Sunday, November 22, 2009

We're All Right-Wing Bastards Now

On the last day of the National Education Association's convention this summer, its outgoing general counsel, Bob Chanin, gave a speech for the ages. After sharing fond recollections of his 41 years as the NEA's top lawyer, he switched gears and started lobbing grenades at "conservative and right-wing bastards," including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes. The NEA and its affiliates, by contrast, were "the nation's leading advocates for public education and the type of liberal social and economic agenda that these groups find objectionable." Chanin's glowing portrait of the NEA was wildly wrong, of course, but so was his characterization of the union's opponents. People of all! political stripes--not just right-wing "bastards"--are starting to realize that the single biggest impediment to education reform is the NEA itself.

Take the nation's 4,000 charter schools--public schools that operate with less red tape, fewer suffocating union rules, and a higher percentage of minorities and poor students than regular public schools do. In California, 12 of the top 15 public schools are charters, including three in Oakland that cater to exceptionally poor children. Los Angeles charters' median score on California's Academic Performance Index (API) was 728 in 2008, compared with 663 for regular public schools.

Who are the "right-wing bastards" who support charter schools? Well, there's Los Angeles's liberal-leaning school board, which looked at its large number of failing schools and voted 6-1 to turn 200 of the lowest performers into charters. There's Steve Barr, a card-carrying Democrat who served in the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis and who now operates 17 successful Green Dot charter schools in L.A. And don't forget Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that supports charters and that says, in its statement of principles, that American public schools, "once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children."

"Entrenched interests" is a thinly veiled reference, of course, to teachers' unions like the NEA, whose position on charter schools is very clear. According to a resolution adopted at this year's convention, "NEA shall oppose any initiative to greatly expand the growth of charter schools"--though "by no means should this effort conflict with the ongoing and necessary work of organizing charter school teachers." Unfortunately, this "necessary" work hasn't helped students. A study of charter schools in Boston by Harvard economist Tom Kane found that "students accepted by lottery at independently operated charter schools significantly outperformed students who lost the lottery and returned to district schools. But students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit."

The NEA fights school vouchers even more fiercely than it opposes charters. In Washington, D.C., where public schools are a national embarrassment--tops in spending, last in achievement--the union set its sights on the Opportunity Scholarship Program. This tiny but successful voucher program gave 1,700 financially strapped parents, mostly poor African-Americans, the opportunity to free their children from horrendous public schools, getting a few thousand of their tax dollars back to help pay the tuition at private schools of their choosing. A number of the 1,700 lucky lottery winners were able to attend Sidwell Friends, the same school that President Obama's daughters attend.

Here's what NEA president Dennis Van Roekel wrote to Democratic congressmen in March:
The National Education Association strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher . . . program. We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program. Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress. Vouchers are not real education reform. . . . Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.

Three months later, Congress dutifully voted to kill the program. Who are the "right-wing bastards" here? The black parents and children who benefited from the voucher program?

Just two days before Chanin's speech, the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights released a report, National Teachers' Unions and the Struggle Over School Reform, maintaining that the teachers' unions consistently blocked meaningful education reform and accusing the NEA of trying to end enforcement of the No Child Left Behind act. The unions "almost uniformly call for the spending of more money and the creation of more teaching positions which, of course, result in an increase in union membership, union income and union power," wrote one of the authors, David Kilpatrick. Perhaps the report's authors are the "right-wing bastards" Chanin was talking about? The problem is that Kilpatrick spent 12 years as a top union officer, while the study's other authors include former senators Bill Bradley and Birch Bayh, D.C. congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and civil rights leader Roger Wilkins--all liberals.

That Democratic leaders and poor African-Americans in Washington have found common cause with the Wall Street Journal and Fox News shows that school reform is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue. While Chanin champions the power of an entrenched union and belittles those who oppose it, people of goodwill across the political spectrum fight back for real education reform.


Obama gets inflated grade on education reform

Even as President Barack Obama's approval ratings continue to slide, folks of all political persuasions are singing his praises on education -- though he has done little of substance. In a speech last Wednesday, Obama lamented that "people have seen schools as sort of a political spoil having to do with jobs" and declared that "we are putting our resources behind the kinds of reforms that are going to make a difference."

What "reforms" was he talking about? The ones states are encouraged to make to get part of the $4.35-billion "Race to the Top" Fund, a kitty of stimulus cash controlled by the U.S. secretary of education, for which official guidelines were announced this week. To compete, the administration has said states must end prohibitions on using student achievement data to evaluate teachers. They should also eliminate caps on charter schools, adopt "internationally benchmarked" curricular standards and prepare to "turn around" bad schools.

It's these seemingly tough stipulations that have education reformers on both the left and right applauding. Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Obama "courageous" for taking these positions. The only problem is, there's no there there.

Consider teacher evaluations. While states are being told they can't prohibit the use of achievement data in evaluating teachers, there's nothing pushing schools to go ahead and actually use the data. But shouldn't that be the ultimate goal? Of course, but it's also what teacher unions really want to avoid, so Race to the Top avoids it, too.

How about lifting charter caps? It's certainly a good idea, but a lot more than that goes into getting good charter schools. Unfortunately, points out Jeanne Allen, president of the charter-advocating Center for Education Reform, "the president and his education secretary states credit for talking about charter schools rather than actually changing laws to improve the likelihood that children will have real school choice."

So Race to the Top is great talk but little substance. But at least it isn't making matters worse. The same can't be said for the one substantive thing that Obama has done in education: Deliver a gargantuan $100 billion in direct stimulus to schools.

The stated rationale for doing this was to save schools from financial devastation, including deep cuts to the most fundamental educational functions. But few public schools were likely facing such a dire scenario. According to the most recent federal data, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil expenditures in public schools nearly doubled between the 1975-76 and 2005-06 school years. Similarly, in 1990 there were 9.2 students per public-school employee. By 2006 there were only 8.

The schools have been anything but starving. They've also been anything but improving: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the so-called "nation's report card"--academic outcomes have stagnated since the 1970s.

The situation in higher education is no different. Obama's announced goal for the United States is to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. This has translated into colleges getting their own part of the stimulus windfall, as well as creation of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, a bill that would funnel yet more money into tuition-inflating student aid and other bankrupting federal programs.

Like K-12 resources, the evidence shows that we already push college too much, not too little. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 percent of all jobs in 2006 required at least a bachelor's degree, but as of March 2007 roughly 29 percent of Americans had one. And most new jobs in the coming years will require not a college education, but on-the-job training.

But don't we have to keep up with the Chinese? Hardly. China has certainly been pushing higher education, but to its detriment. According to a September report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China has such a glut of degree holders that college grads are earning wages on par with migrant workers. There's no valid reason to emulate that.

Okay, there's one, and it's been serving Obama well since his campaign: Talking about great education--but doing little to actually get it--appears to be a surefire political winner. But that's hardly change we should believe in.


British children get legal right to good education

Children will be legally guaranteed the right to a good education under new legislation that teachers fear will descend into a “whingers’ [whiner's] charter”. An education Bill to be unveiled will create a set of pupil and parent “guarantees” for the first time – outlining what families can expect from the state school system in England. This includes one-to-one tuition for pupils struggling in the basics, five hours of PE every week, the right to “high quality” cultural activities and a promise that all schools will promote healthy eating, active lifestyles and mental wellbeing. [And provide free apple pie, no doubt]

In a hugely contentious move, parents will be able to complain directly the Local Government Ombudsman if schools and councils fail to meet the guarantees. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has already admitted that mothers and fathers could eventually take schools to court as a “last resort”. It prompted claims from head teachers’ leaders that the proposals would turn into a “whingers’ charter” and open the door to litigation. The Association of School and College Leaders also warned that the laws risked creating one of the most “centrally prescriptive” education systems in the world – stifling innovation.

Labour wants many of the new “guarantees” to be introduced by September next year, suggesting ministers will attempt to push the proposed legislation through Parliament before the forthcoming General Election.

John Dunford, ASCL general secretary, said the plans would put many head teachers’ jobs “on the line”. “Raising so many aspects of education to the status of a ‘guarantee’ will have the effect of making everything quasi-statutory. It will take statute into realms it has never previously covered,” he said. “Instead of the increasingly diverse system that the government has often said that it wants to encourage, England will have one of the most centrally prescriptive systems in the world. Researchers have stated that English heads are among the most autonomous; these ‘guarantees’ tell a very different story.

“School leaders are extremely concerned that these ‘guarantees’ will turn into a whingers’ charter for the more litigious parents to complain, first to the head, then to the governors, then to the Local Government Ombudsman service... This will create an immense amount of work for school leaders, who are currently trying, with government encouragement, to create more productive relationships with parents.”

Labour’s education Bill will set out 23 guarantees for pupils and 15 for parents that must be met. The pupils’ charter will say all primary and secondary pupils should have the “opportunity to have their say about standards of behaviour in their school” from spring 2010. Children identified as gifted and talented should have written confirmation of the extra work they need to ensure they are stretched and every pupil should eventually have the right to five hours of “cultural activities” in or out of school every week, including visits to libraries, museums and performing arts centres. Children over 11 will have a personal tutor to ensure “any learning needs or issues are quickly addressed”, while teenagers will be legally entitled to study one of the Government’s new diploma qualifications.

Under the guarantee, parents will have the right to demand information about their child's performance and overall school standards and regular face-to-face meetings with designated teachers. By 2010, they are expected to have access to a range of additional services including “information and support on parenting skills”.

Mothers and fathers can complain to head teachers if they believe schools are failing to meet the pledge. Complaints are then referred to the local authority and ultimately the Local Government Ombudsman. Mr Balls has previously admitted that – if these avenues fail to provide a resolution – a parent could take a school to court in the form of a judicial review.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "It's absolutely right that parents are given concrete guarantees of clear discipline; close contact with teachers; intensive catch-up classes if their children are falling behind; and education and training for all 16 and 17-year-olds. "This is not telling schools to reinvent the wheel - they should already be doing this. This is about setting out in law what pupils and parents should expect from their schools and making sure that happens wherever they are in the country. "This simply will not lead to a flood of court cases against schools. There will be a clear process so teachers, heads, governing bodies and local authorities can deal with any complaint - as they already do with the vast majority of issues. "If they do not, we've now given the Local Government Ombudsman powers to hear parents' complaints and recommend that schools take remedial action. If they still will not, the Secretary of State will be able to intervene and direct schools to act."

Nick Gibb, the Tory shadow schools minister, said: “Ed Balls’s plan to see head teachers in court defending themselves against parents is expensive, time-consuming and completely misses the point about giving parents more control over their child’s education. “Far from a system of legal guarantees which would allow mainly wealthier parents to take schools to court, what we need is to give parents a genuine choice by opening up the system.”

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat children's spokesman, said: "Only an arch centraliser like Ed Balls could believe that the only way to empower parents and pupils would be to create a vast bureaucratic structure of 'rights' without the means to deliver them. "Instead of giving real freedom and rights to pupils, parents and schools, Ed Balls' proposals are likely to prove a license for litigation and will raise expectations without creating a mechanism to raise standards."


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