Improve Race to the Top — Here's How

The NYT is hosting a “debate” in the wake of President Obama’s State of the Union speech, which highlighted his administration’s education initiatives. Here’s a breakdown of what each education reform expert had to say, with some commentary further extending the ideas presented.

Diane Ravitch: scale back the testing madness. Decouple merit pay from “value-added” teacher performance as indexed by student standardized testing scores. Put a brake on school closures and the turnaround mentality.

What would possible progressive policy recommendations look like?

  1. Link merit pay to teacher peer evaluations and a portfolio of teacher work (lesson plans, a variety of student achievement not just test scores, classroom management, peer mentoring). Along with this–beef up administrative coaching/mentoring/assessment of teachers.
  2. Step up closure of low-performing charters and re-direct funding to existing schools. The key here is to use poor performance and graft/corruption in charter schools to help parents see that charters, especially “boutique” charters in districts where there are already highly-rated public schools, are not the magic bullet. Underperforming charters don’t carry their weight with regard to what they owe students, AND they compete for money with existing public schools–a double no-no.
  3. Support Congresswoman Judy Chu’s Charter School Good Governance and Accountability Act. Charter schools are essentially a self-regulating industry. We know what happens when that’s the case: graft, fraud, corruption. This is inexcusable, especially when parents hoping for a KIPP-style miracle in low-income neighborhoods are the ones ripped off.

Michelle Rhee: briefly, pay good teachers lots of money, fire bad teachers.

What would possible progressive policy recommendations look like?

  1. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union is already reworking their due process policy, shortening length of time on hearings for teachers accused of wrongdoing to 100 days. This is great, we should support this. This is the right thing to do, as rubber rooms are inexcusable. More teachers’ unions could take this constructive step to let parents know their kids won’t be subjected to repeated wrongdoers, or that taxpayers won’t be paying someone who isn’t productive.
  2. Administrators need to step up. What are they doing to recruit and retain good teachers? What are they doing to mentor and professionally develop beginning and middling-performing teachers? What is their role in letting rubber rooms exist–that is, why aren’t they seeking fast, fair, well-documented exits for teachers who they believe are accused of wrongdoing? Or “counseling out” teachers who just aren’t suited for the profession into other, education-supporting kinds of positions?
  3. See ‘decouple teacher merit pay from student standardized test scores’ above, instead use a combination of peer evaluations and portfolio assessments of the teacher’s work.

Vern Williams: Common Core Standards shouldn’t be used as a lowest common denominator. They should be reasonably aspirational. Also, cut bureaucratic fat.

What would possible progressive policy recommendations look like?

  1. Encourage CCS adoption. States’ rights, as we all know by now, can too often be a cover for conservatives to say, “leave us alone so we can be exclusionary/discriminatory/magnify inequality in peace.” Enlightened federalism in the name of civil rights can be a good thing. But added resources must accompany this or it’s just punishing the under-resourced and under-equipped, i.e., schools in poorer states and school districts who are already lagging the existing standards.
  2. Encourage the equivalent of a ‘medical loss ratio’ but for school spending. 80% of each public and private dollar must go to educating students. I’m convinced if some smart developer made an app that showed how much of current taxpayer money went to teacher salaries, administrator salaries, “consultants,” professional development conferences, school textbooks, physical plant, administrative staff salaries, etc…we could really get somewhere in rebalancing priorities. Someone make this, please?
  3. Push for standardization of diagnoses and IEPs (Individual Education Plans) for kids with special ed needs across the states. Look, if a kid has physical developmental delay in MO and can’t get an IEP because that state doesn’t recognize it as a “legitimate” disorder, but could get one in CA with the same diagnosis, how is this fair? Can we shoehorn into CCS recognition of and the need to address learning disabilities and disorders uniformly across the states too? Because a state that makes an accommodation for a kid who has a PDD means that kid will likely test better than in a state where it’s not recognized or accommodated, and that kid will test worse. (Obviously I am a “whole child” person, but “meeting standards” and “testing well” are levers the Obama administration understands.)

Lance Izumi: ‘Choiceiness’, a la Colbert’s ‘truthiness’–defined as celebration of ‘school choice’ by many of the same people who think your uterus should have none. This is the usual from right-wing think tanks regarding “school choice” and “vouchers” as the cure-all. These are emotional hot buttons that parents respond to but instead, in Trojan-horse fashion, have the net effect of de-funding public schools AND subsidizing religious education. Izumi says expand the college tuition tax credit to K-12.

What would possible progressive policy recommendations look like?

  1. Point out to parents that if local public schools are not good, they have no choice. They get a solidly mediocre education for their kids, or they go to unaffordable private schools. Chances are many parents don’t have the option of homeschooling either, because women work outside the home and don’t have time as co-breadwinner, we haven’t evolved to the point where men make homeschooling their responsibility, and single parent families find this next to impossible. Conservatives are happy when public schools are mediocre and/or bad, because it proves their self-fulfilling prophecy that Government is Bad and Incompetent, and pushes moderate-income parents to put their kids in inexpensive religious schools.
  2. Izumi points out that Obama’s college tuition tax credit applies to public and private colleges; he says this should extend to K-12 education. But K-12 education is compulsory and free, versus college, which is not. The tax credit for colleges is policy to encourage college attendance among middle and working class families when the cost might be a barrier. But there’s no need for the government to subsidize private K-12 education because it already provides a perfectly good and taxpayer-funded tuition-free alternative.
  3. Izumi’s Indian publicly-funded voucher program for private schools example can be easily discredited by pointing out it’s East Asian students in their *public* school system who are leading global achievement in math and science. He’s trying to use the India-as-rising-global-competitor argument but ignores India’s aggregate student achievement levels, which are rising, but low compared to the U.S.
  4. The last sentence of Izumi’s article pushes parents’ FEAR OF FAILING SCHOOLS button big time. I think we need to designate emergency measures for high-poverty schools using the idea of aid for ZONES. Charters with massive wrap-around programs and a real track record of helping kids in poverty, yes, but prioritized to High-Poverty School Zones, rural and urban. This business of firehosing a charter “solution” into the states is just that, good for business.
  5. Mediocre suburban and exurban schools need a culture of high expectations among the parents and a burst of funding for enrichment classes, maybe rolled into aftercare programs. I truly believe we need to counter the broad-brush meme that “all public schools are horrible.” They are not. Many are just solid B/B- players. Once we talk parents down from the ledge and persuade them that their local school is good (which many believe anyway–parents are generally happy with their kid’s local public school) and just needs help getting to great, we will be just fine. Using the idea of ZONES helps put a more realistic perspective on problems, and keeps people from thinking the problems are all-pervasive.
  6. Conservatives never talk about public magnets. We should. THEY WORK. This is one way public schools have been experimenting with highlighting various ways to focus the curriculum in a unique way that serves students well–the arts, social justice, government and civic engagement, STEM, green/sustainable energy, foreign language, performing arts. Public magnet schools are a positive model of re-organizing existing schools to make them responsive to differentiated needs of the students *despite* admittedly creaky bureaucracy and layers of stifling rules and regulations. We should be throwing money at these schools and making them flourish. How powerful would it be to have a public magnet focused on government and civic engagement in a High-Poverty School Zone? The the kids who go to school at that magnet will see ways to use civic power to change their neighborhoods–they’ll be future mayors and city council members. Therefore, we should advocate that “parent trigger laws” be altered to enable parents to call for their existing low-performing public school to re-organized into a high-performing public magnet school.

Richard Kahlenberg: socioeconomic integration of public schools. This has a high hurdle–we’ve been down a similar school busing road before. How do we make this happen without it turning into a transportation/logistics issue (2-3 hours total on a bus per day doesn’t leave a kid much time to do homework or try an afterschool activity), not to mention NIMBYism from the wealthier schools?

What would possible progressive policy recommendations look like?

  1. Again, I see this as a zone-by-zone solution, instead of a state-by-state solution. In addition, I think of this as a “Manhattan” solution, best implemented in dense areas with good public transportation, maybe? Also, it’s very dependent on the political will of the communities. As Kahlenberg mentioned, look at how Charlotte-Mecklenberg NC resegregated and Wake County too, despite socioeconomic integration’s success there.
  2. Make funding incentives available for school districts that open their enrollments to a certain percentage of out-of-district enrollees from high-poverty zones.

Bruce Fuller: The Obama administration and the Department of Education as venture funder and true supporter of innovation.

What would possible progressive policy recommendations look like?

  1. Support one major theme–a National Conversation–to be discussed across all public schools nationwide, much like Seattle’s One Book program. Basically, we should take tough questions our whole society addresses, and have kids crowdsource the heck out of it. Turn it into a contest for the school with the best solutions and have the results sent to the White House. Kids can address the problem however they want: song, dance, a play, suggest an invention or machine, write up a report, make a video that illustrates solutions. Make it a year-long thing, with a final presentation by each school to the community at the end of the year. My suggestion for the first National Conversation? “Some kids in America don’t have enough to eat. Yet we look around and it seems like we’re the richest country in the world. How do we make sure every kid has enough to eat in America?”
  2. Rural schooling and rural broadband. How do rural kids get high-quality instruction? How do we make sure they also get enough teaching in face-to-face situations? Rural schools are often in high-poverty areas too. How can we ensure these students also get an excellent public education?
  3. Why aren’t more graduate education schools tasked with sponsoring charters? Or teachers’ unions? How about some seed money to each to develop this, with appropriate oversight. At minimum, let’s redefine who can be recognized as a Charter Management Organization.
  4. Better mentoring by colleges and universities to promising first-time college aspirants in secondary schools.
  5. Fund early foreign language teaching. Again, Congresswoman Judy Chu has a law she’s drafted: Global Languages and Early Education Act. Why wait til children are past the prime early years for language acquisition?

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