The True Cost of High School Dropouts

January 25, 2012 – The New York Times

ONLY 21 states require students to attend high school until they graduate or turn 18. The proposal President Obama announced on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address — to make such attendance compulsory in every state — is a step in the right direction, but it would not go far enough to reduce a dropout rate that imposes a heavy cost on the entire economy, not just on those who fail to obtain a diploma.

In 1970, the United States had the world’s highest rate of high school and college graduation. Today, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion, as other countries surpassed us in the quality of their primary and secondary education.

Only 7 of 10 ninth graders today will get high school diplomas. A decade after the No Child Left Behind law mandated efforts to reduce the racial gap, about 80 percent of white and Asian students graduate from high school, compared with only 55 percent of blacks and Hispanics.

Like President Obama, many reformers focus their dropout prevention efforts on high schoolers; replacing large high schools with smaller learning communities where poor students can get individualized instruction from dedicated teachers has been shown to be effective. Rigorous evidence gathered over decades suggests that some of the most promising approaches need to start even earlier: preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, who are fed and taught in small groups, followed up with home visits by teachers and with group meetings of parents; reducing class size in the early grades; and increasing teacher salaries from kindergarten through 12th grade.

These programs sound expensive — some Americans probably think that preventing 1.3 million students from dropping out of high school each year can’t be done — but in fact the costs of inaction are far greater.

High school completion is, of course, the most significant requirement for entering college. While our economic competitors are rapidly increasing graduation rates at both levels, we continue to fall behind. Educated workers are the basis of economic growth — they are especially critical as sources of innovation and productivity given the pace and nature of technological progress.

If we could reduce the current number of dropouts by just half, we would yield almost 700,000 new graduates a year, and it would more than pay for itself. Studies show that the typical high school graduate will obtain higher employment and earnings — an astonishing 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income — and will be less likely to draw on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. Further, because of the increased income, the typical graduate will contribute more in tax revenues over his lifetime than if he’d dropped out.

When the costs of investment to produce a new graduate are taken into account, there is a return of $1.45 to $3.55 for every dollar of investment, depending upon the educational intervention strategy. Under this estimate, each new graduate confers a net benefit to taxpayers of about $127,000 over the graduate’s lifetime. This is a benefit to the public of nearly $90 billion for each year of success in reducing the number of high school dropouts by 700,000 — or something close to $1 trillion after 11 years. That’s real money — and a reason both liberals and conservatives should rally behind dropout prevention as an element of economic recovery, leaving aside the ethical dimensions of educating our young people.

Some might argue that these estimates are too large, that the relationships among the time-tested interventions, high school graduation rates and adult outcomes have not been proved yet on a large scale. Those are important considerations, but the evidence cannot be denied: increased education does, indeed, improve skill levels and help individuals to lead healthier and more productive lives. And despite the high unemployment rate today, we have every reason to believe that many of these new graduates would find work — our history is filled with sustained periods of economic growth when increasing numbers of young people obtained more schooling and received large economic benefits as a result.

Of course, there are other strategies for improving educational attainment — researchers learn more every day about which are effective and which are not. But even with what we know, a failure to substantially reduce the numbers of high school dropouts is demonstrably penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Proven educational strategies to increase high school completion, like high-quality preschool, provide returns to the taxpayer that are as much as three and a half times their cost. Investing our public dollars wisely to reduce the number of high school dropouts must be a central part of any strategy to raise long-run economic growth, reduce inequality and return fiscal health to our federal, state and local governments.

Henry M. Levin is a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Cecilia E. Rouse, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, was a member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2009 to 2011.


Being a Student Ally: Teachers as Necessary Voices of Protest

POSTED BY  ⋅ DECEMBER 26, 2011 on Cooperative Catalyst

A few months ago I was teaching a somewhat uninspiring writing curriculum to a group of sixth graders as part of teacher training program. As young educators, participants in the training were expected to prepare original lessons from a pre-written curriculum and teach them to classes of about twenty students on a daily basis. We were observed by mentor teachers several times a week, and met with those mentors about once a week to receive feedback on our growth as aspiring teachers. Even with many great supports in place, my colleagues and I were struggling to make the curriculum our own, as well as making it engaging for our students. The program, which was private and in league with many of the standard “reform” movements of the day, put a great deal of emphasis on preparing students with the skills they would need to excel in elite academic institutions, and very little on social justice and community empowerment.

For one of my initial lessons, students had been assigned a short story for the previous night’s homework, preparing them to begin writing a simple summary in class that day. At the beginning of the lesson I asked students to describe what they had read and how they had interpreted the course of the events for themselves. Immediately hands shot up as students clamored to give their own interpretations, and I as I began to listen I quickly realized that members of the class had not understood all the events in the same ways. One student, Kelvin, was particularly adamant about his interpretation of the ending of the story, and a debate broke out amongst different students about what had really happened by the end of the tale. Even as I encouraged students to find evidence from the text to support their claims, I was excited to see their enthusiasm around the assignment, their ability to articulate and problem-shoot their own interpretations, as well as to see that each student had brought their own lens to the reading. The lively discussion was by far the most encouraging event in the class at that time, and as I had been frustrated with my lack of success in engaging students with the material and finding ways of connecting it back to their own lives, this seemed like a step in the right direction.

When I met with my mentor teacher later that week–a compassionate but by-the-book Teach For America alum–one of the first lessons he wanted to discuss was the aforementioned summery class. Specifically, he wanted to discuss the debate which the students had had around the events of the short story. “Kelvin was wrong,” he instructed me. “It was irresponsible for you as the teacher to let a student with a wrong interpretation have so much room to speak. You should have stopped him, corrected him, and made sure that every other student in the class knew what the right answer was. If a test was given to the students right now, I guarantee that few of them would be able to describe the events of the story correctly.” When I countered by saying that I thought giving the students the opportunity to argue their own perspectives allowed them to cement their understanding of the story more deeply, he replied, “But if they’ve cemented it incorrectly, then you have failed as the teacher. If they are wrong, you need to correct them. It is your job to give them the right answer, and if they try to argue with you, to assert your authority as the instructor.”

This meeting jarred me, and gave me a great deal to think about in terms of my responsibilities as an educator. On the one hand, I was confronted with the reality that as a teacher I do have to think about the real obstacles that my students will come up against in their lives, and providing them with the necessary skills that will need to navigate those obstacles. On the other hand, I recognized that I must also think about the systems and codes which oppress my students–the same ones which oppressed me in my own education–and aid in creating a foundation for them to fight those systems. Finding a balance between giving students the tools they need to survive world, while simultaneously preparing them to transform the world into a place which does not merely have to be survived, is a constant struggle for teachers dedicated to radical learning, and this meeting was the first time that I, as an aspiring educator, had come up against it. Yet, I would argue, given the current climate of public education across the globe, this is the key battle in which we as educators and advocates must engage in. As charter schools become the imagined wave of the future for oppressed communities, as massive corporations and hedge fund managers take control of the public sector, and as Teacher For America and other privately-funded organizations become primary training grounds for young educators, demanding that education remain in the hands of the public and that classrooms serve the communities they teach becomes not only a radical act, but a threatening one. Helping students pass while also encouraging them to resist a set curriculum and the invasion of their communities by private corporations becomes the feasible but fraught goal of the educator, and one which is not met without a real fight.

To be true advocates for the intellectual growth of our students, and to remain genuinely committed to the radial purposes of education, teachers must become voices of protest in the face of privatization, and the hijacking of learning for mere vocational and occupational preparation. This means asking difficult and unpopular questions of ourselves and of the institutions which employ us, the same types of questions which I attempted to pose later on to my mentor teacher: If I want my students to see the world from multiple angles and perspectives, how can I tell them that there is only one correct interpretation? If I want my students to challenge power, how can I run my classroom as an unquestionable figure of authority? These are not frivolous quandaries, for answering them for yourself as an educator can be the difference between creating a classroom which mirrors the dominating social order, and one which works to fight it. Acting upon them can make one even more unpopular (while my mentor teacher entertained my questions, he was resistant to their actually being given priority in the classroom, and was not pleased when I refused to make certain changes to structure of mine), but if our goal is to empower our students to stand up in the face of oppressive and conservative institutions, we must learn to do the same alongside them. This is the definition of a true ally.

52 years after integration, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school superintendent admits racial achievement gap persists

Charlotte Leaders Address Student Achievement

By Bill Dries (Memphis Daily News / VOL. 126 | NO. 243 | Wednesday, December 14, 2011)

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system was consolidated in 1960, years before the schools in the North Carolina system were racially integrated.

And the school system’s former superintendent, who resigned earlier this year, told those involved in the Shelby County schools consolidation process that Charlotte-Mecklenburg still has an achievement gap.

“Progress has been painfully slow and, at the rate we are moving in Charlotte, it will still be 15 years before those achievement gaps are completely closed,” Peter Gorman told members of the consolidation planning commission, the countywide school board and leaders of both local public school systems. “You are talking about children who are not even yet in preschool if we continue at that pace. And we are the national leader.”

Gorman and several Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board members were part of a panel discussion Monday, Dec. 12, moderated by The Hyde Foundation.

Gorman and the others advised those combining the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools to expect the work to be hard and the process of improving education for students in both school systems to be ongoing.

They all also used the word “context” to define how standards for education reform will change over the years it will take to first merge schools and then improve the performance of students in the combined system.

“The route to accomplish that and do that doesn’t have to be just one path to get there,” Gorman said.

The result in Charlotte was a reform plan that rewarded schools showing improvement in performance with more flexibility to make changes to further improve performance from where it had been.

“We found some people that we thought that were doing really good work weren’t,” he said, adding some students who did well in reaching a certain level of achievement weren’t necessarily showing growth. “They were still so far above the bar, we thought they were superstars.”

Meanwhile, other students remained “below the bar” but showed more growth or improvement.

“The work to move from there to there was heroic and phenomenal,” Gorman said, holding one hand a good distance above the other.

Gorman’s point is central to local discussions by both school systems about state education reform efforts.

Leaders of Memphis City Schools, in particular, have been vocal in their concern that standards for student effectiveness don’t give schools enough credit for the improvement students show in national and state testing compared with where they were previously – even if those students remain below state and national benchmarks.

Eric Davis, chairman of the CMS board, said a milestone in education reform in Charlotte was a “fundamental shift” in philosophy just before Gorman was hired in 2006.

“It was a shift from not just providing an opportunity for an education … but to actually teaching and learning – not asking ourselves does the same child get the same lesson in every school every day, but how well are students learning,” Davis said. “It’s a shift from compliance to performance.”

Davis said the specific concept of performance did not resonate well with parents once it was better defined. He was surprised.

“When you really start pushing on what it’s going to take to raise the performance of the system, you find a lot of resistance,” Davis said. “I think it’s because we have different definitions of success in Charlotte of what the school system needs to do for us.”

Though gone from the military, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell lives on in many schools writes Peter DeWitt

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

By Peter DeWitt on December 26, 2011 9:35 AM (From Education Week‘s Finding Common Ground blog)

As of September 20th, 2011, the federal government ended the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) Policy. Although the repeal was initiated in 2010, it took months for the policy to officially end. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell prohibited any homosexual or bisexual person from disclosing his or her sexual orientation while serving in the United States armed forces. If those members disclosed their orientation, they would be discharged from the military.

Although DADT may have ended in the military it is still an issue that exists in public schools around North America. Students as well as teachers and staff do not feel that they have the freedom to disclose their sexual orientation to others in school. Mostly, because they feel that the disclosure will open them up to a great deal of discrimination.

Many heterosexual staff share stories about their families while they sit around the table in the faculty room. They discuss their children and what they did on the weekend. Only those LGBT faculty, staff and students who are fortunate enough to be in an inclusive school feel comfortable sharing stories from their personal lives. LGBT staff do not always have the same opportunities to share stories about their families because of unwritten DADT policies within a school. “It’s ok to be gay, just do not talk about it too much.”

The reality is that we have students who are dying by suicide around the country, many of them because they were gay and were harassed and abused in the school system or college campus. These students lacked the proper support to help them negotiate their way through a difficult personal time.

Inclusive administrators know that they have to protect all students within their school system, and it does not matter whether they share the same views as their students. The public school system is a place where all ideas and values converge and should be respected. There are many administrators who support same-sex couples who attend the prom or Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) within their schools.

Unfortunately, there are also administrators and staff who turn a “blind eye” to the bullying and harassment of LGBT students, which helps perpetuate the issue. These students get bullied, harassed and abused frequently and do not feel that they have a supportive adult that they can turn to for help.

The harassment and bullying of LGBT students happens for a variety of reasons, and lack of exposure is one of them. Many heterosexual students are not exposed to LGBT students or topics, so that lack of understanding causes issues between both groups of students. Every student, whether gay or straight, deserves a place in school.

Unfortunately, many schools shy away from exploring tough topics because of the fear that they will receive community pushback. In addition, without a supportive administrator this lack of compassion for LGBT students will continue.

When school staff make statements such as, “why do gay people always have to talk about their sexuality,” they are perpetuating the issue of DADT in their school systems. There should not be a “chosen” group that gets free reign of a school. All groups should be accepted, which creates an inclusive school system (DeWitt, Dignity for All, 2012).

Schools are supposed to be a place where all students can learn. They need to be a place where students can explore who they are and find their strengths and work on their weaknesses. All groups should be accepted so that they can flourish and become contributing members of society. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ended in our armed forces and it needs to end in our school systems.

Peter’s book Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press) will be released March 2012.

For more information on creating an inclusive school visit GLSEN.

Poverty Matters!: A Christmas Miracle pt. 1

By Paul Thomas for The Daily Censored, December 22, 2011

Something profound appears to have occurred—a cosmic shift in the education reform debate that reflects our larger social debates in the U.S.

After Ladd and Fiske published a commentary in The New York Times“Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?,” and Diane Ravitch blogged “Scrooge and School Reform,” several commentators quickly chimed in about the poverty debate in education.

Amanda Ripley commented on her own blog to clarify: “I also agree that out-of-school factors are hugely impactful on student learning, of course.”

And more directly and fully, Peter Meyer has offered “A Christmas Carol For Our Schools”: “What I don’t understand in all of this is who exactly is claiming that class (or poverty or parents or kids) doesn’t matter?  Ladd and Fiske spend most of their essay stating the obvious: that socio-economic circumstance matters to education outcomes.”

It appears we are experiencing a Christmas Miracle in 2011; we have now come to agreement about the corrosive power of poverty on the educational outcomes of children (although it appears less clear if we are all admitting the same about the inordinate inequity in our country). So let’s consider if this miracle has occurred, and then, if so, what does that mean?

Poverty Matters?

“As with Ravitch’s ‘miracle’ argument (‘the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny,’ she asserted in the Times last May), Ladd and Fiske build mighty big straw men,” claims Meyer. While I find Meyer’s point here ironically creating a strawman to contest the use of strawman arguments, we must acknowledge that the education reform debate has become mired in both charges of strawman arguments (a cyclic and fruitless venture) and surface arguments about whether or not poverty matters.

First, if no one is in fact denying the influence of poverty on student outcomes and teacher/school effectiveness, why does this charge even exist? The answer lies in the two most common refrains coming from education reformers who insist that schools are the single most powerful tool for reforming society (a position that brought me into education and a call that drew me into a doctoral program)—”no excuses” and “poverty is not destiny.”

Choruses of “no excuses” and “poverty is not destiny” punctuate almost all of the discourse and even reform plans coming from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee, and the implications of these bromides are where the problems rest.

In short, the real debate is not whether or not one side believes poverty matters and the other does not (this is genuinely a false dichotomy that likely does not exist). The real debate is where the source of what matterslies and how to address the impact of poverty on the lives and learning of children.

Now, at the risk of oversimplifying, let me offer that the education reform debate is actually occurring between two factions (although within each, there is a great deal of diversity of perspectives) that can fairly be labeled (for convenience, not to marginalize) “No Excuses” Reformers and Social Context Reformers.

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. [1]

If We Agree on Poverty, What Next?

If we are to take Meyer and Ripley at their word, and if we can fairly extrapolate their confessions to the entirety of the “No Excuses” Reformers, then we must ask some important questions and make some serious changes in both how we debate education reform and conduct education reform.

• Why do we persist in and even increase our dependence on testing, labeling, and punishing students and teachers when we know that standardized tests remain significantly biased by socioeconomic status (linked to parental income and level of education), race, and gender (Santelices & Wilson, 2010; Spelke, 2005)? As long as we continue to evaluate student achievement, teacher quality, and school effectiveness by a tool proven again and again to be primarily a reflection of social conditions beyond the control of the people and institutions being judged, we will never find any common ground—regardless of any concession by reformers about the impact of poverty on children’s lives and learning.

• Why do we insist on claiming “miracle” and representing outliers as normal? Just as one example, consider the rush to make claims by misusing data in New Jersey. Yet, when a blogger examines the claims and the data carefully, the initial claim disappears, and the result is corrosive for both any further claims of success or any hope for real education reform.

• Why have we created, maintained, and perpetuated an education system that parallels and creates a stratification of students built on measuring, labeling, and sorting—in other words, what sense does having an education system that mirrors our society make if our belief is that those same schools will reform society? If we are to embrace and support public education as a vehicle for social reform, then we must create schools that are unlike our society. We have never done this, and nothing being placed on the table today by “No Excuses” Reformers is offering anything other than schools that perpetuate the status quo of the current U.S.; in fact, a central goal of “no excuses” ideology is using education to instill middle class norms. By definition, then, normalizing is counter to transformation. Schools that transform society ask teachers and students to confront, question, and change the world—not conform to it.

• Why are our reform strategies mired in the same formula—standards, testing, and accountability—since the evidence on the effectiveness of this paradigm (ironically) suggests that it is ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst? James Traub in 2000 carefully and clearly made a case for the ineffectiveness of traditional bureaucratic approaches to school reform. But what followed was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), what was called at the time a massive expansion of the bureaucratic approach to reform. After nearly a decade of NCLB—fifty separate and unsuccessful experiments with accountability—Hout and Elliott have shown that accountability remains essentially ineffective—or at least ineffective if measured against the (misguided) promises that came with our commitment to NCLB (closing achievement gaps, reducing drop-out rates, increasing raw international test rankings). If, as Meyer suggests (“thirty years of ‘war on poverty’ (vis Lyndon Johnson, 1964) and stultifyingly little school improvement to show for it”), we must admit the failure of social welfare in the mid-twentieth century, then we must now admit the failure of bureaucratic education reform based on the accountability paradigm.

• If we believe schools are revolutionary, a door to an equitable society, why do we maintain a school system that privileges affluent students by placing them in the smallest classes with the most experienced and qualified teachers (see the disproportionate by socioeconomic status access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs as well as the correlation of SAT scores and socioeconomic status) while promoting the experimentation of teacher assignments (Teach for America) with the student populations fairing less well in our schools—children in poverty, children of color, special needs students, and English language learners? Regardless of the words any of us, regardless of the slogans, the patterns of the system we create and tolerate reveal where our true commitments lie.

• And finally (this to me is the greatest question that must be answered) what logic or evidence supports the implied message of “poverty is not destiny”: That poverty is within the power of people living in poverty to change, that the affluent are somehow not culpable for or powerful enough to change the conditions of inequity? Ample evidence shows that the U.S. is one of the most inequitable democracies in the world (a ranking we choose to ignore while dwelling on PISA), but we seem determined to remain committed to narratives of equity in the face of evidence revealing inequity. Until we examine, as I noted above about educational outcomes, the sources of social inequity, we are likely never to address the impact of poverty on the lives of children and their families.

I am willing to concede that nearly no reasonable people are claiming that poverty doesn’t matter in student educational outcomes, but I must ask that the “No Excuses” Reformers also concede that no Social Context Reformers are seeking to use poverty as an excuse or to maintain some failed status quo of public education.

I also concede that it is far past time to admit the U.S. needs genuine social and educational reform—both of which must be based on a genuine commitment to equity and an acknowledgement that both our society and our schools are currently inequitable.

This concession and action based on it would indeed be the Christmas miracle we need and our children and society deserve.



Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.

Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9),950-958.

[1] As full disclosure, as I noted above, I was drawn to education by my faith in education as the lever for social reform, a philosophical stance I came to know as social reconstruction once I entered my doctoral program (read, for example, George Counts, Dare the School Build a New Social Order?). In my nearly thirty years as a teacher, I have come to accept, however, that viewing schools as a primary or singular tool for social reform is not supported by the evidence, and as a result (a painful admission I have had to confront), I firmly consider myself a Social Context Reformer.

Action teams tackle St. Paul achievement gap, recommend other big changes at SPPS

December 20, 2011

Saint Paul Public Schools must “commit to dismantling the effects of racism and White privilege on district and school culture, curriculum, and instruction,” recommended the Achievement Gap Team, one of nine Districtwide Action Teams, on December 19. As part of the effort, the Integration/Choice team recommended that SPPS identify low poverty schools in the district and reserve 20 percent of the seats at these low poverty schools for students from high need neighborhoods.

The nine action teams, part of the Strong Schools, Strong Communities initiative, have spent the last seven months tackling issues of budget and finance, shared accountability, partnerships, site governance, aligned learning, specialized academic programming, transition to middle grades, integration-choice and the achievement gap. They presented their report to the district and the school board on December 19 at St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) headquarters. (See attached pdf for full report.)

Each team was made up of parents, community leaders, people from the business community and educators. According to Michelle Walker, the Chief Accountability Officer for SPPS, 241 people applied to be a part of the effort, 149 of whom were placed on teams, along with educators appointed to each team.

Much has been said about the achievement gap in recent years, a conversation that emerges from statistics of the disparities between white and minority students. In many conversations, the words racism and white privilege are avoided, perhaps due to their charged nature. However, Stacey Gray Akyea, who gave the presentation for the Achievement Gap action team, said the group was “very sure that naming the problem with urgency and bravery is the right way to go.”

Sharla Scullen, Academic Services Manager at the YWCA St Paul, served on the Achievement Gap action team. She said a lot of the process involved getting everybody to try to agree on what was meant by the achievement gap, and which students they were talking about.

“Because it was such a charged topic, an emotional topic, members of the group who were African American in particular seemed like they needed to defend the kids,” Scullen, who is African American, said in an interview. “I personally didn’t think that was helpful. We needed to get past that immediately, and stop defending the kids, acknowledging that there is a gap and look at the contributing factors.”

“We were very intentional about establishing norms for how to work together,” she said. They found that things were already happening in the community or nationally, and that the district needed to focus on identifying promising practices, she said. The team found that the culture and climate needed to change, and that there were steps to that process, including training. Scullen said that the district has already begun implementing training, which she described as treatment. The team also decided it was very important to listen to the students’ voices and take them into account.

The theme of bridging the achievement gap permeated the recommendations of all nine action teams. The budget and finance team recommended the district look at how the budgeting decisions affect the achievement gap first, and then at how those decisions will fit into the overall budget second, said team member Alec Timmerman.

The Specialized Academic Programming team, which focused on language immersion, Montessori, and gifted and talented programs, also addressed the achievement gap by stating the district needed to work harder to recruit students from low income and underrepresented communities for these programs.

The school board approved the Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan last March, according to board member Keith Hardy. According to the SPPS website, the Strong Schools, Strong Communities is “our strategy for improving education for all students – without exception or excuse.”

Hardy said the major successes that came out of the action teams’ work was that they “moved the district out of a vacuum.” The teams showed the “rich conversations you have when you get the spokes of the wheels involved,” he said.

One of the action teams described its decision to change its name from Managed Instruction to Aligned Learning as its first success. Hardy said the change was made so that all the stakeholders could “buy in” to it. At the core of the Aligned Learning team’s recommendations is “bridging the science of learning and the art of teaching for the benefit of every child,” according to the presenters.

“I don’t care what we call it,” said Superintendent Valeria Silva, about the name change of the team. “

She questioned the group about how the district would get all 3,000 plus teachers and 3,000 plus other workers to follow the same standards.

Kate Wilcox-Harris responded that the implementation of aligned learning wasn’t something that could happen with a wave of a magic wand. “People have to buy into it,” she said. To accomplish that, part of the team’s recommendations includes collaborations, including opportunities for sharing between teachers and administrators, and also feedback systems that “ensure aligned learning accountability,” according to their PowerPoint presentation.

A number of the action teams seemed to offer common sense approaches that correlated with each other. The Shared Accountability, Partnerships, and Transition to Middle Grades action teams all emphasized building meaningful relationships with parents, communities and business partners. The Site Governance Action Team also talked about engagement, saying that it must be used and must matter. Further, the Site Governance team recommended a stakeholder identification and analysis process, with engagement monitored and reported on regularly.

One of the more controversial topics to be addressed was handled by the Integration-Choice team, charged with revising the SPPS integration plan and defining the “criteria for attendance areas, transportation zones and placement of students to ensure equitable education across the city and for all students,” according to the PowerPoint presentation.

The Integration-Choice team sought to ensure diversity through equitable choice, maintaining fairness and equity, and making the system user-friendly, according to their presentation. The group prioritized keeping families in the same school, racial and economic diversity, dedicated seats in popular schools for underrepresented groups, geographic proximity, and avoiding concentration of special education and ELL services as well as having the maximum number of people receive their first choice.

The group’s recommendations mainly concerned schools that receive more applications than available openings, and group members acknowledged that more work was needed on bringing more students to high-poverty schools.

For more information about each of the different Districtwide Action Teams, including their charges and recommendations, check the accountability page on the SPPS website, and the PowerPoint presentation, attached below as a pdf. [Find link to pdf file here].

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan ( is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.

Occupy Education

Liza Featherstone, December 19, 2011 (The Nation)

“Mic check! MIC CHECK! Let the Puppet show begin! LET THE PUPPET SHOW BEGIN!”

The demonstrators who held the floor at a December 14 meeting at Newtown High School in Corona, Queens, were part of Occupy DOE (Department of Education), a mix of veteran teachers, parents and Occupy Wall Street activists that is bringing the language and tactics of OWS to the grassroots fight against neoliberal education reform.

The demonstrators explained why the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP), which had convened the Queens meeting, is an illegitimate, undemocratic body. New York’s PEP replaced elected school boards when Bloomberg established mayoral control of the school system. It is a parody of a school board: at its meetings, members of the public make impassioned speeches, but nothing they say makes any difference. The majority of the panel’s members are appointed by the mayor, and the PEP has never, in all its existence, rejected any of his proposals.

As the official meeting began, each panelist was introduced. As each mayoral appointee said their name, Occupy DOE yelled, “Puppet!” Throughout the meeting, the protestors waved puppets to dramatize the nature of mayoral control.

The PEP was voting that night on a plan to open two new charter schools in Brooklyn, both with the Success network, run by Eva Moskowitz, a former city councilwoman with close ties to Bloomberg and his administration. Almost everyone on the Success board hails from the hedge fund or private equity industry. The idea that the one percent could open schools in Brooklyn neighborhoods, despite intense opposition from both the public and many of its local elected officials, has provoked fury.

As the depth of Brooklyn’s opposition to the Success schools became clear, the department tried to avoid hearing from opponents or protesters altogether by moving the PEP vote from a central location in Manhattan to faraway Corona, Queens. The DOE initially claimed that this would make it easier for Queens parents to comment on proposals affecting their borough. The funny part was, there were no such proposals on the agenda.

Occupy DOE did shut down the PEP in October, and will surely do so again, though on December 14 the group decided that it would be better to let the meeting go on, since so many people wanted to speak out against the DOE proposals.

During the time allocated for public comments, Leia Petty, a young guidance counselor, asked Chancellor Dennis Walcott some direct questions (including, “Why did you move the meeting to Queens?”) Walcott refused to answer. After Petty exceeded her designated two minutes of speaking time, two white-shirted police officers came over to remove her from the meeting. As the crowd shouted, “Let her stay!” the officers backed away and did just that.

It’s not only in New York City that the Occupy spirit has invigorated education activists. In late November Occupy Rochester, along with parents and other community activists, disruptively mic-checked a school board meeting to protest an undemocratic process for selecting a new school superintendent, a process that involved a corporate search firm. In Chicago, on the same day as the Queens PEP meeting, protesters shut down a school board meeting to protest recent failed reforms. Like New York, Chicago has been shutting down failing schools and replacing them with new ones, often charter schools. As in New York, many of the new schools perform even worse than the old ones. Parents and teachers mic checked the meeting, yelling, “You have failed Chicago’s children…. These are our children, not corporate products!” Two days later, protesters occupied the lobby of New Jersey’s Department of Education, protesting Governor Chris Christie’s efforts to open more charter schools in the state.

Leia Petty, who has been active in OWS but especially in Occupy DOE, said of the education justice movement, “People have been doing this work for years but OWS has opened new possibilities for this work. It’s helped us think bolder. It feels like a whole movement, not just us.”

To be sure, the 99 percent isn’t unanimous in its opposition to the mayor’s reform agenda. At the meeting in Corona, some charter school parents spoke of their satisfaction with their children’s education. But there weren’t many of them, and Gotham Schools has reported that they’d been organized to attend by an Astroturf pro-charter organization called Families for Excellent Schools, headed by Seth Andrews, who runs Democracy Prep, a charter chain.

The Corona meeting did indeed live up to its billing as a puppet show, as the PEP voted to approve all the mayor’s proposals as always.

But this grassroots movement to Occupy Education continues to grow. One teacher who, fearing retaliation from the department, did not want her name printed, addressed the crowd shortly before the protesters walked out of the meeting: “We need to show them what democracy looks like, because,” she pointed at the mayor’s hand-picked panel, “this is not what democracy looks like.”