Monday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

Sorry for the paltry post, but I am in Las Vegas with a friend I have not seen in 13 years. She was a foreign exchange student from Spain in my high school in New Hampshire. Then when I studied abroad in Spain in 1998, she and her family look me places I otherwise would not have known.

We met in Arizona at her friend’s house, hopped over to Las Vegas, and will return together to California tomorrow. This is her first time in the southwestern part of the United States, my first time in Arizona, which initially was riddled with all kinds of reservations. Okay, SB 1070. I will talk about that and more later. Stay tuned for pics…

In the meantime, here are a couple of stories that caught my attention: one in five American children, or 14.7 million children, live in poverty. That is 2.5 million more children than in 2000, according to the Associated Press. The federal poverty level is $22,350 a year for a family of four, although child advocates say that figure should be higher.

The New York Times ran a scathing review of Steve Brill’s pro-charter and anti-teachers’ union book, Class Warfare.

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


Netroots Nation Day 2

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — As I mentioned on Friday, there are panels on top of panels. There are so many sessions and panels that I can’t go to all the ones that I want.

I did get out to six events on Friday. First stop: a one hour and 15 minute session titled “Tiger Moms vs. Mama Grizzlies: Engaging Moms.” The panelists were Joanne Bamberger, who was the panel moderator and publishes the PunditMom blog; Anita Jackson (pictured), the social media director for, who also blogs under the handle “Rolling” here at MotherTalkers; Krystal Ball, a television pundit who ran for Congress in 2010; and Cynthia Liu who publishes the K-12 News Network.

The biggest takeaway from the discussion was that women make up most of the electorate and online presence like flickr, Twitter and Facebook, yet we haven’t translated that to power in either the public or private sectors.

“There are 28 members of Congress who are under the age of 40, and only 3 are women,” said Krystal Ball. Ball ran for office in Virginia two years ago at the age of 27 with a baby in tow. She was actually told by some potential voters that they wouldn’t vote for her because they thought she should stay home with her baby.

“I was inspired by motherhood to take action,” she said. “I had always been an engaged poltical observer and…when I had my daughter, I thought of what kind of country I wanted to pass onto her.”

Ball, who is now a pundit everywhere from MSNBC to FOX News, said she learned a lot about how women, in particular mothers, engage in the political arena. Here were some interesting points:    

As a mom, she framed all issues as “family issues” and said it was about the world we were passing onto our children.

The vast majority of her volunteers were women, including many mothers. Her female volunteers were reluctant to phone constituents or meet them face-to-face. They preferred something behind the scenes like stuffing envelopes. “The reason that women don’t run for office, even though they are half the electorate, is that they don’t want to offer their opinions,” Ball said. “Twelve or 13 percent of op-ed writers are women.”

She built on that point saying that the political talk shows are “made for, made by and hosted by men.” Subliminally, women are receiving the message that “politics is a man’s sport.”

Cynthia Liu, who is a contributor to the Momocrats blog and publishes the K-12 News Network, said it’s mostly women who are volunteering in the schools, both in the classroom and in fundraising. She said that the PTA was a “farm system for future legislators.”

Anita Jackson from emphasized the importance of paid sick days and flexible workplaces for families. She started her talk with good news: Connecticut became the first state in the country to offer up to five paid sick days to all workers. For more information on family-friendly, flexible workplaces, she pointed the audience to the website Custom-Fit Workplace. (The book, by co-founder Joan Blades, is a must-read for all employers and their workers!)

Following the “Mama Grizzlies” panel discussion, I caught Congressman Luis Gutierrez at the end of a session he had with Markos regarding immigration. (Yet another session I missed due to a scheduling conflict!) Let me tell you, there is nothing but mad love for Rep. Gutierrez in the Latino community. I, too, was star-struck.

At the end of the session, he was surrounded by members of our community who thanked him for his service — he has been brave and outspoken on the immigration front — he had a good sense of humor and joked with us in “Spanglish.” He took the time to take pictures with us as well:

Speaking of rock stars, in the middle of the day I co-hosted a coffee roundtable discussion with Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the National Education Association. Can I just say that Lily is one impressive woman? She is not only one of the top labor leaders in the country, but also one of the most influential Hispanic educators in the nation.

She started out as a lunch lady, worked her way up to a kindergarten aide, when a teacher encouraged her to go to school and become a teacher herself. After only 9 years on the job, she was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year.

She personally met with us parents to take questions and also hear from us on how teachers and parents can work together to support public education. I was grateful to have our Shenanigans there since she was able to speak about her experiences as a school board member of a small, rural school district.

This was surprising to me, but Lily favored local versus federal control of schools. She said that the federal government often passes unfunded mandates and “one-size-fits-all” solutions that don’t benefit rural schools. For example, a teacher in a rural school district often has to teach multiple subjects whereas a large urban district has the money and staff to have a teacher for every subject. Rural schools, by the way, make up 20 percent of all public schools.

She also dismissed the notion that teachers unions are dominated by raging liberals. One-third of NEA’s members identify themselves as Republicans. She did say though that NEA’s Republican members in Wisconsin are really regretting who they voted for last year. She is hearing a lot of, (paraphrased) “I voted for the Wisconsin governor because he was against gay marriage. I didn’t think he would go after my pension plan!”

Yes, elections matter.

Lily said this and more in an education session, in which for the first time at Netroots Nation, she shared the floor with the American Federation of Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten. If there is anything I took away from the session it was Weingarten’s suggestion to “follow the money” whenever anyone opposed the teachers unions. Among the billionaire families looking to break up the unions and dismantle public education are the Koch Brothers, the DeVoses and the Walton Family Foundation. I would add another billionaire for reform: Bill Gates.

Lily made a joke about how almost none of her members were billionaires.

Setting joking aside, Weingarten added: “When we and parents are together as one, that is an asset….No amount of money is going to pierce that trust.”

After the education session, I attended three more events. Yes, there are panels on top of panels and parties to boot, which is why I will continue this diary tomorrow…


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.  


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.  


Teachers Union on Education Under Republican Leadership

The National Education Association released a statement on what the American public can expect of public schools under the leadership of House Republicans. Read on:

The congressional election results will impact education-related issues. In the House, the change in Party leadership means that new Chairs will step into leadership roles on key Committees, with different priorities and policies on education than the previous leadership. In the Senate, while Democrats will retain Committee control, tighter vote margins will impact the ability to pass legislation.

On education specifically, Congress will have to tackle two main issues: —revising No Child Left Behind and setting spending priorities for critical programs and services affecting students and working families, programs such as early childhood education, Head Start, college loans for deserving students, and many others. Students woke up Wednesday morning still deserving the best our nation can offer them. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, every student still needs a great public school to fulfill his or her greatest dreams. NEA stands ready to work with the new Congress to put students first and ensure that education is the engine that moves America forward.

Education policy/ESEA Reauthorization:

The new Speaker of the House is expected to be Representative John Boehner (R-OH) and Representative John Kline (R-MN) is expected to serve as the Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. Under their leadership, Republicans are likely to be more focused on local control of school systems and local decision making. This week, Representative Kline outlined broad-based priorities for education and employment policy, including “pursuing education reform that restores local control, empowers parents, lets teachers teach, and protects taxpayers.“ Representative Kline has also been a supporter of full funding for special education. Areas that NEA will be watching closely will include proposals for private school vouchers and increased support for charter schools.

Education Funding:

RepresentativePaul Ryan (R-WI), a rising star in GOP who has burnished his credentials as a fiscal hawk is likely to serve as Chair of the House Budget Committee, while either Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY) or Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA), past chairman of the Appropriations Committee, could serve as Appropriations Chair. Republicans are expected to push hard on spending and are likely to propose dramatic cuts to education and other domestic priorities. Already, would-be Speaker of the House John Boehner has proposed cutting all non-defense federal spending to FY2008 levels.

I have heard that some school districts had braced themselves for a change in leadership or loss of funding for schools. What’s been the reaction of your school district to the elections?


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?


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.


D.C. Teachers Union and Michelle Rhee Reach Agreement

Because this is an issue I have been covering here at MotherTalkers, I thought you would all want to know that the D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Teachers’ Union have reached an agreement.

From the Washington Post:

The contract, a product of nearly 2 1/2 years of contentious negotiations, combines a rich traditional financial package with unorthodox initiatives historically resisted by unionized teachers. It includes a five-year, 21.6 percent increase in base pay that will boost the average annual salary of a D.C. educator from $67,000 to about $81,000 and gives the city’s public school teachers salaries comparable to those in surrounding suburban districts, according to a union survey….

A voluntary performance pay program to begin this fall could add $20,000 to $30,000 to D.C. teachers’ salaries, based on significant improvement in student test scores and other yet-to-be specified criteria. The system, to be financed for the first three years under a controversial arrangement with private foundations approved by District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, could raise total compensation for some instructors to $140,000, officials estimate. Although cities such as Denver have had incentive pay programs for several years, none promise the kind of money that Rhee says she is prepared to pay. For teachers who enter the plan, it means no longer having to invest 10 to 15 years in a lockstep pay schedule to command a significant income.

The contract — in tandem with a new teacher evaluation system that will use growth in test scores as one benchmark — will also dilute job security for some educators. It allows principals to use job performance, instead of seniority, as the chief determinant when reducing staff because of declining enrollment or program changes.

Under a “mutual consent” clause, displaced teachers who used to be assigned to new schools — whether principals wanted them or not — will no longer be guaranteed spots in the system and must find administrators willing to take them. Teachers with good evaluations who are unable to find a job have a year’s grace period, at full pay, to continue the search. They can also opt for a $25,000 buyout or early retirement with full benefits if they have 20 or more years of service.

Both sides agreed to the agreement, which is expected to easily pass the D.C. Council. As the article also noted, D.C. teachers should expect a substantial pay increase at a time when public educators across the country are facing pay raise freezes or pay cuts. No doubt all eyes will be on D.C. the next few years.

What do you all think of the agreement?


Weekly Parenting News Roundup

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Good morning fellow moms, dads and caregivers!

After almost two weeks in Central America and a weekend in Orange County for Erika’s baby shower, I am finally back with your weekly parenting news roundup. I hope you all had a safe and restful holiday. Happy new year!

First of all, we at MotherTalkers would like to send our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the people of Haiti and relatives abroad searching for their loved ones. We linked to a number of organizations aiding people on the island and if you haven’t already donated, here they are again. We also discussed what an earthquake or emergency kit should include and where to hide it in your home.

In non-earthquake news: Texas is mulling changes to its social studies curriculum by either adding/taking out religious instruction or including/excluding historical figures. The Texas Freedom Network live-blogged the debate hearings.

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

We had some belated holiday stories. For example, I wondered how to incorporate Christmas decorations — like cards and ribbons — throughout the year as Ari and I love them. Also, at what age is it appropriate to stop giving gifts to children like nieces and nephews? As families grow, it is reasonable to expect gift-giving to curve.

Our Sue in Queens wondered what to do with her grandmother’s china. On the one hand, she wants to serve food in it to honor her grandmother, on the other hand she doesn’t want it to break. What say you?

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