December 2009 Up Front

Student raising handNews Analysis
Teacher training gets rap from Duncan

One thing you can say about the Obama administration’s approach to education reform: It has opinions, and it’s not afraid to share them, no matter who gets chafed in the process.

As Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy notes in “Year One,” the cover story in which education experts weigh in on the administration’s efforts thus far, the U.S. Department of Education has been quick to push out its plan for reforming K-12 schools. And while the effect of those efforts is still subject to debate, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is showing no signs of slowing down.

In a late October speech at Columbia University, Duncan took on the nation’s schools of education, saying they are doing “a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.” He said university-based teacher preparation programs “need revolutionary change -- not evolutionary tinkering.”

“For decades, schools of education have been renowned for being cash cows for universities,” Duncan said. “The large enrollment in education schools and their relatively low overhead have made them profit centers. But many universities have diverted those profits to more prestigious but underenrolled graduate departments like physics -- while doing little to invest in rigorous educational research and well-run clinical training.”

Duncan’s views parallel a series of reports released in 2006 by Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia’s Teachers College. Levine said the quality of most preparation programs ranges from “inadequate to appalling,” noting that three of five graduates of education schools said they left without the proper training to teach.

“I don’t think the ingredients of a good teacher preparation are much of a mystery anymore,” Duncan said. “Our best programs are coherent, up-to-date, research-based, and provide students with subject mastery. They have a strong and substantial field-based program in local public schools that drives much of the course work in classroom management and student learning and prepares students to teach diverse pupils in high-needs settings.”

All of the focus on teacher accountability is having an effect on the workforce. The same week as Duncan’s speech, Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates released a report stating that 40 percent of K-12 teachers consider themselves disheartened and the profession so demanding that they wonder why more don’t burn out.

Duncan addressed that problem in his speech, pointing the blame squarely at the preparation new teachers receive from education schools.

“First, most of them say they did not get the hands-on teacher training about managing the classroom that they needed, especially for high-needs students,” he said. “And second, they say they were not taught how to use data to improve instruction and boost student learning.”

The tone of Duncan’s speech was not a surprise, given his focus on teacher accountability since taking office. But his ability to effect change in this area, like others, is boosted by Race to the Top funding. One criteria for states to receive funding is a link between achievement data and teacher evaluations.

“On-the-ground, intimate knowledge of teaching and learning is not valued, and is seen as an imprecise distraction from the consideration of broader economic and management principles that lead to systemic change,” said Mike Rose, a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us. “It’s like setting up a cardiology clinic without the advice of cardiologists.”

However, Rose is like others in cautioning the federal government about moving at such a quick pace. In the article “Blinded by Reform,” which was featured the same week as Duncan’s speech, on www.truthdig.com, Rose said the department needs to spend more time listening to be successful.

“For reforms to be effective and sustained, they need to be grounded in the best we know and examined carefully and from multiple perspectives,” he said.

In another speech, this one to the National Association of State Boards of Education, Duncan said he also has no intention of slowing down soon.

“I want to be a partner in your success, not the boss of it,” he said. “But I’m not willing to be a silent partner who puts a stamp of approval on the status quo. I plan to be an active partner. As a nation, we need a federal voice encouraging our shared goal of success for every student and stimulating innovations to reach those goals. But I’m also mindful of this. For nearly 200 years, our federal government was a silent partner. It mostly sat on the sideline while a shameful achievement gap persisted.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief


Deaths of Sizer, Bracey leave big shoes to fill

The world of advocates for public education recently became a little smaller following the deaths of Theodore R. Sizer and Gerald Bracey, two prominent authors and researchers who strongly adhered to their principles and beliefs on how to improve our nation’s schools.

Bracey and Sizer died on consecutive days in late October on opposite ends of the country, apropos perhaps given their at times conflicting views on the state of our K-12 schools. Both wrote for ASBJ and were frequently quoted by authors for their knowing takes on the challenges facing public education.

Sizer was best known for the Essential Schools movement, which started in the mid-1980s and places an emphasis on the mastery of a few core subjects rather than a variety of electives. His criticisms of the American educational system’s limitations, with proposed solutions on fixing high schools, were articulated in a trilogy of extremely influential books about Horace Smith, a fictional English teacher.

In ASBJ, Sizer weighed in on Deborah Meier’s September 2003 call to rebuild trust in public education. (The stories, titled “The Road to Trust” and “Conversations Along the Road,” are available in the ASBJ.com archive.) In succinct language, he sums up why local schools face more and more intrusion from state and federal government.

“The drift toward centralized, bureaucratic control of the details of schooling has been a gradual process over the past three decades,” Sizer wrote. “There are many causes, some arising from varying regional histories, others from inattention, still others (to put it bluntly) from selfishness and disinterest in one’s neighbors. ... The failure of the people to nurture the habits of democracy and of government to respect those habits has been costly.”

Bracey, an author and professor of education at George Mason University and Arizona State University, was known as a gadfly and fervent defender of American public schools. He regularly thumped politicians and the media for what he described as hubris and intellectual laziness about the latest reform du jour.

In 2007, Bracey participated in ASBJ’s “What is Ready?” Q&As (also available on our website). In his typically blunt style, he responded to our question about the skills high school graduates should have:

“Aside from the ability to read, write, communicate orally and do fundamental operations, I don’t think there are any specific skills that all students need,” he said. “Life is far too uncertain to know. I took math through calculus. I haven’t taken a derivative or found an integral since 1961. Algebra, though, has served me well. Had I become an English major, I probably would never have used that.

“Those interested in college will need to be apprised of college demands and plan accordingly. My view is that no matter what you plan to do in the future you should learn everything you can about everything you can simply because you can’t know what the future will bring.”

Bracey was 69; Sizer was 77. Both will be missed.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief


ON THE HILL
Listening for words that matter

By Michael A. Resnick

On Sept. 24, Arne Duncan convened an event to outline his thinking about future education policy and the role of his department.

Summarizing his “listening tours” across the nation, the education secretary said that people want the federal government to “provide national leadership but not at the expense of local control.” His view, he said, is that the department “should be tight on the goals ... but loose on the means for meeting those goals.”

For local educators and board members, these were encouraging and collaborative words in a national effort aimed at pushing schools to the highest level of student achievement. Unfortunately, these constructive words are not supported by too many key provisions of the department’s proposed requirements for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top and $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant programs.

For example, both programs seek to turn around low-performing schools by substantially transforming them. This involves replacing personnel, converting the school into a charter or using an outside management company to run it, closing the school, or utilizing other interventions.

What raises the hackles of local educators is how the job is to be done. For instance, each approach effectively calls for replacing the principal. This is regardless of whether the principal caused the school’s failure, whether he or she could turn the school around with adequate resources from these grants, or whether other key factors would support keeping the principal.

The first option also calls for the replacement of at least half of the teachers, and charters and management companies would not necessarily utilize the current staff. The last option -- utilizing other interventions -- is aimed at strengthening current teachers, but it could be used only if it’s “not possible” to implement the other options.

Race to the Top does not spare local school board governance either. With the first option (replacing the principal and at least half of the staff), “new governance” must be used to oversee the school. Charters and management companies don’t necessarily involve new governance, but they do result in a looser oversight connection with the central office and the board. New governance is not part of the last option, but again, it can’t be invoked unless other options are “not possible.”

As a result, to receive funds for these schools, boards must relinquish some degree of governance and responsibility, rather than adding their efforts and accountability to turning them around.

The proposed School Improvement Grant program uses the same approach, but it at least defines new governance as including a leadership office within the school district and treats the last option on an equal footing with the other three. NSBA pushed for these modifications early on, but clearly more work needs to be done to eradicate the micromanagement of the school designs the department is promoting and to allow for promising home-grown approaches to improvement. Further, other problems should be addressed, such as requiring states to remove caps on the number of charters that can be created as a condition for receiving Race to the Top funds. This requirement comes despite the lack of evidence that charters broadly raise student achievement.

How the Department of Education addresses these concerns and others when it issues its final requirements will be crucial not just to the operation of these two significant programs. It may also portend the direction the administration takes in reauthorizing the more broadly based Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the degree of collaboration or control the federal government assumes in the way it approaches local school operations in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, NSBA will continue to work with the department to match the leadership and resources that it provides with what Secretary Duncan said he wants to do.

(To see NSBA’s official comments on the proposed Race to the Top and School Improvements Grants requirements, see www.nsba.org/advocacy.)

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director for advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association.


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Sign language more common in classrooms
More teachers are using sign language to help communicate with students without disrupting their classes. And while sign language has always been a staple for students with hearing impairments or other disabilities, more companies are marketing curriculum and teaching products using sign language to teachers in regular classrooms, the Washington Post reports. While some teachers prefer the official American Sign Language letters and words, others simply make up signals. Teacher Fran Nadel has her second-graders sign letters, such as “S” for supplies, “W” for water fountain, “B” for bathroom, during tests or quiet periods in her Falls Church, Va., classroom, the Post reports. Nadel responds by nodding, shaking her head, or pointing.

Virtual school in N.C. doubles enrollment
More than 15,000 students are taking classes this fall through the North Carolina Virtual Public School, nearly twice as many as the 8,800 who enrolled last spring. The state-run online school’s popularity continues to grow because students are able to sign up for classes that may not be offered in their schools, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. Many schools cut extracurricular classes as a result of budget cuts this year, and many students in rural areas do not have access to the same course offerings as do their counterparts in larger districts. Foreign languages are among the most popular choices, educators say. Officials expect 20,000 students to sign up for classes in the spring semester, according to the News & Observer.

NYC bans bake sales
A new policy aimed at curbing childhood obesity now bans most bake sales and other fundraising activities at schools in New York City. It’s part of a new wellness policy put in place by Mayor Michael Bloomberg this summer. In lieu of food-based fundraisers, the city’s Education Department wants schools and student groups to host activities, such as walk-a-thons, according to the New York Times. The policy still allows parent groups, such as the PTA, to sell sweet treats once a month, but many students interviewed were not happy about the bans. New York’s regulations are among the strictest in the country, Howard Wechsler, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Times. “Schools are supposed to be a place where we establish a model environment, and the last thing kids need is an extra source of pointless calories.”

Residents in Indiana district help pay superintendent’s salary
Residents of the Greater Clark County, Ind., school district have contributed thousands of dollars to help pay the $225,000 annual salary of the superintendent, Stephen Daeschner. School board members planned to ask the community for $75,000 a year to pay Daeschner’s salary when he was hired earlier this year. The founding executive director of the community foundation that is collecting the funds told the Louisville Courier-Journal in October that “at least half” of the $75,000 needed for his first year of service in the fast-growing, 11,000-student district has already been raised. The Courier-Journal is pressing the foundation to release the names of the donors.

Bible verses banned from Ga. football game
The Catoosa County, Ga., school district recently banned its cheerleaders from displaying banners with biblical verses at football games. The high school started the tradition of the football team running through the banners after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “I regret that the cheerleaders cannot display their signs in the football stadium without violating the First Amendment,” Superintendent Denia Resse wrote in a statement. “I rely on reading the Bible daily, and I would never deny our students the opportunity to express their religious beliefs.” While the move was lauded by the Anti-Defamation League, spectators in the deeply religious town protested and brought religious banners to the high school’s games.

School removes Michael Jackson mural
The Bath County, Ky., school board ordered a class painting of singer Michael Jackson removed from a middle school art project after some parents complained. The parents, who posted comments on a local website, and a local preacher said that the pop singer was not a good role model for students because of his prescription drug abuse, financial problems, and the child molestation claims against him. Superintendent Nancy Hutchinson told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the Jackson painting was part of an ongoing project of dozens of Andy Warhol-style murals, including one of Marilyn Monroe, who also died from a drug overdose. Although none of the students’ paintings were meant to honor the individuals, “we’re not going to get into any battle with our local community,” Hutchinson told the Herald-Leader. The newspaper also ran an editorial condemning the decision, stating that “artists have long been censored by narrow-minded and insecure authorities who are made uneasy by what they think the art is saying or how others might interpret it.”

Buses go green in Kentucky
How do you turn a yellow school bus green? In Kentucky, some districts are lining up to use federal stimulus funds to buy hybrid school buses. The buses cost more -- about $136,000 each as opposed to $73,000 for a traditional bus -- but require fewer repairs, use 20 to 30 percent less fuel, and have cleaner emissions, a sales manager for a local bus company told the Bowling Green Daily News. Kentucky state officials plan to give grants to replace 190 older school buses, which will give the Bluegrass State the distinction of having the most hybrid buses next year, according to the Daily News.

Districts in rural states tagged for financial crisis
Eight out of 12 Arkansas school districts were taken off the state’s “fiscal distress” list by the state board of education. State officials were optimistic that a new law would prevent so many from entering that status in the future, according to the Arkansas News. However, the districts that remained on the list would be subject to annexation or consolidation if they did not take steps to improve their financial standing and remained on the list for two years. In Idaho, 20 percent of school districts declared financial emergencies this fall after the state cut K-12 funding. Under Idaho’s laws, a district must declare a financial emergency before taking actions such as cutting teacher pay or reducing benefits for employees.

Advocacy group presses feds for New Orleans aid
The federal government must do more to assist New Orleans schools to sustain the progress made in the past four years. The Southern Education Foundation says that the federal government must focus on rebuilding school facilities and providing adequate instruction to its students. The district faces “looming financial problems that stem from existing debt incurred before Hurricane Katrina and from the financial challenges of rebuilding an entire city’s devastated schools,” according to the report.