December 2010 Up Front

On the Hill
As Congress shifts, it’s time to renew advocacy efforts
Michael A. Resnick

Now that the election is over, what’s next as you advocate for public education, raising student achievement, and advancing school board and community governance of your district?

For school board members with newly elected members of Congress, the timing is ideal to establish a relationship and lay out your agenda. Fresh off the campaign trail and prior to attending the caucus meetings that promote the official party lines, these “newbies” likely will be most receptive to listening to what their constituents have to say -- especially constituents who hold local public offices. Given the unusually large number of incoming House and Senate freshmen and public dissatisfaction with the outgoing Congress, the opinions these new members will bring to Washington also will be influential with returning members.

Those returning members also want to hear your education agenda. Many have experienced close elections, but all are likely to be sensitive to the message sent by voters in this tumultuous election year and how it will shape the record they establish for the presidential election in 2012.

If you are part of your state school board association’s delegation to NSBA’s Federal Relations Network Conference, initiating contact now can provide a strong foundation for the more detailed conversations and commitments you’ll seek during that event, which will be held Feb. 6-8, just as Congress is getting organized.

The coming year is especially critical for public schools, not just because of the large shift in Congress’ makeup, but because of the education agenda. Major and long-lasting decisions will be made about the federal government’s leadership toward global high-skill job and economic competitiveness through education. The long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will be central to that effort.

Basic policy questions are on the table. For example, how far should the federal government go in:

• Determining national student achievement goals?

• Promoting common core state standards and assessments, charter schools, and alternative governance structures?

• Designing new approaches to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable?

• Directing how to turn around low- performing schools, among other federally driven proposals to remake the educational delivery system?

The last ESEA reauthorization, which gave us the flawed No Child Left Behind Act, occurred nine years ago -- equal to the entire school experience of students who were third-graders when the law was enacted in 2002. The 2011 reauthorization likely will be just as enduring, so it’s essential that Congress gets this one right.

Congress needs the trusted judgment of school board members when it makes these important decisions. After all, you have the knowledge and broad perspective of your local schools, as well as of the aspirations that parents and the local community at large have for students, the education program, and the unique nature of your district.

As Congress acts on the nation’s expectations for raising student achievement, its members also must understand the harsh realities of declining school district budgets. While putting together a multiyear reauthorization, they need to know funding is not just next year’s problem. Economic forecasts project that states likely won’t reach 2008 revenue levels until 2013. This means K-12 education won’t necessarily receive increases in real service levels for several more years. Nor is it likely that local property assessments and revenue collections that also fund schools will rebound soon.

Before making basic policy decisions, members of Congress need to know the long-term budget realities facing the school districts they represent and what the federal financial role needs to be, especially as stimulus and jobs bill funding run out. Promising legislation without providing adequate federal funding won’t work. That’s an unfunded mandate that can do serious harm to general school operations in tough budget times.

If school board members don’t deliver the message about their districts’ needs and challenges, who will?

In sum, 2011 promises to be a game-changing year for federal decision-making in education. You have a compelling opportunity and reason to be the “game-changers” with workable and affordable proposals, and establishing or renewing relationships with your members of Congress is an important first step. Working with your state association and NSBA -- both at home and at the Federal Relations Network Conference -- will help blunt the potential for another flawed NCLB and provide a federal role that supports local school districts in providing an effective education for the 21st century.    

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director for advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association. See NSBA’s website for education legislation requiring school board advocacy in the lame-duck session at www.NSBA.org/advocacy.


Q&A with filmmaker Vicki Abeles

You need to get A’s. Test scores will determine if you get into a good college. Take Advanced Placement courses and earn college credit. You’ve got to try harder.

These messages are placing students under immense pressure, leaving them exhausted, frustrated, and emotionally stressed. Some suffer from stomach pains, anorexia, and depression. Some cheat. Some turn to pills. Others just give up.

That’s the theme of “Race to Nowhere,” a new documentary by mother-turned-filmmaker Vicki Abeles, who interviewed students, parents, and educators to examine the cost of today’s education policies -- policies that are described as “obsessed with testing, performance, and competition rather than meaningful teaching and learning.”

Abeles responded to a request by ASBJ’s Senior Editor Del Stover to discuss her film and its message, described by the Washington Post as “a quiet counterpoint” to Davis Guggenheim’s more widely known documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” For more coverage of the recent spate of school documentaries, see the November issue of ASBJ at www.asbj.com.

What prompted you to make this movie?

This film got started when my 12-year-old daughter became physically ill from the pressures she was feeling. She was coming home to several hours of homework, studying for tests each night, and feeling the pressure to perform and compete in every academic subject and extracurricular activity.

At first I felt so alone, but then I started talking to others in all kinds of communities and asking: what is going on in our schools and our culture? Everywhere I went, I met young people who were depressed, anxious, sleep-deprived, abusing performance medications, and, in the worse case, contemplating suicide. Many had simply checked out of learning.

I wound up making a movie because I just couldn’t sit back and do nothing anymore. I wanted to create something that would reassure those who struggle with these issues they are not alone. And, I wanted to harness the power of media to spark change.

Are the academic demands placed on children really that bad?

There’s pressure on all of our children to perform, compete, and succeed. Some pressure is healthy, but the kind of pressure we see is the outcome of an education system focused on test scores and a narrow definition of achievement that isn’t working. It’s backfiring on us, stifling development and hurting our kids and, in fact, compromising their health.

Have we underestimated the problem?

I do not know whether it is an issue of underestimating the problem or rather not acknowledging the prevalence of the problem. I also think that we have been inundated with messages from media and certain stakeholders in business, policy, and media who continue to feed us with information -- not always accurate -- that, in order to compete in the adult world, our children need to begin competing and performing at a very young age.

Experts will tell you that this is not the best way to engage students in relevant learning nor does it motivate our youth in becoming innovative, creative, and contributing citizens who continue to delight in the pursuits of being life-long learners.

What was your most surprising finding?

Even the kids who succeed and we think it’s working for -- they spoke to us about how it really isn’t working for them. Cutting, drugs, depression, suicide, medication -- is that success? Is that what we want for the next generation? And then there are many kids who make it to college unprepared and unhealthy, and a large number don’t stay in college.

I was most surprised to learn that so many young people are using performance-enhancing medications -- simply to get through the hours of school, homework, and practice.

Local school officials cannot ignore the academic mandates placed upon them by state and federal policymakers. So how can they realistically respond to the concerns you raise?

We have seen local school districts come together on several occasions to view the film and engage in dialogue that has led to policy decisions to move away from teaching to the test and instead to teach for engagement. Other school districts have determined to address homework policies and practices, later start times in high school, project-based learning, more authentic assessments, block schedules, and additional time for study halls and breaks.

Another way for school officials to transform their schools is to create innovative classes in each grade and give students and parents the option to participate in these classes. When people notice that the innovative classrooms are working, it will be easier to make widespread changes. The idea of a school within a school can also be considered.

We’re looking to shift the mindset or philosophy of what makes a good education -- and what childhood is all about. We’re not about a one-size-fits-all solution, because that’s part of the problem.   


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Misbehave off campus? 
You could lose eligibility
Illicit activities such as smoking, drinking, or posting risqué photos on the Internet outside of school time can still keep students from participating in sports and extracurricular activities under new policies recently adopted by several school districts across the country. Some schools are requiring students to sign codes of conduct that encompass their behavior during weekends and school breaks, according to USA Today. Attorneys for several school districts say athletes and those in leadership positions can be held to a higher standard of conduct because their roles are a privilege. Some parents say the schools have overreached their authority, and a policy in New Jersey is being challenged in court after a teen lost extracurricular privileges because of an underage drinking charge.

Study finds gains in economic diversity
A new study shows that low-income students in a suburban Maryland school district learned more when they attended school with more affluent peers, thus boosting arguments in favor of socio- economic diversity. The New York-based Century Foundation chronicled the achievement of 858 students from public housing scattered across the 144,000-student Montgomery County school district. Over six years, the study revealed that those who went to schools with poverty rates of less than 20 percent performed better than students who attended high-poverty schools, even though the high-poverty schools received extra funds. Montgomery County’s government has long-standing policies that require developers in its many affluent areas to include some housing for low-income families, which gave researchers a rare opportunity to study the issue.

Should schools ban ‘boobies’ bracelets?
Many schools are banning the popular “I (heart) boobies” bracelets, designed to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer research, despite their noble intent. The Keep a Breast Foundation, which reports selling 2 million bracelets, wanted a catchy and somewhat risqué slogan to catch the attention of young adults, according to The Associated Press. But some schools that banned the bracelets said the message was lost, particularly on teen boys, and disruptive. The Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the Albany County School District #1 in Laramie on behalf of a ninth-grader, saying school administrators violated the student’s free-speech rights when they told him to wear the bracelet inside out so the message could not be seen. The two sides agreed to allow the student to wear it, except in the presence of two teachers who had personal experience with the disease and found the phrase objectionable.

D.C. schools add early dinner to combat hunger
Free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches are mainstays at many public schools. Now Washington, D.C.’s schools are adding a new meal to its roster -- early dinner. Providing a third meal daily to about 10,000 students is part of a broader plan to curb childhood hunger and poor nutrition, and also draw more students to after-school programs, according to the Washington Post. Recent U.S. Census statistics show a growing number of families are living in poverty in the nation’s capital. Some children now are at school from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and officials told the Post that the typical afternoon snack was not substantive enough.

Okla. districts protest special ed vouchers
Several Oklahoma school districts -- including Tulsa, the state’s largest -- are refusing to comply with a new state law that allows parents of students with disabilities to seek vouchers for their children’s education. Tulsa’s school board approved six applications in mid- October, but will refuse to accept any new ones, according to local news station Fox 23. An attorney representing Tulsa and other school districts told the station that they should not comply with the law because it likely will be challenged and found unconstitutional by the state supreme court. The scholarships are equal to the amount of state funds that the district would have received for the child’s education or the cost of tuition at the approved private school. Most of the schools that will receive the scholarships have religious affiliations.

College drop-out rates create burden for states
Students who drop out of college after one year risk significant personal debt and an uncertain financial future, but their actions cost taxpayers billions each year, according to a new study. Between 2003 and 2008, states appropriated more than $6 billion to four-year institutions to help pay for the education of students who did not return for their sophomore year, according to the American Institutes for Research. The report included state appropriations and grants as well as Pell Grants and other aid. Experts who analyzed the findings, however, did not agree on whether the schools should push to graduate more students or curb admissions to include only the best-prepared freshmen. 



Events shine harsh light on teacher contracts

Teachers unions and contracts -- always prickly issues for school boards -- came under intense public scrutiny this fall through high-profile events such as the release of the “Waiting for Superman” documentary and NBC’s “Education Nation.”

While those events brought unparalleled, and often harsh, critiques of public education, they frequently focused on teacher contracts and the inability to fire bad teachers as the reason for failure in public schools. Ideas from such prominent figures as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, and former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee often went unchallenged -- while Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was frequently spotlighted as a villain and forced to defend her union and its members.

In October, Secretary of Education  Arne Duncan announced that his department would join AFT and the National Education Association in hosting another summit in early 2011. Duncan said he wants to discuss how to foster more collaboration between unions and school leaders and revamp the collective bargaining process to allow reforms such as differentiated pay and accountability for student performance.

“In dozens of districts around the country -- from Tampa to Pittsburgh to Denver -- union leaders and administrators are moving beyond the battles of the past and finding new ways to work together to focus on student success,” Duncan said in the announcement. “These districts show us what is possible when adults come together, particularly in tough times, to do the right thing for kids. We need to learn from these successful collaborative efforts and build upon them across the country.”

The move is no doubt being driven in part by the weak economy, as news of teacher layoffs and program cuts this fall drove many more educators and outside observers to question the inner workings of school districts.

The reality of layoffs and a lawsuit from advocates for impoverished students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, led officials to push for unprecedented changes that the Los Angeles Times described as “an ambitious assault on some of the district’s longest-held practices.”

According to the Times, “The settlement also opens the door for evaluating and paying more to teachers and administrators based on student test scores, moves that the teachers union staunchly opposes.” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who worked for the teachers union, said he “personally lobbied school board members to support proposals that made teacher effectiveness -- rather than seniority -- a factor in determining who would be laid off.”

Also, a group of 16 large-district superintendents -- including Rhee and Joel Klein of New York City -- published a “manifesto” on how to reform public education. The Washington Post commentary called for wholesale changes to “archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials.” Instead, teacher hiring and retention should be based on classroom effectiveness and students’ academic performance, the document states.

But as calls for changes to the traditional tenure systems has grown, the future of Rhee -- the movement’s most visible leader -- is unclear. She resigned her post after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost September’s Democratic primary to Vincent Gray in what was considered in part a referendum on Rhee’s actions.

In “Waiting for Superman” and at other events, Rhee said the Washington, D.C., job would be the only time she would work for a school system. Even before the election, speculation was rampant that Rhee (who is engaged to Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson) would take another job.

Gray has appointed Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s second-in-command and a colleague from her previous post at Teach for America, to lead the D.C. schools. Henderson is widely expected to continue Rhee’s policies.

Online: Coverage of NBC’s “Education Nation,” “Waiting for Superman,” Rhee’s departure, and other related events is available at the School Board News website, http://schoolboardnews.nsba.org.


Stand up against the parrots of prejudice

This has to stop.

In elementary and middle school, I was bullied and harassed over my appearance, my nerdiness, my inability to connect to my peers. Like many kids, I hid it from my parents, scared of what they would say or -- worse, in my then-adolescent view -- what they wouldn’t.

Retrospect allows me to understand why this happened in the 1970s, but why is it occurring now?

As we began work on this issue, headlines started to appear about teens who were killing themselves after being subjected to anti-gay bullying, much of it exacerbated by what was occurring online. With each story I read, my jaw dropped further and my heart bled a little more.

You’ve got to ask yourself: “Why is this happening?”

Are our heads buried so deeply in our own navels that we can’t look around and see the damage that bullying and harassment cause? When are we going to wake up and accept the fact that tolerance is something we need to instill in our children?

For some reason, adolescence and the onset of puberty only seem to heighten the cruelty gene. Trash talk becomes a form of bonding for kids who want to be edgy and cool but aren’t mature enough to have an actual conversation about the confusion they live through every day. And the environment is ripe for bullies who find power in the vulnerability of others, whether it’s sexuality, ethnicity, disability, or religion.

Like others, I was bullied because I was “different.” I loved theater and movies as much as football -- just like my dad did. Because I was not part of the “in crowd,” I did not go cruising, to the roller rink, or get to make out with girls in cars parked on the Texas City levee. I did not get invited to parties with my peer group.

People perceived me as arrogant, but being a smart aleck was a mask for my fears. I could not beat you with my fists, but I could with my words. Words, in the end, saved me, as did this piece of good advice from my parents:

“We don’t want you to grow up with our prejudices.”

They recognized that they grew up in another era and at a different time, and they were smart enough to encourage me, with their guidance, to develop my own set of values and sense of judgment. Even though we disagreed on politics, they taught me that respecting others’ views is just as important as having my own.

Several years ago, I spoke on a panel in Columbia, S.C., commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. (The first of five cases that were combined into the Brown ruling occurred in Summerton, a small town about two hours away.) During the question-and-answer session, a woman asked why I thought bigotry still exists in our schools.

My answer was simple: “First-graders aren’t bigots. They’re parrots.”

Somehow, I managed not to succumb to the pressures and taunting I still remember, and today I’m the proud parent of four very “different” children. But I didn’t grow up in a world where bullies lurked behind video cameras and computer screens, hiding behind a new and very dangerous layer of invincibility.

My kids are in four schools in three states, but fortunately, I think they’re in the places that suit their personalities. My wife and I are trying to raise them as individuals and provide them with support, not supply them with the prejudices we have.

I begrudgingly became part of “The Social Network” when my kids started showing an interest in it. Now, I love Facebook and the opportunities it provides to connect to far-flung friends and acquaintances, but a primary reason I’m on it is to monitor their pages and accounts vigilantly.

Soon after learning of the suicides, I posted an essay (on which this is based) on my personal blog, shared it on my Facebook page, and started seeing the comments come in. One so-called “friend” decided to engage in hate speech and was summarily removed. Another former classmate told me of her gay son who started a Gay-Straight Alliance at my alma mater; the first meeting was standing room only.

A third classmate lives in one of the communities affected by teen suicide. Her comment is one that you should read: “One of those kids you mentioned attended our neighborhood middle school, where our oldest spent the past three years and our youngest will start next year. It’s been rough and will only get worse before it gets better. I keep telling our boys and the kids around here who have been directly affected (either because they were friends with him or had him in classes) that they have to speak up.

“Bullying will never go away,” she wrote. “But peers standing up on behalf of the picked-on will go a long way to making something positive out of this terrible situation. And let’s hope something good comes out of it. Or rather, let’s work for something good to come out of it. Teach our kids that not only is it OK to stand up for somebody, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Amen to that. 

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief