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Long Beach educators discuss reform during panel discussion

By Nadra Nittle

(From the Long Beach Press Telegram, July 30, 2014)

The achievement gap. Teacher input. Parent engagement.

Local educators, among them Long Beach Unified Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser, weighed in on these issues and more during a panel discussion, “Education Reform in a Post-Vergara World,” held Wednesday at The Grand Long Beach.

Organized by California Democrats for Education Reform — a new statewide group chaired by school reformer Steve Barr in partnership with Joe Boyd, former executive director of the Teacher Association of Long Beach — the discussion featured Steinhauser, Barr and TALB President Virginia Torres as panelists, with Boyd as moderator and school board members, educators and other community members as special guests.

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Time to take action to fix charter schools in Michigan

By Harrison Blackmond

(From the Detroit Free Press, July 20, 2014)

The Free Press’ recent investigation into Michigan’s charter schools brought to the forefront what we in the education community have been talking about for years: accountability, oversight and quality.

The Free Press unearthed some chilling facts about the state of education in Michigan, and it’s time to take action to address what isn’t working.

Charter schools in Michigan and across the country are essential options that give students and their parents the opportunity to choose an educational path that best fits their needs. But, as we’ve seen in the report, they are far from perfect.

To me, the mandate is clear: We need to improve our charter schools.

Charter authorizers, mostly universities, play a huge role behind the scenes but often escape notice when things go downhill. It is the authorizers’ job to decide which charter schools get to open and which do not. It’s time to bring them into the spotlight, because there is too much at stake if the blame for Michigan’s charter woes falls on the wrong shoulders.

In 2011, when legislators introduced the bill that ultimately removed the cap on charters, my organization, Democrats for Education Reform, along with EdTrust Midwest, the Detroit Regional Chamber, StudentsFirst, and Excellent Schools Detroit, tried to convince lawmakers that charter authorizers need incentives to ensure that they grant charters only to schools with management companies that have excellent track records.

Unfortunately, charter authorizers and others fought hard to keep that language out. They won, and now we are all facing the consequences.

Given the current environment, it’s no wonder proven charter operators such as Rocketship and KIPP seem to avoid opening schools in Michigan.

Our charter schools have done some amazing things: They inspire teachers, empower great administrators, and most important, produce incredible outcomes for students. With good management companies and proper oversight, charter schools can provide kids with an extraordinary educational experience.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) regularly updates its guiding principles and standards to help authorizers maintain “responsible oversight of charter schools by ensuring that schools have both the autonomy to which they are entitled and the public accountability for which they are responsible.”

NACSA’s guidelines clearly encourage the consistent involvement of authorizers in the charters they approve. But in Michigan, it seems many of our authorizers disappear until it’s time to renew a school’s contract, leaving it to languish without proper quality controls — and it’s the kids who suffer as a result.

We should encourage charter authorizers to play a bigger role in the life cycles of the schools they create.

By establishing real accountability benchmarks and visible evaluative policies, they can ensure new schools have the support and guidance needed to give their students the best education possible. By thoroughly investigating the management companies that seek to open schools in Michigan, they can make the state a national model for charter school quality.

In turn, the Michigan Department of Education must take a more active role in overseeing the state’s authorizers.

A simple strategy like that used in Minnesota, where charter authorizers are evaluated by the state every five years, would be an effective way to ensure oversight across all channels.

It’s not too late to demand increased accountability from charter schools, and increased visibility from charter authorizers. Every child deserves an excellent education from a great school — charter or district — with the quality controls necessary to make that possible.

Harrison Blackmond is state director of Democrats for Education Reform Michigan.

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Crisis in teacher prep, training

By Liam Kerr and John Griffin

(From the Worcester Telegram, June 25, 2014)

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has released its second annual Teacher Prep Review, the first and only report to substantively rank teacher education programs across the country.

For Massachusetts, the findings are especially dire. In a state that prizes its quality education, all of our education schools perform below average. The review's implications are clear: Holding our schools of education accountable to ambitious standards is crucial to improving education in the schools that need it most.

Progress requires constant evaluation. To set ambitious goals and work toward improvement, institutions first must know their strengths and weaknesses.

America's medical profession understands this well. The 1910 Flexner Report revolutionized American medicine by critically evaluating the country's medical schools. For the first time in history, prospective students could easily discern the quality of medical schools, and soon those schools were competing to raise the level of instruction and attract the brightest students. Now, our doctors are among the best-trained in the world. Today, our education schools stand at a similar crossroads. For years, we have expected standards-based excellence from our students and their teachers, but not from our schools of education.

This lack of accountability means that new teachers and, by extension, their students, often leave school unprepared for classroom realities.

Education is supposed to create equal opportunity for all students — but that won't happen unless we adequately equip teachers to help realize that vision.

Until the NCTQ's 2013 and 2014 reports, prospective students had no way of discerning the quality of the schools they sought to attend, and school districts looking to hire new teachers had no way to judge the quality of education an applicant may have received. Moreover, education schools had no means of comparing themselves to their peers in order to make well-informed decisions on how to improve.

The NCTQ's reviews are a powerful resource, but their results are alarming. By and large, they find that education schools are woefully underpreparing future teachers. Practical training is rare. Only 6 percent of programs nationwide place student-teachers in classrooms taught by proven, effective educators, while fewer than half of all programs prepare candidates to teach content consistent with the new Common Core standards. Three-fourths of programs fail to teach candidates best strategies for instruction in reading. Standards across the board are low to nonexistent.

Districts with high dropout rates and teacher attrition are severely impacted by underprepared new teachers. Students assigned to those teachers fall behind an average of six months in crucial learning time compared to their peers. The opportunity gap is tangible, amounting to a 30-million-word vocabulary gap between children of welfare parents and their wealthier peers — a gap that only widens when teachers aren't taught the best strategies for reading instruction.

Developing a better education for our teachers is more than good policy — it's a matter of social justice.

Measurable standards also help to provide the teaching profession with the respect and stability it deserves. Many new teachers find themselves ill-prepared, underpaid, and always on the brink of losing their jobs.

In high-performing countries like Singapore and Finland, teachers are paid more, prepared better, and afforded greater respect. Their schools of education are also much more rigorous, limiting admission to at least the top third of graduating high school classes.

In Massachusetts, by contrast, only a quarter of education schools limit admissions to even the top half of graduating classes. The first step toward making education schools more rigorous is to hold them accountable to high standards of instruction, which is exactly what the NCTQ has set out to do.

By combining a system of high accountability with the benefits and respect that teaching deserves, we can make the profession the best it can be.

Today, we're setting teachers up for years of anxiety and exhaustion. Especially in urban and high-need districts, teaching is rife with unpredictable challenges. We owe our educators the preparation they need to deal with the issues we can predict, and we owe our students teachers who are trained to help them overcome difficult educational obstacles.

Too often, education reform is cast as unfairly placing the onus of accountability on teachers, but by holding our education schools to high standards of preparation — indeed, to any standard at all — we can work toward equal opportunity without sacrificing teachers' rights. We can give teachers the tools to better serve their students and improve those teachers' lives in the process.

Liam Kerr is the state director of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts. John Griffin, a rising junior at Harvard, is a policy fellow at DFER.

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Who is DFER Supporting in the 2014 Mid-Term Elections?

By Alyson Klein

(From Education Week, June 17, 2014)

Crowd-sourced, grassroots fund raising has worked for everything from classroom projects to a new Veronica Mars movie, so why not edu-focused campaign donations? Democrats for Education Reform, the political action committee that was meant to help provide a counterweight to the influence of teachers' unions on the Democratic party, has now launched a new website that makes it easier for the public to donate to DFER-backed candidates, just ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. Check it out here.

So who is the site—and DFER—throwing its weight behind, in advance of the 2014 mid-term elections?

Read the full post here.




California tenure case a win for students

By Liam Kerr

(From Common Wealth Magazine, June 13, 2014)

ON TUESDAY, TEACHERS unions and education reformers clashed yet again in newspaper headlines around the country. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers called it a “sad day for public education,” while the Los Angeles Times trumpeted an “opportunity to change a broken system.”

The rhetorical appeals were familiar, but the context was not: The subject wasn’t a piece of legislation, a rally outside a state house, a super PAC-fueled election, or a series of backroom dealings with lobbyists. Instead, a milestone in progressive education reform took place in the calm of a courtroom. Nine California students faced the State of California and its two biggest teachers unions, each presenting their facts before an impartial judge. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that California’s teacher tenure laws were violating students’ civil rights by denying them equal access to a quality education—the state’s paramount interest in the realm of education. The decision launched national media frenzy, but the ruling was straightforward: A judge upheld the property rights - and workers’ rights - of teachers, but determined that the pendulum had swung too far away from the civil rights of California students.

Vergara v. California was brought by a group of nine public school students who claimed that five state statutes related to teacher tenure violated their rights under the California constitution. By that system, teachers were awarded tenure after only 16 months on the job, the process to dismiss “grossly ineffective” teachers was inordinately costly and time-consuming, and district-wide layoff decisions were based solely on seniority.

The Court found that each of these statutes violated students’ civil rights by adversely affecting the education of California students, especially for low-income and minority students. By ruling the statutes unconstitutional, Vergara does not forbid or eliminate tenure altogether; on the contrary, it holds that tenure and due process are fundamental safeguards to a teacher’s property rights to his or her position. Currently, districts decided whether or not a teacher would be awarded tenure in March of his or her second year of teaching. Curiously, teachers were certified in May of that year—meaning that teachers received tenure before being certified. The result was that districts were sometimes saddled with tenured, but uncertified, teachers after a woefully short timeframe to evaluate performance. Most states, including Massachusetts, afford 3-5 years before making tenure decisions. In striking down the policy, the court both affirmed the importance of tenure and urged a better policy.

The court completely rejected California’s “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) policy. Under LIFO, districts must base staffing decisions—whether on hiring or laying teachers off—on seniority alone. The most junior teachers must always be the first to go, even when those junior teachers are more effective. As the court found, this policy is especially damaging to low-income and minority students. The court also ruled that California’s system of protections for tenured teachers whom districts wish to dismiss constitutes not just due process, but “├╝ber due process” (original emphasis)—not merely protecting educators’ rights, but keeping “grossly ineffective teachers” in the classroom. Again, the court found that these teachers tend to be placed in classrooms with high numbers of low-income and minority students. The court therefore voided this statute, urging the state to come up with a new, more practical due process policy.

Vergara is, at its heart, a progressive victory in a civil rights case, an evolutionary step toward ensuring the same basic rights guaranteed in the state constitution. Two significant previous cases ensured districts serving poor and minority students in California would receive more: the 1971 case Serrano v. Priest guaranteed more money, and, in 1992, Butt v. California guaranteed more instructional time.

Vergara takes the next logical step, from “more” to “better.” Yes, underserved students need adequate funding and time in school. But the ruling showed that the future of educational equity court cases will not be quality-blind.

While Vergara affirms the paramount importance of children’s civil rights, it does not abandon teachers’ property rights. Educational systems, posits the court, have one overriding priority—they must offer all public students the best education possible, and they must do so equally. This idea is paradigmatically progressive—it hopes to better society by using public resources to close opportunity gaps. Any policy that disparately impacts the education a child receives based on that child’s social status is not only regressive, but also “shocks the conscience,” wrote Judge Treu. The state has an interest in protecting teachers’ rights, but its overriding interest is providing a good education to all of its students. Lengthening the period of time before granting tenure, streamlining the process for dismissal of teachers, and getting rid of LIFO all can serve both students and their teachers.

The verdict is also a winner in the court of public opinion. Even the rank and file in California’s teachers unions acknowledge the basic problem, with 65 percent agreeing that ineffective teachers were “unlikely to be dismissed for unsatisfactory performance.” An objective, non-ideological viewing of the facts leads most voters to side against teachers on these issues. As such, union responses - from the national American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association to chapters throughout the country, including Massachusetts - did not defend the specific policies at issue in the case. The focus was on an abstract bogeyman from the 1 percent, or vague allusions to due process. The tactic was summarized by former Clinton education advisor Andy Rotherham, who cited a legal maxim that “if you have the law on your side argue the law, if you don’t have the law argue the facts, and if you don’t have either then pound the table.”

The impact of this ruling is still far from the classroom-Vergara will certainly be appealed, and implementation still depends on quality management. But the ruling reverberated across the country because, like the civil rights litigation that preceded it, a legal focus on access to quality education has the potential to spread quickly.

While it may not reach Massachusetts, civil rights litigation has changed the Commonwealth’s education landscape before. The school finance-focused McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, first filed in 1978, articulated specific rights for all students served as an impetus for the 1993 Education Reform Act that brought reform along with billions of dollars in additional state aid.

Vergara relied on expert testimony from a new generation of research beyond the most basic inputs of time and money. It also proved that in the quiet of a courtroom, there are no sacred cows. Massachusetts courts have already affirmed that the Constitution of the Commonwealth requires the Legislature to ensure equal opportunities throughout Massachusetts. Some will pound the table. But the law and the facts are now clearly on the side of reform.

Liam Kerr is Massachusetts state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

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