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Dem Haters

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

Most of the commentary on Michelle Rhee’s announcement last week that she was stepping down as CEO of StudentsFirst focused on her style and personality. It’s important, however, to focus on the results of her work, specifically the longer-term impact of the policies she put in place as chancellor of DC Public Schools.

We’ve seen a lot of spin in the reporting of D.C. results, such as that recently by G.F. Brandenburg, which was dutifully regurgitated by Valerie Strauss and Diane Ravitch, among others. The disconnect between what they see as troubling results for D.C. students and their glee in reporting such kind of creeps me out.

The grand spinning prize, however, goes to the folks at Broader, Bolder who worked up a 15-page memo for reporters a month before D.C. released its 2014 test results (Hat tip to Bernie Horn. I don’t appear to be on BB’s mailing list).

While you’re poring over the statistical gymnastics Broader, Bolder performed to put Rhee’s policies in the worst possible light, keep in mind that Broader, Bolder launched itself as an organization that believes schools can only play a limited role in furthering student achievement and that test scores are a poor measure of student learning. No school could possibly produce dramatic changes in student achievement. And dagnabbit, they’re gonna use test scores to prove it.

Here’s how convoluted Broader, Bolder got when trying to downplay DC black student achievement gains:

“….[B]lack students made slightly larger gains than their white peers in most grades, but in many cases due to actual losses for white students.”

Broader, Bolder, you had me at “Black students made slightly larger gains than their white peers…”

I’m not going to say the results for D.C. aren’t mixed or imperfect. They are. That’s always the case when public policies are implemented on a massive scale. But here’s what’s irrefutable:

  • The NAEP results show positive changes for DC students between 2009 and 2013 across the board in fourth-grade reading for all subgroups.
  • This is true for the increase in NAEP scale scores and Proficiency rates, as well as reductions in the percentage of students performing Below Basic (the lowest possible category).
  • D.C. tied for the highest 2011-2013 NAEP gains (five points, roughly equivalent to half a grade level) in fourth-grade reading with Tennessee, Indiana, Minnesota and Washington State.
  • D.C.’s NAEP overall gains - in math and reading - between 2011 and 2013 were higher than any state.
  • Only six out of 21 urban districts, including D.C., scored significantly higher on NAEP in 2013 than in 2011 in mathematics in at least one grade level (the others - none of them among BB’s favorites - are Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Fresno and Los Angeles).
  • Only five of 21 urban districts, including D.C., scored higher in 2013 than in 2011 in reading in at least one grade level (the others - none of them BB favorites - are Baltimore, Dallas, Fresno and Los Angeles).

When Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated and Chancellor Rhee stepped down, their adversaries danced around proclaiming that getting rid of Fenty and Rhee would mean an end to their policies. That did not happen. And there are signs that the policies they put forth, while in need of further reinforcement and refinement, are working. The sooner Broader, Bolder and others stop making this about personalities and develop the necessary discipline to prevent their hatred of someone from distorting their view of what is actually happening with real kids in real classrooms in real cities like D.C. (and Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.), the better.

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.





The Unmentioned Politics in NYC's Rushed Pre-K Implementation May Wind Up Hurting Kids

By Charlie Barone, Policy Director

Today over at Vox, Libby Nelson did some much-needed reporting on Mayor Bill De Blasio's rush to offer universal Pre-K in New York City. Nelson rightly zeroes in on the biggest risk of hasty implementation: poor quality Pre-K programs. No other major city has implemented Pre-K as quickly. Not even close.

So, why the rush? Universal Pre-K is certainly a worthy goal; the positive findings for the short- and long-term outcomes following high-quality early childhood education argue for urgency. But if Pre-K in NYC is implemented at the expense of quality, it's at best a wasted effort. Even worse, research shows sending kids to a crummy program can actually be harmful to students.

The elephant the room—or in this case more aptly half a donkey—is the adult interests that could trump the needs of kids. It's no secret the push for Pre-K in New York City was been driven in large part by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Pre-K, like class size reduction, is a winning issue for unions because it dovetails popular and, under certain circumstances, effective policy with union self-interest (i.e., more dues-paying members). It's not talked about much in polite company, but it's a very real and potent dynamic. In all fairness, self-interest, in terms of added revenues, may also be an issue in non-union, community-based programs.

One need only look at the implementation of class size reduction (CSR) in California in the late 1990's to see how a rushed policy—the dominant force behind which was the California Teachers Association—that involves union jobs can work against the interests of students. In no time at all, 40,000 "emergency-certified" teachers were placed in California classrooms, mostly in schools with high proportions of poor and minority children. Rushing this policy defeated the purpose it meant to serve, which was to raise the quality of instruction in classrooms and provide students more individualized attention.

Certification is a poor measure of teacher effectiveness. Certainly some of the emergency-certified teachers did a fabulous job. But whatever hiring standards school districts had in addition to certification largely went out the window. Teaching out-of-field in subjects like math is related to poor performance and that went up sharply under CSR. So intimidating was the CTA that the experts at California's flagship schools of education (Berkeley, Stanford and UCLA), who are now so concerned with alternative preparation programs like TFA and who tout the importance of years of experience, pretty much sat the whole thing out. Some civil rights groups tried to push back. But once the train left the station, it never really slowed down.

Nitzan Pelman, founder of Citizen Schools, made similar points in a January op-ed in the New York Daily News and succinctly summed up the risk of overzealous Pre-K implementation: "This initiative risks becoming a jobs program instead of an education initiative."

In the Vox piece, the knowledgeable and astute Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, asserts that, ultimately, there is a built-in safeguard in that "you can pick and choose and let the poor-quality places go out of business."

I'm not so sure that's a realistic expectation. It's hard to imagine that a mayor who has criticized the closing of low-performing K-12 schools will be any more willing to close low-performing Pre-K programs. It's not something the city does now. And it would be a real change of course for a mayor whose agenda is very much driven by union wish lists. Oversight won't be any easier with a boatload more children being served.

Time will tell. But anyone who's concerned about how kids will fare in this high-stakes gamble should watch closely as this unfolds and be ready, willing and able to push for a course-correction if and when it is needed.

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.





Former NEA President Bob Chase has some pretty good advice for the new president

By Charlie Barone, Policy Director

It’s sad but in no way surprising that the leaders of both national teachers unions threw fits at their recent conventions over what they claim are efforts to bust unions and privatize public education.

What if - instead of attacking those who want kids to have a way out of chronically failing schools and who seek to ensure every child has an effective teacher - NEA President Lily Eskelsen-García had said:

“[T]he National Education Association has been a traditional, somewhat narrowly focused union. Today, however, it is clear to me, and to a critical mass of teachers across America, that while this narrow, traditional agenda remains important, it is utterly inadequate to the needs of the future.

The fact is, that while the vast majority of teachers are capable and dedicated professionals, who put children's interests first, there are indeed some bad teachers in America's schools. And it is our job as a union to improve those teachers or, that failing, to get them out of the classroom.

The fact is, that while NEA does not control curriculum, set funding levels, or hire and fire, we cannot go on denying responsibility for school quality.

The fact is that while some aim only to dismantle public education, many others care deeply about our schools, and we have been too quick to dismiss their criticisms and their ideas for change.”

More than likely, she would have gotten some serious backlash from some of her most vocal members. Because that’s pretty much what incoming NEA President Bob Chase got when, early in his term in 1997, he uttered those very same words.

Chase responded to his critics with what we believe would be very good advice for incoming NEA President Lily Eskelsen-García:

“[A]ccording to polls, critics, friends, the media, as well as our own members, NEA does not possess anything approaching a strong and credible voice in the education reform debate. That reality for NEA is not only alarming, but also dangerous for public education. Without a strong, credible voice in this arena, NEA cannot continue to protect public education; if we cannot protect public education, we cannot protect our members and their jobs.”

Politically, this is pretty much where things stand today. If anything, unions have an even worse credibility problem than they had in 1997 - the year most of the incoming class of high school seniors was born. While there are some whose education reform agenda is secondary to an overall belief that private is better than public or that unions are a scourge to society that needs to be eradicated, those of us who are pushing the types of policies to which Chase alluded to improve schools and raise the bar for what is considered great teaching came to where we are today honestly. We set out with the primary goal of wanting to improve public education and encountered resistance from what, for many of us, were unexpected places.

We are at odds with teachers unions not because we are out to undermine labor or privatize education but because we can’t countenance the policies that derive from the same narrow mindset that Chase decried. And, like Chase, we believe that sweeping problems under the rug and allowing powerful adult interests to stand as an obstacle to reform is only going to more greatly empower those who want to undermine public education.

Hiring respected Democratic party advisors and activists to rail against good-faith efforts to change education - whether those good-faith efforts come from advocates, policymakers, or elected officials - and paint them all as part of some secret and perverse agenda is not going to help teachers unions. It’s not going to help kids. And it’s not going to help the Democratic Party.

The tensions between what it takes to build a great public education system and the narrower trade union-type agenda that Chase wanted to fundmentally realign are not going away. To paraphrase Robert Frost, the only way out is through. We need to face the challenges in front of us together and head-on. The alternative is another generation of debate that fails to address the real policy and, yes, political challenges and that gets us no closer than we are today to providing a high-quality education for every student.





We're right where we've always been

By Charlie Barone, Director of Policy

Some people were surprised when they read DFER-MI State Director Harrison Blackmond's blog post Wednesday discussing his support of unions and collective bargaining and wondered whether this marked some kind of turnaround for us. But the fact is that's right where we've always been. Here are some quotes from DFER staff and other reform-oriented Democrats that have appeared over the years on our website.

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  • "We don't think teachers unions are going anywhere. Nor should they. Our work has never been about eliminating teachers unions. From coast to coast we have seen so many poorly-run public school systems with obnoxious, buzz-kill bureaucracies that we are often thankful that someone is on the ground making sure teachers don’t get screwed by the public education machinery." ~ Joe Williams, June 16, 2014.
  • "We believe that teacher unions have a crucial voice that should be heard in education debates, but they shouldn't be the only voice. We believe that big problems can (and should!) be solved through collective bargaining, but that someone needs to be in there representing public education when the bargaining takes place." ~ Joe Williams, DFER Executive Director, February 2011.
  • "The GOP does not need to wipe out collective bargaining to make real change or to balance the budget--they need to wipe out collective bargaining to make a political point. ...Anyone who tells you this bill [Walker's collective bargaining repeal] is about facilitating education reform doesn't know what's in the bill, OR, for that matter, what the meaning of education reform, even is." ~ Katy Venskus, former DFER-Wisconsion State Director, February 2011.
  • "As a Democrat, I believe there is a wide middle ground between blind allegiance to unions and their wholesale dismantling. If we need to put some tough-love constraints on collective bargaining in order to more aggressively push forward an agenda focused on children, so be it." ~ Mary Ann Sullivan, current DFER Board Member, April 2011.
  • "Republican governors and legislators in [many] states are making serious attempts to not only fight unions on education policy issues, but to fundamentally weaken teachers' unions as a political force as well, with a particular focus on curtailing or eliminating collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employee unions. What's disappointing from the perspective of school reform is that the proposals on the table so far seem primarily aimed at weakening Democrats in the 2012 election through crippling a key and powerful ally of the Democratic party." ~ Ron Tupa, Former DFER Director of State Legislatures, March 2011.




To Race to the Top naysayers: what's in your wallet?

By Charlie Barone, Policy Director

Four years after Delaware kicked off its Race to the Top, college enrollment is surging and students are being admitted to more selective institutions of higher education. Our question to Race to the Top naysayers is: what's in your wallet?

Read "A Case Study in Lifting College Attendance," from David Leonhardt at the NYT's for the details.





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