From my experience as a mother, former AmeriCorps volunteer, and board member of a new independent school, you need both. You need energetic, knowledgeable and passionate teachers who are on board with the school’s teaching philosophy and needs of the communities they serve.

You also need very energetic, passionate and involved parents, who at minimum, monitor homework, help teachers in the classroom, and donate what they can in time and money for classroom supplies, field trips, and those little things that enrich learning, but are unfortunately being slashed due to budget cuts. This is no easy feat when parents are working multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet.

OTOH, this is no easy feat for teachers who must educate an increasingly larger number of students living in poverty and with special needs — on less money.

Still, I am thrilled so many people, including those without children like Bill Maher, have taken an interest in education and are talking about it. Here are the latest education articles I have seen in the press:

The tough-on-teachers “accountability” measures in places like Florida has actually had an undesired effect, according to Newsweek. It’s actually the best teachers that are leaving underperforming schools.  



In 2002, Florida became one of the first states to grade schools on student progress. But the result, the study shows, was a case of “accountability shock“: in the 60 schools deemed failing, about 30 percent of the workforce left—usually for jobs at higher-rated schools nearby. (The average school nationwide might see annual turnover of about 15 percent.) Since the best teachers were among the most likely to transfer, says Northwestern University professor and study coauthor David Figlio, accountability pressure may actually reinforce the gap between educational haves and have-nots; teachers, like athletes, want to play for a winning team. The solution, Figlio suggests, might be retainer deals for the best instructors at bad schools, something to compensate them for the rebuilding ahead.

On the flipside, Newsweek also ran an article on how the best principals can turn around failing schools. I was intrigued by this article on so many levels. In my experience, parents tend to judge a school by their child’s teacher, but not the principal. I even had a friend comment to me that “principals don’t matter.”

But in my experience, our current head of school was very instrumental in turning around our uncertain start-up of 80 kids into a full-fledged school with 186 students. I often wonder why principals are not credited or even mentioned in the success or failure of a school.

Here’s what Newsweek’s Pat Wingert had to say about one experiment to place the best principals in the toughest schools:

By late spring 2009, a year after the initiative started, student proficiency on the state test had risen in all seven of the original SSI schools, with some school scores rising by more than 20 points, a remarkable achievement. Equally surprising, scores also rose in the second group of SSI schools, which were launched only four months before the tests were administered.

Among the most effective was principal Suzanne Gimenez. After two years at high-poverty Devonshire Elementary, she has boosted the reading score of her Hispanic students by 30 points and her school’s math score by 33 points. Her secrets? Posting a chart to track the performance of every student, plus instilling more accountability and discipline. Years of experience had taught her that “children of poverty perform better with a lot of structure,“ she says. “Many of them don’t know where they’re going to get dinner or sleep. School needs to be the same for them every day.“

What do you think of your school’s principal?

Lastly, Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp got props in a Vanity Fair article. I did not know this but Teach for America, which places graduates from elite colleges into low-income districts to teach, is 20 years old. But here’s my question to VF and all the publications out there singing its praises: Does it work? And yes, I have read individual studies in places like North Carolina. But what about a comprehensive study on its impact on a country as a whole. Do TFA teachers really match up or outperform credentialed teachers — TFA’s claim — everywhere it teaches across the country? Also, what is the impact on students and a community of having such high teacher turnover since most only stay for the two years required of them? Now that’s the story I want to read!

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Review: Why Great Teachers Quit

Over the break, I had the pleasure of reading a book by our very own Katy Farber. I always get a thrill reading books by people who I know and admire.

Katy, who not only parents two girls and writes for MotherTalkers and Non-Toxic Kids, but she is also an elementary school science teacher. (Where do you find the time, girl?)

In her first book, Why Great Teachers Quit And How We Might Stop the Exodus, Katy examines just that: why are so many young, smart and idealistic people exiting the field in droves within the first five years? While she did examine the obvious reasons of low pay and crazy hours, which left me convinced that teaching is not a family-friendly profession, her answer was much more nuanced.

For example, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the No. 1 reason teachers left high poverty, urban public schools was because of poor administrative support (50 percent) and not poor salary (26.9 percent). A lack of faculty influence (42.5 percent) was the second biggest reason teachers left poor urban public schools. As for teachers in low poverty, suburban public schools, they left due to poor salary (51 percent) followed by poor administrative support (30 percent). Notice that their reasons for leaving had nothing to do with the students.

Which leads me to one of the biggest factors driving out teachers: politics. Legislation like No Child Left Behind and standardized testing is decreasing student morale and forcing out teachers, who must take even more time from their busy schedules to supervise students during the test rather than teach or grade papers. Also, they have not been trained to supervise such tests in a way that would please legislators, often non-educators, mandating such testing.

What surprised me was that, while well-intentioned, these tests have not increased student achievement.

In some cases, when it looks as though test scores are going up, one must read the back story to understand whether all students were assessed, how the dropout rate plays into it, and how much quality teaching is happening. Houston, Texas, was touted nationally as a success story for raising the test scores of all of its students. The district claimed a low 1.5 percent dropout rate, but at Sharpston High School, 463 of 1,700 students left during the school year; none were reported as dropping out. Instead, they were assigned a code that meant they had changed schools, gone back to a native country, or gone for their GED, when many of them never reported these reasons to the school (Meier et al., 2004). The real story is that a new correlation has arisen from frequent standardized testing: falling graduation rates as standardized testing increases (Meier et al., 2004).

Interesting, eh? Another aspect of Katy’s book that I liked was that it wasn’t simply a whiny tome on the state of education today, rather it offered educators solutions to implement best practices. She visited schools all across the country and interviewed dozens of teachers both online and offline. She gave examples of schools that were actually implementing these practices, like, the Sherman Oaks Community Charter School in California, which allows teachers and staff 90 minutes daily of uninterrupted time to collaborate.

Here is a great example of how parents can partner with teachers to give children the best possible education:



In an era of dwindling budgets and jam-packed agendas, this may seem impossible. Not so, says Principal Peggy Bryan (Curtis, 2000). At Sherman Oaks, “Teachers meet while students have lunch, study hall, and a recreation period. Paraprofessionals — usually parents — come in during that time and oversee the children. ‘It’s simple, inexpensive, and it makes all the difference’” (para. 8), she said.

While the format is always under revision, teachers use this time for planning, grade-level meetings, cross-grade meetings, and problem solving. This lends itself to a feeling of professionalism, colleagueship, and support…By providing built-in opportunities like this, Sherman Oaks fosters a collaborative community that works together to support every child, and every teacher as they constantly hone and learn their craft.

Katy’s book is a quick and delightful read, a mere 156 pages. But one area I would have loved to see her dedicate a chapter to is that of “education reform.” So-called education reformers like Teach for America, charter school proponents, and DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, have rankled some in the teaching profession because they are non-union. But I am interested to see what success, if any, they have had.

There are a few ideas that I am especially curious as to whether they would work. One is year-round schooling as practiced by charter schools like KIPP in Texas. It makes sense that three-month summer vacations are not compatible with a working parent’s schedule, especially one who cannot afford day camps. Of course, I would rather parents receive vacation, too, but it doesn’t seem realistic in an era of fewer full-time jobs and people working multiple part-time jobs.  

The other, as proposed by Rhee, is more money in lieu of tenure. I wonder how many teachers would go for it?

Finally, I am wondering how the three-year teaching cycles as dictated by Teach for America is working for them. On the one hand, I am sad that children in high risk areas are experiencing such high staff turnover. But a part of me also wonders if some schools are so tough that it is better for a teacher to remain there only three years to avoid burnout — like the military, another tough job. I don’t know, which is why I’d like more research on this. What do you all think?

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Q&A With NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen

While I was at Netroots Nation last week, I had the privilege of meeting Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the powerful National Education Association teachers union. Honestly, all I know of teachers unions, in general, is what I read in the press and it is not good. They are often locking horns with their non-union counterparts like Teach for America and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee — all who I trust are in education to help children. (Michelle Rhee, by the way, made headlines last week for firing 241 teachers, or 6 percent of all D.C. teachers, according to the Wall Street Journal, which celebrated the move.)

At NN, I got to see a bigger picture, as Eskelsen is anything but incompetent. She is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country and one of the most influential Hispanic educators with decades of classroom experience teaching our most vulnerable youth. At NN, she recalled a year, in which she taught 39 fifth-graders, and another year, in which she had 12 special education students in a class of 35. She has taught both gifted children and children who were homeless. In 1989, after only nine years in the classroom, she was named Teacher of the Year in Utah. Her accomplishments exceed beyond the classroom, as you can see in her online biography.

I got to ask her a few questions and was impressed by her breadth of knowledge. Check it out:

I want to ask you about the student achievement gap. Right now there is a disparity between minority and white students, and the high school dropout rates for African American and Latino men are abysmal. Is there anything that teachers and school staff can do to help narrow the achievement gap in public schools?

Eskelsen: And (the achievement gap is) growing. Absolutely. What Child Left Behind assumes is what you do is teach to the test. You cram for the test, and you practice for the test, and it is having a negative effect on every other aspect of student achievement. What has to happen you have to make learning relevant. You have to make it exciting. You have to make students want to learn. When you drill and drill for the test, you have the opposite effect.

Can you briefly summarzie a way to fairly evaluate teachers? Almost all schools have, usually, principal observations. They also keep track of whether there are parents who have complaints. That will affect your evaluation as well. In my district back in the ’80s, we experimented with something that was cool. The legislature gave (additional funding to) all the districts who came up with an evaluation system that looked at more than what (teachers) teach. It was voluntary…(Legislators) said, “Here is a menu of up to 10 different ways to demonstrate your effectiveness as a teacher.” One way was an anonymous survey of parents. You could have your peers evaluate you. You could use your students’ test scores, if you had chemistry AP students who passed the AP tests. They gave us a whole menu, including things like a principal evaluation. You could also pick an evaluation of peers where a team of teachers from another school came in and evaluated you.

Elisa’s note: Unfortunately, we ran out of time. But she encouraged everyone to contact their senator — NEA has a convenient link — to support a bill that promises to save more than 138,000 teaching jobs due to budget cuts.

Also, I did ask her about union antagonism towards charter schools at the education caucus. She said there were good public schools and bad public schools as there were good charter schools and “very bad” charter schools. Also, she said some charter schools were unionized, and in her opinion, the best ones were formed by educators and accounted for quality. Her two reservations about charter schools had to do with accountability, and also the “for-profit” motivation by landlords leasing buildings to charters.

Because our time was cut short — she had a jam-packed schedule at NN — she offered to answer any other questions we may have. Feel free to drop them here or in an e-mail at elisa at mothertalkers dot com.

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