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Correcting the Record


In today's Hechinger Report, Andre Perry draws some hasty and misinformed conclusions on where Democrats in general and DFER in particular stand on certain education issues. Perry states, for example, that "DFER makes no reference to regressive tax policy and inequitable funding formulas that keep families poor and schools under-resourced." 

Apparently, Perry didn't look very hard. To help him out, we've put together a short - illustrative, not exhaustive - reading list of commentary and advocacy on school funding from our website.
For more, go to our site search bar and enter "school funding," "equity," etc. 
High-poverty schools often have a larger share of lower-paid teachers. In dollar terms, it's not fair.  April 2011

Feds Target Education Funds Because States Won't; So Why Do Republicans Want to Enable States to Shortchange Poor Schools? July 2011.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has fought to increase education funding for the children of Philadelphia and to improve the influx of cash by proposing new taxes on cigarettes. Sadly, his proposals have been ignored by leadership at both the city and state level.

DFER Joins Advocacy and Civil Rights Groups Urging Stronger Accountability for At-Risk Subgroups of Students

Today, Democrats for Education Reform joins with the NAACP, the National Urban League, NCLR, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and others in urging the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to correct course and ensure that in the next round of waiver renewals, states must make the achievement and attainment of each group of students count in ratings for all schools.

A recent analysis of data from new state systems shows that school rating systems do not account for the achievement and growth of individual groups of students in a meaningful way. A school with an “A” rating may only be academically preparing its white or affluent students, while African-American, Latino or low-income students are not seeing the same academic progress or achievement. Moreover, 16 states and territories have received waivers but do not require interventions when individual student groups miss their graduation rate targets. 

The full letter and list of signees is here:

Waiver Coalition Letter 10.24.doc.pdf

Accountability Debate Taking Place on Different Planets

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

Today, at an event hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group of advocates and academics including Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford and Gene Wilhoit, formerly of the Council of Chief State School Officers, announced a "new approach on accountability and testing" (aka 51st state) that would, among other things, scale back annual statewide summative tests and increase the use of local assessments for purposes of accountability.

Weirdly enough, over at the Center American Progress, a new study issued today finds that it is districts much more so than states that account for what many consider "over-testing" taking place now in America's public schools. Which seems to suggest that the 51st state proposal is singling out the wrong level of government if what it wants to do is decrease the amount of testing. 

We should encourage local innovations in how we assess students. If that's what Darling-Hammond, Wilhoit et al. are trying to do, I'm all for it. But attempts to substitute myriad local tests for valid and reliable statewide assessments for purposes of accountability are just as bad an idea on a policy level now as they have been every other time they've been proposed.

If we revert to a patchwork of standards and assessments that vary according to political pressure, or societal and community biases, or simply the lack of local capacity to create valid and reliable tests, we will longer be able to make apples to apples comparisons about school performance. In turn, the schools in which poor and minority students are enrolled are likely to look better than they actually are. Badly needed investments in teaching and learning and in formulating and implementing fundamental reforms in chronically failing schools will then be at even greater risk than they are now. 

You don't have to take my word on whether or not we can make valid comparisons across schools with a bunch of new local assessments.

Back about a decade or so, an esteemed panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences (an organization that, to put it mildly, has never been accused of overzealousness when it comes to student testing) was tasked with answering that very question:

“Can scores on one test be made interpretable in terms of scores on other tests? Can we have more uniform data about student performance from our healthy hodgepodge of state and local programs?

And the result was:

“After deliberation that lasted nine months, involving intensive review of the technical literature and consideration of every possible methodological nuance, the committee’s answer was a blunt ‘no.’”*

Absent some huge shift in the technical and methodological literature, one would have to conclude this is no less true now than it was a decade ago. End of debate? Don't bet on it. There's much more to come.


*Michael Feuer “Moderating the Debate,” Harvard Education Press, 2006. 

USDOE Guidance on Equity A Big Step. But Some Provisions Raise Concerns About Political Will

by Charles Barone, Policy Director

Democrats for Education Reform applauds the U.S. Department of Education for the guidance it issued today to help ensure equal educational opportunity for all students. Resource equity is a key area where we, along with many others, have asked the Obama Administration to place greater emphasis. We're thrilled to see today's action. But we also have concerns whether there is the requisite amount of political will to ensure the plan presented today will ultimately result in real change. 

Continue reading "USDOE Guidance on Equity A Big Step. But Some Provisions Raise Concerns About Political Will"....

Bill Clinton's Remarks on Charters And Accountability - Some Good Points That Don't Quite Add Up

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

Earlier this week, former President Bill Clinton made waves when he criticized charter schools for "not living up to their promise." We wholeheartedly agree. In too many states, the lax state oversight of public charter schools cited by Clinton - one of the nation's earliest advocates for charter schools from either party and the primary force behind the 1994 enactment of the federal charter school program - has resulted in a public charter sector that performs significantly below its traditional public school counterpart.

The situation Clinton highlighted is not just bad for kids, it's bad for the charter movement. Far too frequently, charter school advocates have resisted efforts to implement robust accountability for public charters or to improve or restructure low-performing schools. This, in turn, has provided legitimate political fodder for those who oppose charter school expansion no matter how good a job they are doing.

Clinton rightly cited New Orleans, the only district in the nation where 100% of public schools are charters, and Rhode Island, where charter students gain the equivalent of a whopping 86 days of learning per year in reading and 108 days of learning in math compared to their peers in traditional public schools, as places where charters have proved better for kids than the schools in which, without the ability to choose a high-performing charter, they would otherwise have been forced to enroll.

Clinton also could have cited more than a dozen other states where students in public charter schools are gaining two weeks or more in reading and/or math each school year compared to their peers in traditional public schools. Or applauded charter networks like Achievement First, Aspire, KIPP, Mastery, Noble, Success and Uncommon that are getting amazing results and, with the help of a charter funding stream created in 2009 by President Barack Obama, are expanding and replicating. All are meeting the high standards that Clinton rightly outlined in his speech. 

Clinton made a couple remarks, though, that were at odds with the themes he sounded on charters. The first was praising New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for "his work on regulating charter schools." In the same speech, Clinton's admonished the crowd (and, to be clear, we think this is right on the money) that "If you're going to get into education, I think it's really important that you invest in what works." Yet we have seen no evidence that de Blasio has made any differentiation between successful and unsuccessful charters in his policies. Far from it.

Second, Clinton's comments on testing were similarly puzzling. Clinton said he's "not opposed" to student testing, but he thinks it should be limited. "I think doing one [test] in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right.'" Not really. The ability of states to do the type of charter oversight Clinton called for will be severely hampered if they have to wait 3-4 years to see whether individual students are making adequate progress.

The period between 3rd and 8th grades is especially critical. Missing a year or two of monitoring student progress could mean standing idly by while students attending a failing school (traditional or charter) fall increasingly, and more irretrievably, behind instead of intervening in a timely fashion to get students out of a bad school and into a good one.

We applaud President Clinton for trying to strike a balance in the charter debate by focusing everyone's attention this week on the issue of accountability and oversight. This should be a reminder to Democrats that charter schools have strong Democratic roots and that there are positions Democrats can take on charters that lie between the poles of the unbridled support we see from some on the far right and the relentless opposition from some on the far left.

But what should be a shared goal for charters - that public investment be withdrawn when students are being ill-served and expanded when there's an approach from which more kids should benefit - needs to be be one we share equally for all schools. To do that, states need strong accountability systems. Administering fewer tests - a laudable goal - isn't the same as waiting years to get any information at all. If public officials are to have any credible chance of succeeding in what Clinton and we agree is one of their most important responsibilities, they - as well as parents and the general public - need to keep getting no less than annual updates on the progress of every student, in every school.

To paraphrase Clinton, for schools, charters and otherwise, who are kicking ass on the tests, we ought to be asking what they are doing right and doing a hell of a lot more of it. And because no child should have to wait to get a great education, we should be doing that as widely and frequently as possible.

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