December 4, 2012
On November 27, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a project of Education Law Center, sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature detailing the history of school finance since passage of the Foundation Aid Formula in 2007. Noting that in recent years the formula has been underfunded by $5.5 billion, the letter states that NY schoolchildren, especially those with the greatest need, are being denied critical educational resources. Below are excerpts from the letter, read the full letter here.
On behalf of New York’s schoolchildren, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (“CFE”) writes to bring to your attention a matter of paramount concern. We understand the State faces many challenges, but none is more important than safeguarding the future of our children. The reality is that today in New York State that future is in peril because our children’s basic educational needs are not being met. As we explain, the State’s underfunding of our public schools is so severe that it amounts to a violation of its constitutional obligation to provide New York’s children with adequate educational resources.
In the landmark CFE decision, New York’s highest court defined a constitutionally “sound basic education” as “a meaningful high school education, one which prepares [students] to function productively as civic participants.”
The Court of Appeals found that State underfunding of New York City Schools resulted in a severe deprivation of critical resources, including certified teachers, reasonable class size, and textbooks, technology and other instrumentalities of learning.
In 2007 the Governor and the Legislature…enacted a statewide school funding remedy to fulfill that constitutional obligation. The new finance system, the Foundation Aid Formula (“2007 Formula”), established a relationship between state aid, the needs of students, and district ability to raise revenue. The Formula was designed to shift the allocation of school aid from political maneuvering to a system responsive to student need and district wealth.
Despite this historic action, the State has defaulted on its constitutional commitment to implement the CFE remedy through the 2007 Formula. In the first two years, the Legislature provided installments of Foundation Aid, totaling $2.3 billion. However, in 2009, aid was frozen at 37.5% of the four-year target, and then cut by 2.7 billion in 2010 and 2011 through the Gap Elimination Adjustment. The GEA was regressive by imposing larger cuts in higher need school districts, resulting in a widening of the resource gap with students in wealthy districts. These cuts were further exacerbated by the highly restrictive Tax Cap Levy enacted in 2011.
Moreover, the Governor and the Legislature adopted a budget maneuver designed to prevent full funding of the 2007 Formula: the Personal Income Growth Index (PIGI) Cap commonly referred to as the cap on state school aid. This cap has the effect of relegating moderate and high need districts to long term underfunding, thereby ensuring that compliance with the constitutional obligations of CFE for students in those districts will never be fulfilled.
At the same time, student need is growing. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that 21% of New York State’s children live in poverty, with 10.1 % living in extreme poverty, a notable increase from 2008. In New York City, a startling 25.8% of children live in poverty, up from 22.9% in 2008. Heightened poverty means more children come to school needing additional educational and social services, thus intensifying the economic burden on school districts. New state and federal mandates only add to the fiscal stress.
The failure to fund the 2007 Formula is depriving students of resources vital to achievement. A new White House report noted that in New York City, the number of elementary students in classes of 30 or more has tripled in the last three years. Thirty-one percent [of districts] reduced summer school and reduced or deferred instructional technology. Districts cut their workforce by an average of 3.9% this year, on top of 4.9% in 2011-12.
It is now plainly evident that our school districts are in a financial and educational crisis. Their outlook for the near future is dire. Forty-one percent of districts forecast financial insolvency within four years and a vast majority, 77%, foresee educational insolvency within the same timeframe. Thus, in just a few years, districts will be unable to fulfill federal and state mandates for instruction and student services.
Even more alarming, the current legislative framework prevents full funding of the 2007 Formula until at least 16 years from now, in 2028. Thus, two more generations of New York children will pass through our schools before the State even begins to approach meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund its public schools through implementation of the CFE remedy.
It is incumbent, therefore, that the Foundation Aid under the 2007 Formula be restored, and that the Formula be put back on a four-year cycle to phase-in full funding. We urge you to bring New York State into compliance with the state constitution by making fulfillment of the CFE remedy a top priority for the upcoming budget and legislative session. This priority is not only necessary to reverse the educationally destructive trends of the past three years, but to ensure State fulfillment of its constitutional obligations to New York school children.
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24
July 09, 2009
by Gordon MacInnes
Secretary Arne Duncan used his speech before the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to spotlight the “bottom 5%” of America’s public schools. Numbering about 5,000, Duncan urged the charter school community to consider taking on some of these schools and turn them around. He was clear that not every charter school operator is up to this challenge, naming a few multiple-site groups like KIPP and Green Dot as possible candidates.
Wrong audience. Bad idea.
If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant.
To define the “bottom 5%,” I used the mean scale scores from the 2008 state assessment of 3rd grade language arts. The mean scale score provides a precise number for each of 781 NJ schools in which the 3rd grade test was given. I selected the 39 schools with lowest scale scores for review. Not surprisingly, most of them were near the bottom on the same test in 2004. The 3rd grade literacy test is the threshold test, since kids who do not read at grade level by then have only a 14% chance of ever reading at level. An elementary school that does not teach its students to read and write well is not meeting its primary responsibility.
Here are the findings that prompt my conclusion that little in the experience of charter school innovators prepares them for operating a public school, even if in the same neighborhood.
1. The 5% schools are expected to educate kids who are different from those enrolled in charter schools. By definition, charter students have parents that sought a better education for their children. There is no way to quantify this trait, but it is a powerful advantage for charters.
2. The 5% schools must accept every child, even if they speak no English or have been classified “disabled.” Charter schools in NJ’s five big cities (Elizabeth, the fourth largest, has no charter schools) have a 8.1% special education rate compared to a state average of 16% and a city average of 17.0%. Just as importantly, charter schools are likely to have only mildly disabled students as evidenced by the fact that only five of 34 urban charter schools provide separate special education classes. Just about every 5% school does. The charter schools like KIPP, North Star, and Robert Treat Academy that have the financial, organizational, leadership, and educational talent to be considered for turn-around roles, have classification rates of 8.9%, 7.0%, and 3.2% respectively.
3. NJ charter schools have been largely immune from the wave of Latinization that has swept over their district colleagues. Latinos are now the largest minority, but not in charter schools where 71% of their students are African-American. Only eight of thirty four urban charters report any English Learners (and none more than 7.8%), while the 5% schools show English Learners making up as much as 37% of school enrollment. The average for the district schools is 6.6% versus a charter average of .5 of 1%.
4. The high-performing charter schools—the ones that Secretary Duncan would favor to take over struggling district schools—enjoy a stable student population. The 5% schools do not. When student mobility rates are averaged over three years, the charter schools with the highest test results and the longest waiting lists, have practically no student turnover. The mobility rates for Robert Treat (2.5%), North Star (9.3%), TEAM (3.6%), Gray (9.3%), and the Learning Community (3.3%) are noticeably below the state average of 11.5. However, the mobility rate in Newark’s eight 5% schools averages 25.8%, in Paterson’s four 26.5%, and 20.8% in Trenton’s five.
5. There is no clean slate. Secretary Duncan acknowledged that charter schools are start-ups, not turn-arounds. The difference is profound. There are no tenured teachers and, usually, no union in a charter school. There is no downtown headquarters to issue endless memos and demand reports. Even with these advantages, most charter schools do not perform better than district schools serving like populations.
The one shared characteristic of district and charter school students is their poverty. In fact, charter school students in the five largest NJ cities are slightly more likely to be eligible for free or reduced lunch (73.8% to 66.8%) than district students.
Secretary Duncan’s appeal ignores the central role that is frequently played by the district central office in the performance of individual schools. Of the 39 5% NJ schools, 31 are in Camden (10), Newark (8), Trenton (5), Paterson and Jersey City (4 each). Four are charter schools. Equally poverty-stricken districts like Elizabeth and Union City, not only have no charter schools, but their students regularly perform close to the state average on literacy assessments. These successful districts rely, not on searching out the hero principals Secretary Duncan invokes, but by working closely with teachers and principals to improve classroom pedagogy. And, they emphasize the connection between high-quality preschool and the primary grades with an intensive focus on early literacy.
The persistence and spirit of enterprise required to open and operate a high-performing charter school are to be admired and replicated as often as possible. Secretary Duncan is right to hail the achievements of effective charter schools. However, the experience of attracting students from families seeking better educational opportunities, whose children are free of serious impairments, and who command the English language is entirely different from turning around a failing school in the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Secretary Duncan did not under-estimate the difficulty of the objective, only the experience and capacity of charter schools to meet the test.
Gordon MacInnes served as Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, directing efforts to improve performance in hign needs urban districts utilizing the remedies ordered in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case. He now lectures at Princeton University and does research and writing for the Century Foundation in New York.
In a democratic society, schools must go beyond teaching fundamental skills.
Public schools in the United States today are under enormous pressure to show—through improved test scores—that they are providing every student with a thorough and efficient education. The stated intention of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is to accomplish this goal and reverse years of failure to educate many of our inner-city and minority children. But even if we accept that the motives behind NCLB are benign, the law seems fatally flawed.
Some critics have declared NCLB an unfunded mandate because it makes costly demands without providing the resources to meet them. Others point to its bureaucratic complexity; its unattainable main goal (100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by 2014); its motivationally undesirable methods (threats, punishments, and pernicious comparisons); its overdependence on standardized tests; its demoralizing effects; and its corrupting influences on administrators, teachers, and students.
All these criticisms are important, but NCLB has a more fundamental problem: its failure to address, or even ask, the basic questions raised in this issue of Educational Leadership: What are the proper aims of education? How do public schools serve a democratic society? What does it mean to educate the whole child?
The Aims of Education
Every flourishing society has debated the aims of education. This debate cannot produce final answers, good for all times and all places, because the aims of education are tied to the nature and ideals of a particular society. But the aims promoted by NCLB are clearly far too narrow. Surely, we should demand more from our schools than to educate people to be proficient in reading and mathematics. Too many highly proficient people commit fraud, pursue paths to success marked by greed, and care little about how their actions affect the lives of others.
Some people argue that schools are best organized to accomplish academic goals and that we should charge other institutions with the task of pursuing the physical, moral, social, emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic aims that we associate with the whole child. The schools would do a better job, these people maintain, if they were freed to focus on the job for which they were established.
Those who make this argument have not considered the history of education. Public schools in the United States—as well as schools across different societies and historical eras—were established as much for moral and social reasons as for academic instruction. In his 1818 Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, for example, Thomas Jefferson included in the “objects of primary education” such qualities as morals, understanding of duties to neighbors and country, knowledge of rights, and intelligence and faithfulness in social relations.
Periodically since then, education thinkers have described and analyzed the multiple aims of education. For example, the National Education Association listed seven aims in its 1918 report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: (1) health; (2) command of the fundamental processes; (3) worthy home membership; (4) vocation; (5) citizenship; (6) worthy use of leisure; and (7) ethical character (Kliebard, 1995, p. 98). Later in the century, educators trying to revive the progressive tradition advocated open education, which aimed to encourage creativity, invention, cooperation, and democratic participation in the classroom and in lifelong learning (Silberman, 1973).
Recently, I have suggested another aim: happiness (Noddings, 2003). Great thinkers have associated happiness with such qualities as a rich intellectual life, rewarding human relationships, love of home and place, sound character, good parenting, spirituality, and a job that one loves. We incorporate this aim into education not only by helping our students understand the components of happiness but also by making classrooms genuinely happy places.
Few of these aims can be pursued directly, the way we attack behavioral objectives. Indeed, I dread the day when I will enter a classroom and find Happiness posted as an instructional objective. Although I may be able to state exactly what students should be able to do when it comes to adding fractions, I cannot make such specific statements about happiness, worthy home membership, use of leisure, or ethical character. These great aims are meant to guide our instructional decisions. They are meant to broaden our thinking—to remind us to ask why we have chosen certain curriculums, pedagogical methods, classroom arrangements, and learning objectives. They remind us, too, that students are whole persons—not mere collections of attributes, some to be addressed in one place and others to be addressed elsewhere.
In insisting that schools and other social institutions share responsibility for nurturing the whole child, I recognize that different institutions will have different emphases. Obviously, schools will take greater responsibility for teaching reading and arithmetic; medical clinics for health checkups and vaccinations; families for housing and clothing; and places of worship for spiritual instruction.
But needs cannot be rigidly compartmentalized. The massive human problems of society demand holistic treatment. For example, leading medical clinics are now working with lawyers and social workers to improve housing conditions for children and to enhance early childhood learning (Shipler, 2004). We know that healthy families do much more than feed and clothe their children. Similarly, schools must be concerned with the total development of children.
Democracy and Schools
A productive discussion of education’s aims must acknowledge that schools are established to serve both individuals and the larger society. What does the society expect of its schools?
From the current policy debates about public education, one would think that U.S. society simply needs competent workers who will keep the nation competitive in the world market. But both history and common sense tell us that a democratic society expects much more: It wants graduates who exhibit sound character, have a social conscience, think critically, are willing to make commitments, and are aware of global problems (Soder, Goodlad, & McMannon, 2001).
In addition, a democratic society needs an education system that helps to sustain its democracy by developing thoughtful citizens who can make wise civic choices. By its very nature, as Dewey (1916) pointed out, a democratic society is continually changing—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse—and it requires citizens who are willing to participate and competent enough to distinguish between the better and the worse.
If we base policy debate about education on a serious consideration of society’s needs, we will ask thoughtful questions: What modes of discipline will best contribute to the development of sound character? What kinds of peer interactions might help students develop a social conscience? What topics and issues will foster critical thinking? What projects and extracurricular activities might call forth social and personal commitment? Should we assign the task of developing global awareness to social studies courses, or should we spread the responsibility throughout the entire curriculum (Noddings, 2005b)?
In planning education programs for a democratic society, we must use our understanding of the aims of education to explore these questions and many more. Unfortunately, public policy in the United States today concentrates on just one of the Cardinal Principles proposed by NEA in 1918: “command of the fundamental processes.” Although reading and math are important, we need to promote competence in these subjects while also promoting our other aims. Students can develop reading, writing, speaking, and mathematical skills as they plan and stage dramatic performances, design classroom murals, compose a school paper, and participate in establishing classroom rules.
If present reports about the effects of NCLB on the education of inner-city and minority children are supported by further evidence, we should be especially concerned about our democratic future. Wealthier students are enjoying a rich and varied curriculum and many opportunities to engage in the arts, whereas many of our less wealthy students spend their school days bent over worksheets in an effort to boost standardized test scores (Meier & Wood, 2004). Such reports call into question the notion that NCLB will improve schooling for our poorest students. Surely all students deserve rich educational experiences—experiences that will enable them to become active citizens in a democratic society.
Life in a healthy democracy requires participation, and students must begin to practice participation in our schools. Working together in small groups can furnish such practice, provided that the emphasis is consistently on working together—not on formal group processes or the final grade for a product. Similarly, students can participate in establishing the rules that will govern classroom conduct. It is not sufficient, and it may actually undermine our democracy, to concentrate on producing people who do well on standardized tests and who define success as getting a well-paid job. Democracy means more than voting and maintaining economic productivity, and life means more than making money and beating others to material goods.
The Whole Child
Most of us want to be treated as persons, not as the “sinus case in treatment room 3” or the “refund request on line 4.” But we live under the legacy of bureaucratic thought—the idea that every physical and social function should be assigned to its own institution. In the pursuit of efficiency, we have remade ourselves into a collection of discrete attributes and needs. This legacy is strong in medicine, law, social work, business, and education.
Even when educators recognize that students are whole persons, the temptation arises to describe the whole in terms of collective parts and to make sure that every aspect, part, or attribute is somehow “covered” in the curriculum. Children are moral beings; therefore, we must provide character education programs. Children are artistically inclined; therefore, we must provide art classes. Children’s physical fitness is declining; therefore, we must provide physical education and nutrition classes. And then we complain that the curriculum is overloaded!
We should not retreat to a curriculum advisory committee and ask, “Now where should we fit this topic into the already overloaded curriculum?” Although we cannot discard all the fragmented subjects in our present school system and start from scratch, we can and should ask all teachers to stretch their subjects to meet the needs and interests of the whole child. Working within the present subject-centered curriculum, we can ask math and science teachers as well as English and social studies teachers to address moral, social, emotional, and aesthetic questions with respect and sensitivity when they arise (Simon, 2001). In high school math classes, we can discuss Descartes’ proof of God’s existence (is it flawed?); the social injustices and spiritual longing in Flatland, Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel about geometry; the logic and illogic in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and the wonders of numbers such as φ and π.
For the most part, discussions of moral and social issues should respond to students’ expressed needs, but some prior planning can be useful, too. When a math teacher recites a poem or reads a biographical piece or a science fiction story, when she points to the beauty or elegance of a particular result, when she pauses to discuss the social nature of scientific work, students may begin to see connections—to see a whole person at work (Noddings, 2005a). Teachers can also look carefully at the subjects that students are required to learn and ask, “How can I include history, literature, science, mathematics, and the arts in my own lessons?” This inclusion would in itself relieve the awful sense of fragmentation that students experience.
The benefits of a more holistic perspective can also extend beyond the academic curriculum and apply to the school climate and the issue of safety and security. Schools often tackle this problem the way they tackle most problems, piece by piece: more surveillance cameras, more security guards, better metal detectors, more locks, shorter lunch periods, more rules. It seems like a dream to remember that most schools 40 years ago had no security guards, cameras, or metal detectors. And yet schools are not safer now than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. We need to ask why there has been a decline in security and how we should address the problem. Do we need more prisonlike measures, or is something fundamentally wrong with the entire school arrangement?
Almost certainly, the sense of community and trust in our schools has declined. Perhaps the most effective way to make our schools safer would be to restore this sense of trust. I am not suggesting that we get rid of all our security paraphernalia overnight, but rather that we ask what social arrangements might reduce the need for such measures. Smaller schools? Multiyear assignment of teachers and students? Class and school meetings to establish rules and discuss problems? Dedication to teaching the whole child in every class? Serious attention to the integration of subject matter? Gentle but persistent invitations to all students to participate? More opportunities to engage in the arts and in social projects? More encouragement to speak out with the assurance of being heard? More opportunities to work together? Less competition? Warmer hospitality for parents? More public forums on school issues? Reduction of test-induced stress? More opportunities for informal conversation? Expanding, not reducing, course offerings? Promoting the idea of fun and humor in learning? Educating teachers more broadly? All of the above?
We will not find the solution to problems of violence, alienation, ignorance, and unhappiness in increasing our security apparatus, imposing more tests, punishing schools for their failure to produce 100 percent proficiency, or demanding that teachers be knowledgeable in “the subjects they teach.” Instead, we must allow teachers and students to interact as whole persons, and we must develop policies that treat the school as a whole community. The future of both our children and our democracy depend on our moving in this direction.
The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference. —Aristotle
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.
Jefferson, T. (1818). Report of the commissioners for the University of Virginia. Available: http://www.libertynet.org/edcivic/jefferva.html
Kliebard, H. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum. New York: Routledge.
Meier, D., & Wood, G. (Eds.). (2004). Many children left behind. Boston: Beacon Press.
Noddings, N. (2003). Happiness and education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Noddings, N. (2005a). The challenge to care in schools (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Noddings, N. (Ed.). (2005b). Educating citizens for global awareness. New York: Teachers College Press.
Shipler, D. K. (2004). The working poor: Invisible in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Silberman, C. E. (1973). The open classroom reader. New York: Vintage Books.
Simon, K. G. (2001). Moral questions in the classroom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Soder, R., Goodlad, J. I., & McMannon, T. J. (Eds.). (2001). Developing democratic character in the young. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Nel Noddings resides in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University, Stanford, California; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2005 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
The American education system has never been better, several important measures show. But you’d never know that from reading overheated media reports about “failing” schools and enthusiastic pieces on unproven “reform” efforts. Fri., March 30, 2012.
By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (email@example.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.
Fareed Zakaria is worried about the state of American education. To hear the CNN host and commentator tell it, the nation’s schools are broken and must be “fixed” to “restore the American dream.” In fact, that was the title of Zakaria’s primetime special in January, “Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education.” Zakaria spent an hour thumbing through a catalog of perceived educational woes: high dropout rates, mediocre scores by American students on international tests, inadequate time spent in classrooms, unmotivated teachers and their obstructionist labor unions. “Part of the reason we’re in this crisis is that we have slacked off and allowed our education system to get rigid and sclerotic,” he declared.
This is odd. By many important measures – high school completion rates, college graduation, overall performance on standardized tests – America’s educational attainment has never been higher. Moreover, when it comes to education, sweeping generalizations (“rigid and sclerotic”) are more dangerous than usual. How could they not be? With nearly 100,000 public schools, 55 million elementary and secondary students and 2.5 million public school teachers currently at work in large, small, urban, suburban and rural districts, education may be the single most complex endeavor in America.
Zakaria’s take, however, may be a perfect distillation of much of what’s wrong with mainstream media coverage of education. The prevailing narrative – and let’s be wary of our own sweeping generalizations here – is that the nation’s educational system is in crisis, that schools are “failing,” that teachers aren’t up to the job and that America’s economic competitiveness is threatened as a result. Just plug the phrase “failing schools” into Nexis and you’ll get 544 hits in newspapers and wire stories for just one month, January 2012. Some of this reflects the institutionalization of the phrase under the No Child Left Behind Act, the landmark 2001 law that ties federal education funds to school performance on standardized tests (schools are deemed “failing” under various criteria of the law). But much of it reflects the general notion that American education, per Zakaria, is in steep decline. Only 20 years ago, the phrase was hardly uttered: “Failing schools” appeared just 13 times in mainstream news accounts in January of 1992, according to Nexis. (Neither Zakaria nor CNN would comment for this story.)
Have the nation’s schools gotten noticeably lousier? Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way?
Some schools are having a difficult time educating children – particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive. First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995; they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention). Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. All told, America’s long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.
As the son and husband of schoolteachers, I can’t say I’m unbiased on this subject. But as a journalist, I can’t help but see the evident flaws in some of the reporting about education – namely, a lack of balance and historical context, and a willingness to accept the most generic and even inflammatory characterizations at face value. Journalists can’t be faulted for reporting the oftentimes overheated rhetoric about educational “failure” from elected officials and prominent “reformers” (that’s what reporters are supposed to do, after all). But some can certainly be faulted for not offering readers and viewers a broader frame to assess the extent of the alleged problems, and the likelihood that the proposed responses will succeed.
Check out some of the 544 articles that mentioned “failing schools” in January; they constitute an encyclopedia of loaded rhetoric, vapid reporting and unchallenged assumptions. In dozens and dozens of articles, the phrase isn’t defined; it is simply accepted as commonly understood. “Several speakers said charter schools should only be allowed in areas now served by failing schools,” the Associated Press wrote of a Mississippi charter school proposal. The passive construction of the phrase is telling: The schools are failing, not administrators, superintendents, curriculum writers, elected officials, students or their parents.
The running mate of “failing schools” in education stories is “reform.” The word suggests a good thing – change for the sake of improvement. But in news accounts, the label often is implicitly one-sided, suggesting that “reformers” (such as proponents of vouchers or “school choice”) are more virtuous than their hidebound opponents. Journalists rarely question the motives or credentials of “reformers.” The Hartfort Courant hit the “reformer-failing schools” jackpot when it reported, “Like most people seeking education reform this year..the council wants policies that assure excellent teaching, preschool for children whose families can’t afford it, and help for failing schools.”
One reason schools seem to be “failing” so often in news accounts is that we simply know more than we once did about student performance. Before NCLB, schools were measured by averaging all of their students’ scores, a single number that mixed high and low performers. The law required states to “disaggregate” this data – that is, to break it down by race, poverty and other sub-groups. One beneficial effect of the law is that it showed how some of these groups – poor children and non-English speakers, for example – lag children from more privileged backgrounds. But rather than evidence of a “crisis,” this new data may simply have laid bare what was always true but never reported in detail.
What or who was responsible for the poorest performing schools? Quite often, news media accounts have pointed the finger at a single culprit – teachers. In late 2008, Time magazine featured the District of Columbia’s then-School Chancellor Michelle Rhee on its cover wielding a broom to symbolize her desire to sweep out underperforming instructors. The magazine endorsed her approach not just as prudent but as scientific: “The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching,” wrote reporter Amanda Ripley, citing “decades of research.” This view – a favorite of wealthy education “reformers” such as Bill Gates and real estate developer Eli Broad – was also a theme in the critically adored documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” which featured Rhee.
But like “failing schools” and “crisis,” the phrase “ineffective teachers” has become media shorthand (it appeared 136 times in news accounts during January alone, Nexis says). And given the many factors that affect learning, it also looks like scapegoating. NPR’s Tovia Smith, for example,concluded her story in early March about a program that holds back third graders who are having trouble reading this way: “As another academic put it: This policy flunks kids for failing to learn, but given how widespread the problem is, maybe it’s the school that should flunk for failing to teach.”
The notion that education is in “crisis” – that is, in a moment of special danger – is another journalistic favorite. While few reporters ever mention it, anxiety over the nation’s educational achievement is probably older than the nation. Zakaria’s concern that American students aren’t being prepared for the modern workforce echoes the comments of business leaders at the turn of the century – the 19th century. Then as now, they worried that schools weren’t producing enough educated workers for an economy undergoing rapid technological change.
Nor are the fears that international competitors are bypassing us without precedent. Five months after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in October 1957, Life magazine contrasted the rigorous academic workload and extracurricular activities of a Moscow teenager (physics and chemistry courses, chess club) with the carefree lifestyle of a Chicago schoolboy (sock hops and soda shop dates with his girlfriend). The cover line: “Crisis in Education.” Cold War worries gave way to fears that Japan was gaining on us in the 1980s; the Reagan-era education reform manifesto “A Nation at Risk” warned that “a rising tide of mediocrity” was threatening “our very future as a nation and a people.”
“The idea that we have a crisis in American education, that there is pervasive failure, starts with policy makers,” says Pedro Noguera, the eminent education researcher and New York University professor. “This is the line we hear in D.C. and in state capitals. There are certainly areas in which we’re lacking, but when you report it that way, it doesn’t at all acknowledge the complexity of the situation [and] where we’re doing quite well. The discussion is quite simplistic. I’m not sure why exactly. My suspicion is that the media has trouble with complexity.”
Noguera praises some of the journalism about education, such as work by the New York Times and NPR, two outlets that have full-time, veteran reporters covering the subject. He also noted a “Dan Rather Reports” program on the little-seen HDNet channel last year that explored the link between school performance and poverty, a subject often ignored or noted only in passing in many stories about academic achievement.
The news media’s general portrayal may help explain a striking disconnect in public attitudes about public education. Since 1984, a year after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” the Gallup Organization has asked parents to assess their local schools, and the public to rate schools generally. In 2011, the percentage of parents who gave their children’s school an A grade was at its highest ever (37 percent), whereas only 1 percent of respondents rated the nation’s schools that way. Why the disparity in perceived quality? Gallup asked people about that, too. Mostly, it was because people knew about their local schools through direct experience. They only learned about the state of education nationally through the news media.
The leading, or at least most widely viewed, source of education reporting is NBC News, which covers the topic on multiple programs and platforms – “NBC Nightly News,” the “Today” show, MSNBC and Telemundo, among others. It is the only commercial broadcast network to employ a full-time education reporter, Rehema Ellis. NBC is so devoted to education reporting that in 2010 it began branding its coverage under its own banner, “Education Nation.” It has also gone beyond mere reporting by hosting an annual education “summit” that last fall brought together 10 governors, former President Bill Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, educators and other dignitaries at its Rockefeller Center headquarters to discuss ways to improve education.
“We’ve really tried to put a very bright spotlight” on this topic, NBC News President Steve Capus said in an interview. “We felt the subject matter was important, and it wasn’t getting as much attention as it deserved.” Result? Capus, who used to cover school board meetings in the Philadelphia area as a young stringer, proudly points to an Aspen Institute study showing that one in five Americans has heard of “Education Nation” and almost one in 10 has seen some of its reporting.
But while “Education Nation” occasionally escapes the “crisis-in-education” paradigm, its gaze is squarely on perceived flaws and, yes, failing schools. “America’s public school students are struggling,” said Ellis, beginning a “Nightly News” story during the NBC-sponsored summit in September. The segment included an NBC-commissioned poll showing widespread public dissatisfaction with public schools. Gallup’s multiyear findings on the same topic weren’t mentioned.
In the past six months, NBC has done “Education Nation” stories on online public schools; on the success of Shanghai’s students on an international exams; on “unschooling” (a less structured version of home-schooling); and on a “wave” of new “parent trigger” laws that allow parents to petition for dramatic changes in “troubled” local schools, including firing teachers (in fact, only three states have enacted such laws).
Yet NBC and “Education Nation” have rarely looked closely at the effect of poverty and class, the single greatest variable in educational achievement. Academic research has shown for many years that poor children, or those born to parents who are poorly educated themselves, don’t do as well in school as better-off students. More recent work by, among others, Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University, suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children has grown wider since the 1960s, reflecting in part the nation’s growing economic disparity. The problem is vast – some 22 percent of American children live in poverty, the highest among Western democracies.
Instead, NBC has concentrated on initiatives favored by self-styled education reformers. The network has been particularly generous to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting teacher merit pay proposals and privately run charter schools – an agenda strongly opposed by many public school teachers, labor unions and educators. (Zakaria also featured Bill Gates on his CNN special.)
During its first “Education Nation” summit in 2010, for example, “NBC Nightly News” aired a profile of a Gates Foundation initiative, “Measures of Effective Teaching,” which seeks to create a database of effective teaching methods. The reporter was former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. During the second summit last fall, Brokaw showed up on “Today” with Melinda Gates to discuss the same Gates initiative. Turning from reporter to advocate, Brokaw told host Natalie Morales, “So what Bill and Melinda have done, and it’s a great credit to them, and it’s a great gift to this country, is that they have taken the kind of episodic values that we know about teaching and they’ve put them together in a way that everyone can learn from them. So that’s a big, big step.”
Brokaw also put his gravitas behind Gates and other billionaire education reformers in a syndicated column that appeared in newspapers during the NBC summit in 2011, writing that “Entrepreneurs and captains of industry such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, home building tycoon Eli Broad, hedge fund billionaires in New York’s Robin Hood Foundation, have put education reform and excellence at the top of their personal and financial agenda.” Brokaw didn’t mention the objections to these “reforms” from teachers, nor ask why billionaires should be accorded expert status on education policy in the first place.
(An NBC spokeswoman declined to make Brokaw and Ellis available for comment, saying that the story sounded “negative.”)
NBC News does more than just report on the “reform” movement; it’s also in business with those who are promoting it. Among the corporate sponsors of its “Education Nation” summits are the for-profit education company University of Phoenix, the book publisher Scholastic Inc. and…the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Remember that Aspen Institute study showing broad public awareness of NBC’s “Education Nation” efforts? It was funded by the Gates Foundation.
Capus says such a relationship doesn’t pose a conflict of interest for the network’s journalists because an editorial “firewall” prohibits sponsors from influencing coverage. Nevertheless, representatives of each of these sponsors, including Melinda Gates and Scholastic Senior Vice President Francie Alexander, have appeared repeatedly on “Today” and “NBC Nightly News” to discuss various education proposals and ideas (their financial connection to NBC News has never been disclosed on the air, according to a Nexis search). Meghan Pianta, an NBC spokeswoman, defended using the billionaire couple as a news source because of their “prominence and importance in the education debate.”
Some teachers, on the other hand, can’t help feeling that the network has stacked the deck in favor of the “reform” agenda. NBC’s approach “is beneficial to those who promote privatizing schools, those who peddle tests and tests to prepare for tests, and curriculum based on tests to prepare for tests,” wrote Randy Turner, an English teacher in Joplin, Missouri, on The Huffington Post last fall, as he watched the network cover its own summit. “It is also beneficial to those whose chief goal is to eliminate unions of all kinds, including those representing teachers.”
On a more prosaic level, veteran education reporters say they face a simple yet profound barrier to doing their job: It’s hard to get inside a classroom these days. They say administrators are wary about putting potential problems on display, particularly in the wake of No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s initiative, Race to the Top.
“School systems are crazed about controlling the message,” says Linda Perlstein, author of two books about schools and, until recently, public editor of the Education Writers Association. “Access is so constricted.” As a result, she says, “There’s great underreporting of what happens in classroom, and it’s just getting worse.”
Perlstein spent three school years in classrooms to report a series about middle school for the Washington Post in 2000, and for her books, “Not Much Just Chillin'” (about middle schoolers in Columbia, Maryland) and “Tested” (about high-stakes tests). But Perlstein says other reporters were never able to gain similar access to other schools, including those in Washington, D.C., where the reform efforts of former Schools Chancellor Rhee attracted national attention.
Even with a cooperative principal or school superintendent, few reporters could make the lengthy commitment that Perlstein did in her reporting. That means journalists don’t get to see the very thing they’re reporting about. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Some districts even forbid teachers from speaking to the media on the record outside the classroom.
What to do? “You rely more and more on talking heads and less on what a school looks like,” Perlstein says. She adds, “That matters.” Ironically, superintendents and administrators “always tell me that the media gets it wrong. Well, how can we get it right when they won’t talk to us?”
This compels education journalists to talk to secondary sources: administrators and bureaucrats, labor leaders, politicians and the occasional billionaire. Not necessarily a bad thing, since at the moment, there are perhaps a dozen ideas (tenure reform, vouchers, charter schools, teacher accountability, etc.) floating around and plenty of disagreement about how or whether to implement them.
But pronouncements and policy nostrums often don’t get the checking they deserve. “Some reporters don’t do enough to synthesize and explain the wealth of peer-reviewed research available on the proposals being batted around,” says Jessica Calefati, an up-and-coming education reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark. For example, if a school district or a state is pushing for teacher merit pay, it behooves a reporter to point out that few studies link merit pay with increased student achievement, she says. Some reporters, says Calefati, “gloss over the nuance.”
Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss goes much further, giving her media colleagues an F for legwork. “The mainstream media has failed to do due diligence [on the school reform agenda] for over a decade,” she says. “They bought into the rhetoric of school reform and testing” mandated by No Child Left Behind. As for President Barack Obama’s proposed Race to the Top initiatives, Strauss faults the news media for failing to ask whether “the rhetoric matches the practice. There’s nothing new under the sun. Some of the things that didn’t work 30, 40 or 50 years ago still don’t work….We’ve taken as truth whatever Bill Gates says.”
Strauss points out that leading Democrats, such as Obama, and Republicans have both embraced school choice and charter schools to some degree. This unusual political comity has led some mainstream outlets to position “reform” as a centrist, bipartisan idea, she says. There are a few consistently skeptical voices – she mentions New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip, and I’d mention Strauss – but for the most part, she says, the media have romanticized reform figures like Gates and Rhee, and the KIPP Schools, the darlings of the private charter movement.
“The mainstream media hasn’t been digging,” Strauss asserts. “Generally, reporters have gone along with the reform of the day. Well, I’ve got news for you: It’s much more complicated than that.”
On two coasts, furious debates are brewing over a controversial new school reform policy aimed at leveraging the power of parents to improve struggling schools. The parent trigger, as it’s called, invites furious debate wherever it goes. But it’s not going away anytime soon.
In Florida, state lawmakers have moved quickly to approve a Parent Empowerment Law. HB 1191, which passed out of committee last week, is headed to the Florida House floor soon. Meanwhile parents in the small town of Adelanto, Calif., are dealing with the fallout after they exercised California’s first-in-the-nation parent trigger law, and had their petition to overhaul a local elementary school rejected. It is just the second time the law has been exercised in the country, and the second time the effort has been thwarted.
Yet, a veritable movement is spreading to replicate the model beyond California. The concept is seemingly simple. Often called parent empowerment laws, they grant parents the ability to petition to restructure their child’s failing school if more than half of the parents at a school sign on to the change. Proponents of the law say it taps into a key community that’s been all too often locked out of the process in school reform—parents.
“What I believe this bill does, in a very powerful way, is give those parents a stronger, more meaningful voice in the process,” Florida Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, who is sponsoring HB 1191, told TCPalm.
Yet, critics of the law argue that it is being supported by a network of conservative lawmakers with ties to private interests that stand to profit off of the restructuring of poor-performing schools in low-income communities of color. They also contend that because parents are allowed to choose from a menu of reform options that includes a charter school takeover, these laws are simply ways to fast-track the infiltration of charter schools into the public school system.
“The problem is you are taking a valuable asset, our school, which was bought and paid for by the taxpayers, and handing that property to a charter management company,” said Linda Kobert, cofounder of Fund Education Now, a network of Florida parent organizations which is fighting the parent trigger law.
“There is no mechanism for the public to get that asset back. There is no guarantee that the charter school is going to perform any better, and in fact research shows that charter schools are no better than traditional public schools.”
Critics also say that they have concerns about parents’ political power being exploited by powerful political interests—that parent trigger laws enable astroturfing more than actual grassroots movements.
But lawmakers have worked to address those concerns, said Linda Serrato, a spokesperson for Parent Revolution, the California-based nonprofit that is the major national force pushing parent trigger bills across the country.
According to Serrato, the California bill’s backers did heavy lifting to incorporate the concerns of Democratic lawmakers. In Florida, the bill has split along cleanly partisan lines.
Meanwhile, in Adelanto, Calif., parents at Desert Trails Elementary School who pulled the trigger on their failing school last month are facing a crushing setback as their effort, exuberant at first, has quickly turned sour.
Last week, the Adelanto school board rejected parents’ petition to overhaul the school. The board said that even though the petition seemed initially to garner 70 percent of Desert Trails’ parents’ signatures, organizers failed to collect enough legitimate signatures to take control of the school.
Parents had turned in two petitions: one calling for in-district reforms and a second that called for the creation a parent-managed charter school, in the event that the first attempt at negotiation fell through. But since the newly formed, pro-trigger Desert Trails Parent Union filed these petitions, a bitter controversy has erupted in the small town. One contingent of parents in Adelanto insists that they are not interested in a charter school. Others who signed the petitions say that the two-pronged strategy confused them. The Parent Union now has 60 days to review the disputed signatures and re-file their petition, according to Serrato.
“We will ultimately prevail because the law is on our side, the regulations are on our side, and justice is on our side,” said Doreen Diaz, a Desert Trails parent who’s organized others around the parent trigger. She said that her group remains undeterred by the school board’s decision. “We only get one chance to give our kids the education they deserve. We have no choice but to succeed.”
Parent triggers promise frustrated parents a fast-track to salvation for their kids’ failing schools, but attempts at exercising the law have thus far left schools and communities anything but saved. In Adelanto and in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, which also exercised the parent trigger last year, parent reformers have faced a similar experience: an excited group of well-organized, Parent Revolution-supported parents file their petitions, only to have the change challenged by the local community, including fellow parents.
The initial excitement around these campaigns has given way to confusion, and disagreement over the correct way to overhaul a failing school. Nonetheless, states like Arizona, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and New York are gearing up for or are knee-deep in similar proposals to pass their own laws.
A representative for Rep. Bileca’s office said timing around Florida’s HB 1191 is uncertain. The bill could arrive on the House floor any day within the next three weeks.
January 25, 2012 – The New York Times
By TAMAR LEWIN
President Obama’s State of the Union call for every state to require students to stay in school until they turn 18 is Washington’s first direct involvement in an issue that many governors and state legislators have found tough to address.
While state legislative efforts to raise the dropout age to 18 have spread in recent years, many have had trouble winning passage. Last year, for example, such legislation was considered in Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland and Rhode Island — but only Rhode Island actually changed its law.
“Efforts to raise the age usually come up against the argument that requiring students to stay in school when they no longer want to be there is disruptive to other students and not fair to the teacher,” said Sunny Deye, a senior policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Home-school groups often oppose raising the compulsory attendance age, and especially now, in this budget crunch, there are major concerns about the fiscal impact.”
In Kentucky, where the dropout age of 16 was set in 1934, legislation to move the age to 18 has failed twice. Gov. Steven L. Beshear’s State of the State message this month made another push.
The dropout age, historically set at 16 in most of the nation, has been edging up. Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia have compulsory attendance until 18, and 11 others require attendance until age 17.
Given that Washington provides only about 10 percent of education financing, the federal government’s effort to dictate policy in an area that has always been left to the states may raise hackles.
“I will concede that having the federal government decree this, that’s going to stick hard with some people,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, which supports the proposal. “But with almost a third of our students dropping out of high school, we have an economic crisis and we need to be sending a stronger message about the importance of education.”
And, he said, it would not be hard for the federal government to incentivize the higher age requirement by making it a condition of states’ getting Race to the Top grants or other federal education money.
Several economists, over two decades, have found that higher dropout ages improve not only graduation rates but entrance to higher education and career outcomes. “The evidence is quite robust that raising the school-leaving age increases educational attainment,” said Philip Oreopoulos, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, whose study found, however, that exceptions to the law, lenience in enforcement and weak consequences for truancy could all interfere with an increase. “Ideally, you use both a carrot and stick approach, so that if students have to stay in school longer you’re also providing wider curriculum options that might interest them.”
In a 2010 report on the dropout problem, Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, found that of the six states that increased the compulsory school age from 2002 to 2008, two — Illinois and South Dakota — experienced increases in their graduation rates, and one, Nevada, had a decline.
“It’s symbolically and strategically important to raise the age to 18, but it’s not the magical thing that in itself will keep kids in school,” Dr. Balfanz said.
Most policy experts warn that to prevent dropouts, schools need a broad range of supports for struggling students, as far back as the middle grades.
“There’s a whole array of reasons students drop out: teen pregnancy, financial obligations, detachment from the school environment, boredom, feeling the curriculum has no relevance in the real world,” said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. “Schools need to intervene quickly if there are warning flags.”