Setting the Standard in Education

Archive for 2010|Yearly archive page

I’m Hitting the Road, Jack

In Uncategorized on August 7, 2010 at 7:50 pm

I start my 2800 mile journey from Los Angeles to New York tonight. As such, I’ll be on hiatus for the week with maybe a surprise post or two. Regular posts will resume the 14th.

Brown Vs. Whitman Part 3: The Comparison

In California, Federal on August 6, 2010 at 1:02 pm

While the Federal DOE is thankful to have an EduJobs bill that doesn’t cut any of Obama’s pet programs (although it does cut millions from welfare and financial aid funds), if you’ve been following along, you know that around these parts, that’s not the major storyline. This will be the third part of a three part series on Jerry Brown’s and Meg Whitman’s education platforms in their race for the governor’s seat. Today, I’ll go through a comparison of their policies. The easiest way to go about his is probably category by category. I’ll have a little scorecard to go along with it.

I couldn't resist this graphic from the San Jose Independent Examiner. Neither will win the looks contest from these pictures, but does one have a stronger education body of policy?

Higher education

Both Whitman and Brown have major selling points when it comes to higher ed. Whitman wants to give more money to the UCs and Cal States. Brown on the other hand wants to revamp the California Master Plan to make the system work with 21st century goals in mind, rather than the stratification that was set 50 years ago. Part of this includes online courses and making sure the community college system is aligned with the UCs and CSUs.

The point goes to Brown. He has a much more specific idea of what he wants to see happen in higher ed.
Brown: 1 Whitman: 0

Teacher quality

Both candidates want to recruit better teachers, but neither really says how this is going to happen. The closest thing that either candidate has for a recruitment plan is that Meg Whitman wants easier pathways to alternative certification, specifically for STEM subject teachers. This is a great idea, but it seems incomplete. Just making it easier to become a teacher is not going to necessarily attract better candidates. Her better idea is the idea of bonuses for outstanding teachers. While this might not attract better teachers, it could serve to retain good ones. Jerry Brown’s strength lies in his idea for teacher prep. He wants to see changes in how teachers are brought into the field. His idea actually has some major similarities to the Urban Teacher Residency model. To bring that to a large scale would be a great challenge, but it could be monumental in its effect. He also includes an idea for ways that teachers can move up, rather than keeping the same responsibility level for their entire careers.

This point goes to Brown. Again, he seems to have a very specific plan on what he’d like to see with real interventions.
Brown: 2, Whitman: 0

Education Funding

This is the topic that gets the most people riled up, although I think honestly it probably has among the least effects on students. You can argue that crowded classrooms and poor facilities result in poor performance, but I go back to the fact that money spent has little or no correlation to achievement. Whitman thinks that there should be less administrative spending and more in the classroom. She wants to cut a lot of the overhead so money can go to more direct funding of the classroom. Both candidates favor changing the formulas for classroom funding. Brown wants there to be fewer than 20 categories, while Whitman thinks there should be a few simplified grants for which districts can apply. They both think the spending should be more in the hands of the schools. Whitman says she’d take money saved from cutting welfare, whereas Brown says he’d save money from cutting prison programs.

This one is a tie. The only thing that really stands out in funding is Whitman’s idea to cut administrative expenses in favor of classroom spending. As I pointed out yesterday, there’s not much evidence this would lead to better performance.
Brown: 2.5, Whitman: .5

School innovation

This is an area where there are pretty clear-cut differences. Whitman is for abolishing the charter cap. That would allow for charters to blossom and create an environment with a penchant for change. Brown doesn’t want to be so hasty. Instead, he suggests that schools be given more freedoms and says that districts should be encouraged to be more innovative. I don’t really see how he expects these things to happen.

This point goes to Whitman. Brown really seems to be a waffler on this one, probably because of his large campaign contributions from a certain organization.
Brown: 2.5, Whitman: 1.5

School performance

A big part of Meg Whitman’s education policy is the idea to grade all schools A through F and then allow parents of failing schools choices of either allowing their student to transfer or to make it into a charter. I think parental involvement is important, but parents aren’t experts when it comes to education. They should have input, not control. A clear system of accountability could be very useful, though. Brown’s focus when it comes to school performance is on the tests. He thinks the testing system needs a big overhaul. Tests should be faster, more accurate, and throughout the year to gauge growth better.

Both candidates have decent ideas that are very different, so it’s hard to give this point to one of them. I’ll call it a tie.
Final score: Brown: 3, Whitman: 2

Feel free to change the scores for things you believe in to determine who you find the better candidate for education. Maybe you think charters are too dangerous or perhaps you really think there needs to be more funding for higher education. What’s clear is this: Jerry Brown has a lot more ideas when it comes to education. This could be a strength or a weakness, depending on how you look at it. It’s obvious his experience both as a founder of charters and a former governor makes him more aware of education issues. He tends to be more vague on a lot of his points, while Whitman strives to be straightforward, but I give him the edge when it comes to the policy potentials. Remember of course, that these are just platforms, so they don’t guarantee decision-making skills in themselves. Neither candidate seems to be terrible when it comes to education, but Brown falls a bit ahead of Whitman, it seems.

Brown Vs. Whitman Part 2: Meg Whitman

In California on August 5, 2010 at 5:59 pm

If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, I am writing a three-part series about the two California gubernatorial candidates’ education platforms. After my lengthy post about Jerry Brown’s 12 point plan on education, today should be a little relief. Meg Whitman has a much shorter plan (not that that’s a positive or negative thing in itself). Whitman has seven education policy goals and they are each much more concise and to the point. So here goes:

Part 2: Meg Whitman

I put up Jerry Brown's facebook photo yesterday, so I find it only appropriate to have Meg Whitman's today.

Whitman’s headline goal seems to be “directing more money to the classroom.” It’s the only goal she lists on the first of three pages about her education goals. To be more precise than her wording, Whitman is in favor of making a larger portion of education funding go to the classroom. Currently, she says 60% of funding in California goes to the classroom with 40% going to overhead and administration. Personally, this sounds mostly like political posturing more than anything. An article Joanne Jacobs mentioned a couple of days ago says, California actually spends much less per student in non-classroom spending (ie teacher salaries) than any other state. One would surmise that means that California is already doing a decent job cutting down administrative costs. I would also point out that this is not based on any studies showing that higher classroom funding means better performance. In fact, a number of countries spend much less than the US on the classroom and have better results.

Whitman’s second point seems to be very clever. She says she wants to give bonuses to high-performing teachers, administrators, and schools. She doesn’t come out and support direct performance pay, such as having pay scales based upon performance, but this amounts to the same thing. The question is, would this mean bad teachers get the same that they’re already making and good teachers get even more? That article about California teachers making the most money would suggest that’s unnecessary. Obviously, if we’re paying teachers so much here and they aren’t performing better than other places, then just paying teachers more doesn’t seem likely to raise performance. There need to be other means to attract high-quality educators.

She also wants to do away with the caps on charter schools. This is a very bold approach that could put her under fire. Personally, I see no reason that charter schools should be capped. We don’t cap “regular” public schools. Whitman calls the cap an “artificial bar” and I agree. However, lifting the ban needs to come with something that she doesn’t mention: stricter controls in authorization. There are some great charter schools in California, but there are lots of bad ones, too. The point of charters is to be able to breed new models that can be replicated. If a charter isn’t any good, the plug needs to be pulled. That should go for district schools, too, but that’s a separate issue. Actually, it’s her next issue. She wants to see a simple grading system for schools from A to F with school grades posted online. This sounds good in theory, but schools already have ratings online at, but that doesn’t seem to help. However, she thinks that schools receiving an F should allow students to automatically be able to transfer or for parents to convert it to a charter with a simple majority vote. While this is innovative, I wonder how well this would work. Often parents don’t even know how well their child’s school is performing. Perhaps if they are automatically notified if the school is failing and told what the options are, it could work to speed things along. A simple majority vote may not be so simple if most parents don’t even know what’s going on.

Meg Whitman’s sixth part of her plan is very specific: she wants to see California invest $1 billion in its higher education system. She says this money will be saved from welfare and other reforms and should be used to go toward education. I think spending money on schools is a good idea and of course, the UCs and Cal States have been hurting due to budget constraints, but I think Whitman’s vision on this issue is too limited. This is where her business mentality breaks down. Throwing money at problems does not necessarily solve them. The UC system has bigger problems than underfunding and she doesn’t say anything about them. She says nothing about the community colleges. In fact, Whitman points out how good the UCs are, but doesn’t say what should be done to make sure that the other two parts of the system become world-class institutions as well.

Finally, Whitman supports alternative pathways for math and science teachers. It’s been bandied about that the US in general suffers from a lack of qualified STEM teachers and Whitman points out that California is 43rd in science and 45th in math. I like the idea of specific alternative pathways if there are a few constraints (she doesn’t go into specifics). Her point is that California specifically has too few teachers in these areas that were educated in these disciplines. I can see a good argument for allowing those who have studied math or science in college to be given an alternative option for teaching those subjects. Teach For America has its biggest improvements over other teachers in math and science, which could be linked to a higher proportion of those teachers having studied those disciplines.

Tune in tomorrow for my comparison of the Whitman and Brown’s policies!

The Education Standard Hits the Big Time

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2010 at 5:49 pm

OK, OK, so maybe not the big time, but one of my posts has been included in a blog carnival. Bellringers has created carnival called Education Buzz. Issue number 1 is out and one of my posts is in it! Sweet!

Brown Vs. Whitman Part 1: Jerry Brown

In California on August 4, 2010 at 5:44 pm

While the big news in California Monday was the adoption of the Common Core standards, making California the 33rd to join, yesterday’s big headline around these parts is that California teachers make the most in the country, despite per-student spending being $2,000 less than average.

Both of those headlines actually tie into the gubernatorial race in California as both issues relate to the platform of at least one of the two major candidates. Originally, I was going to write this as one post, but I decided that would be horrendously long, so I’m going to split this into three. Today, I’ll cover Brown’s platform, tomorrow will be Whitman’s, and Friday, I’ll do my best to compare the two. Before I begin, I want to give a few disclaimers. First, I am a bleeding heart liberal when it comes to social issues. I might even consider myself a pinko socialist. I will do my best not to endorse either candidate. Instead, I intend to write an analysis of each candidate’s policies to help California voters in their decisions. I can’t say I have a lot of hope in persuading people’s votes anyway. Despite most voters claiming education to be one of the most important issues they care about, they rarely make their decisions based upon education issues. If you’re in the small minority that do, more power to ya. Finally, I’m going to base my analysis largely on their platforms. I know this could lead to a flawed idea of what these candidates will actually do, but I’m more in the business of discussing whether what they say they’re going to do is valid.

And now Part 1: Jerry Brown.

Jerry Brown’s Education Plan starts off with a bit about his track record. He points to increasing funding, starting charters, establishing high school graduation requirements (they didn’t have them until the 70s?), focusing on math and science, and promoting job-related educational programs. All of these sound pretty good on the surface. I wish he had more numbers outside of how much money was spent. He claims that the charters he started are “among the top-performing schools in Oakland.” The only basis we get for that are the college acceptance rates. Twenty-five percent of graduates from one of the schools, Oakland Military Institute, were accepted to University of California schools. For those unfamiliar, the aim for UC schools it to accept about the top 12.5% of high school graduates, so for 1/4 of theirs to get into UCs is very high. The other of his two schools is the Oakland School for the Arts, about which he give no numbers.

This used to be Brown's facebook photo. His current one is just too big. Plus, it's more fun to post action shots.

I find it fairly impressive that he instituted high school graduation requirements, but upon looking closer, one has to wonder what that really means. The legislation only required that all districts establish academic standards, not that those standards are the same across the board. The other piece of law that he created was the California Worksite Education and Training Act (CWETA) to fund job training in under-staffed sectors. Again, I like the idea, but he doesn’t give any specifics on results.

He then continues with what he plans if elected. He has 12 different sections, so I’ll try to be as succinct as possible about each. He first tackles higher ed. His plan is to overhaul the California Master Plan (I wrote about its 50th birthday a couple of months ago). Again, he’s pretty vague about what that means. He’s a proponent of using more online courses to save costs. The Regents have a jump on him there. Online courses are great if they’re well-monitored. I wish he’d say something about how to ensure high quality online courses. He does a good job on being specific (finally) on community colleges. They need to have courses that are more closely aligned with Cal States and UCs for transferring credits. However, he also says that “burdensome state regulations and mandates should be kept to a minimum.” Hmm… It’s hard to create across-the-board accountability without regulations.

Next, he thinks state testing needs an overhaul. It takes too much time and needs to be better aligned with college- and career-readiness. Of course, joining the Common Core standards movement affects this tremendously. Working with PARCC will be instrumental in forming the new assessments. However, the other assessment consortium, SMARTER, is the one that is developing a computer-adaptive model, which would cut down testing time while increasing testing accuracy.

His third goal is to change the school funding formulas to create more generalized pots of money for schools. Rather than the current 62 categories, he suggests fewer than 20. I’m not completely sold on this idea. I think it’s a good idea to evaluate the formula periodically and continue to tweak it, but having a goal of being less specific in your funding may not be such a good idea. The benefit of being more accurate with your spending may outweigh the cost of having people decide on these various categories. I suppose it depends on how much is actually being spent and how much would be saved if the formulas were reduced so much.

One of his strongest cases seems to be in teacher prep. Brown wants to improve our model in a few ways. First, he thinks there needs to be a focus on recruiting better candidates. He’s vagues on this point, but at least it’s something that he thinks should be looked into. More importantly, he wants to see a sort of apprentice program that  I am a big fan of. Rather than throwing first year teachers to the wolves (read: children), he suggests we ease them into it. Teachers should be able to take education coursework while learning to teach in the field. Another part of his plan is to have on-site teacher evaluations run by districts, specifically looking at performance. This seems fairly commonsense. Something that I wrote about in my very first post is the need for ways teachers can move up beyond teaching. Brown proposes paying experienced teachers to become mentor teachers, helping out younger teachers and allowing them a path toward school leadership. On top of teacher-based performance initiatives, Brown thinks we need to have similar programs for recruiting, evaluating, and training better principals.

Point five is simplify the Education code. This falls into a similar category as simplifying the budget. It could be useful, but has lots of pitfalls. On the topic of creativity in the curriculum, Brown says he will, “create local and state initiatives to increase school focus on science, history and the humanities–without reducing needed attention to math and English.” While I’m all for making the scope broader, I think it’s just silly to claim you can focus on something else and still keep the same attention on what you already had. If that were possible, it would’ve already been happening. In a similar vein, he wants to put more focus on STEM subjects (science, math). I’m not really sure what he is thinking we can do to “expand curriculum” there. Another area that he thinks needs attention is English learning. He wants the State Board of Education to “adopt instructional materials” for “intensive intervention.” From what I’ve known, State BOE’s don’t generally have official materials. They have standards and it’s left up to the districts to make sure they have materials that align. If he’s suggesting that there be specific things that schools must adopt, then that goes against his interest in giving local education organizations more freedom. Another vague thing he wants is to reduce the achievement gap and increase graduation rates. Don’t we all.

I have a bit of a bone to pick when it comes to charter schools. He adds that as one of his sections, but then doesn’t say what he wants to do, other than that it’s a bad idea to have “massive increases in charter schools.” That sounds like a union line if I ever heard one. He thinks that district schools should be given those same freedoms, but unless you’re going to make contracts void, it is a huge hurdle to have innovative staffing, calendars, and numerous other options. Right now, with all of the bureaucracy defining education, charters are the easiest way to get around those barriers.

His last two points are weak as well. He says that local districts should “consider innovative schools.” Sure, but that’s not something he is going to do himself, is it? That sounds like more of something he supports, rather than a platform. The last area of concern for Brown is citizenship and character. The only thing he suggests is that current law gets in the way of discipline. I’m not sure how making it easier to discipline would make people with better character and citizenship. It sounds more like a fast-track to jail.

OK, so that’s Jerry Brown for you. If you made it this far, I commend you. Imagine if I hadn’t been to the point! Look for my analysis of Meg Whitman’s (potential) education policies tomorrow.

The Road More or Less Travelled

In LA, Uncategorized on August 2, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I am happy to report that as expected, I will be moving to New York City. I should be there by the middle of the month. This may or may not mean fewer posts over the next couple of weeks, as you’ve seen this past week. I will do my best to blog as often as I can, but I can’t guarantee anything. Right now, I am waiting to find out what information I am allowed to disclose about my job, as I will be working for an education-related organization. I would love to be able to comment on relevant topics, but I need to make sure I don’t step on any toes or go over any boundaries. As such, I’m going to stick to non-New York-related topics until I find out what I am and am not allowed to say. I have lots of packing, cleaning, and selling of possessions to do in the next few days, so I’m going to go head off and do those things. Tomorrow, I’m going to try to get in a post comparing the education platforms of the two major candidates for California governor, Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. Both have some solid ideas and some inconsistencies. It should be a treat.

I will be seeing a lot of this on my drive from LA to NY.

The Future of LAUSD

In California, LA on July 31, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Back in June, I reported that LAUSD had hired John Deasy as assistant superintendent under Ray Cortines. It’s important to note taht Deasy is being paid more than Cortines, who also gave Deasy the bigger office. Clearly, the assumption is that Deasy will be superintendent when Cortines finishes his term. A little over a week ago, Cortines announced that will be sooner than what was previously expected. Cortines had a contract that lasted until the end of 2011, but he says he will be done next spring. This comes as a bit of a surprise, but it’s not a huge change from what the original plan was. By retiring next spring, Cortines will have served about 2 1/2 years of his 3-year contract. These past few years and his previous term were both fraught with difficulties. He presided over huge budget cuts and layoffs.

Cortines is retiring early to help transition LAUSD into a new era.

However, that seems like it was the plan all along. Cortines is seen not as a reformer, but as a budget-slasher. While he has done some great things for LAUSD like pressing for allowing wider school takeovers by CMOs and other organizations, his main issue has been navigating a financial crisis. LAUSD has been in dire straits since he came aboard in 2008 and he has worked his way into making things better. While the district is by no means out of the clear, perhaps this is a sign that Cortines thinks things should be better by next year. Or that he’s done dealing with the financial woes. What seems clear is that he’s creating a fast-track for Deasy to takeover next spring and put his own print on LA’s schools.

Backward March!

In Federal on July 29, 2010 at 1:47 pm

The National Urban League, which is having its centennial convention this week, backed off of its criticism of President Obama's education agenda.

Michele McNeil reports that a group of civil rights organizations who released a document criticizing Obama and the Department of Education’s reforms have done an about face. Despite originally calling for Race to the Top and other recent reforms to be dismantled, three of the groups now say the document was released too early and do not support it. Instead, they say that they agree for the most part with what the Administration has done. Hugh Price, former president of the Urban League, one of the original organizations signing the document, called what the White House has done the “most muscular federal education policy I’ve ever seen.” This comes after Duncan said that he thought the criticisms were unwarranted and that the DOE’s policies have been particularly effective for minorities.

President Obama today spoke at the National Urban League’s 100th Anniversary Convention, pressing for support of his actions, saying that the pushback is due to “a general resistance to change, a comfort with the status quo .” He called education the “economic issue of our time” and said that the reforms that have passed are all about accountability. In the end, it seems the critics have backed off, whether from fear or from a feeling that they were being to hasty. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who was supposed to be one of the speakers at a press conference for the document on Monday that was eventually cancelled, said he agrees with the president and is “prepared to fight for a lot of what he’s saying.”

The Obligatory Race to the Top Update

In California, Federal on July 27, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Well, there are lots of things going on in education these days, despite school being out for most of the country. The number one story of course, has been federal spending on education and specifically, Race to the Top. Well, specifics on the Race have been quiet for a bit, but the DOE just announced that there are 19 finalists for Round Two. Even though there are more states that are finalists than not (17 losing out), this seems to be about the number expected. Michele McNeil and Lesli Maxwell actually correctly predicted 17 of them. Only Arizona and Hawaii were surprises to them. Arizona made an incredible improvement, considering they were 40th the first time. I suppose requiring teachers not to have accents didn’t hurt their chances. The number of finalists is no surprise, though. In the first round, there were 15 finalists with only two winners. This time, Secretary Duncan said he expects 10-15 winners.

While the announcement is positive, Ed Sector’s Rob Manwaring questions the timing. Because the deadline for adopting the Common Core is August 2nd, states who are not finalists may have less reason to make moves to put them in place. He points out that of the eight states that applied for RttT and haven’t adopted the Common Core yet, only California is a finalist. That means Alabama, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington have all lost the incentive of Race to the Top. As the head of one of the test consortia, I’d expect Washington to go ahead and adopt the standards anyway, but what about the others? Perhaps, they’ll have second thoughts now. Money is a big draw. New York’s Board of Regents Chancellor, Merryl Tisch, said she’d love for New York to be able to do what they’ve proposed in their application, but doesn’t think it can happen without the money from the federal government. Of course, Duncan is playing the line that all the states should do what they propose, whether or not they get the money, but lots of states are having budget problems. New York’s budget is four months late. California has been cutting and cutting and still having incredible problems.

The Hechinger Report’s Justin Snider has a list of who he thinks will win. (Hint: not too many big states). If California, New York, and Florida were all to win, that would take up half of the money left. Don’t think that the DOE isn’t thinking politically in this one. They’ll make sure the states that win are not only the ones with the best shots of enacting their reforms, but the ones that will have the most political impact, too. A win for California or New York would be great for those states, but Florida is much more of a swing state. Will that affect the winners? Hopefully not, but you can’t rule it out.

Updates: Liz Willen from Hechinger has a great analysis of the changes Arizona made to go from 40th to a finalist.

Four Days a Week, Four Days a Week

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2010 at 5:23 pm

The AP reported today that Caldwell Parish’s experiment with four-day weeks may not have been successful. The school switched to a four-day week just after 2007 test scores were released. Since then, the number of students scoring basic or above on three out of four state tests have dropped.  However, this doesn’t show the whole picture. Superintendent John Sartin says that their “district peformance scores” have actually gone up from 92.8 in 2007 to 96 in 2009 (2010 numbers aren’t available yet). These scores add up not only the test averages, but attendance, dropout, and graduation rates. I’m not sure what that scale is out of, but it’s not based on 100 (I hope!) based on the Louisiana State DOE’s data. They say the parish had the 8th least growth of any in the state at a measly 1%.

Sartin thinks that the four-day weeks are “absolutely not” affecting performance, but logic dictates otherwise. The district has four-day weeks and as far as I can tell from their calendar, they have the same length of the school year as everyone else. It’s hard to tell the length of schooldays from their website, but Louisiana law requires a certain number of hours for students to be in class (called seat time). That means instead of having 180 days with about 7 hours of school, students go to school for about 144 days for almost 9 hours/day. Now let me give you a second for that to soak in. Do you remember when you were in school and the days felt like they were soooo long? Now imagine adding two hours onto that. In economic terms, we have the law of diminishing returns. The longer you’re in your seat at a time, the less effective each additional hour will be. Brains wear down. Kids get tired. Teachers get tired. As a teacher, I loved having time to nap after school before getting back to work on lesson plans and such. A longer day means a less effective use of your time. In a 9 hour day, you will learn more than in a 7 hour day, but if 35 hours is spread over 5 days, it’s going to be more effective than over 4. You might be saving money, but you’re not helping students.

I would like to see a different 4-day model. I want to see what happens when schools stick to 180 days, buts spread it out over 45 weeks instead of 36. There is lots of evidence that students lose a lot of knowledge over the summer with their brains not being as active. Perhaps if education were more evenly spread out throughout the year, learning would be more effective. I’d love to hear some responses to that idea. Am I a genius? A crackpot? What do you think?