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Court should appoint a K-12 “special master”

By Lisa Macfarlane

(From The Olympian, September 14, 2014)

It has been more than two years since the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision declared that legislators are violating the state constitution by underfunding public schools.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, the Court held a hearing Sept.3rd and asked the Legislature and governor to show why they should not be held in contempt of court for the State’s ongoing violation of its constitutional duty to public school children.

A state lawyer made a plea for more time. That makes sense if there were evidence that legislators are any closer to enacting and funding a plan now than they have ever been, but that does not appear to be the case.

The Legislature has been deadlocked. Democrats have shown no inclination to increase education funding by cutting other state services. Republicans have shown no inclination to increase taxes.

Unfortunately, this year’s revenue projections show there won't be enough money to maintain the existing budget, let alone the several billion additional dollars needed to fully fund the legislature’s own definition of basic education.

On Thursday, the news broke that the Washington Supreme Court is holding the state in contempt for violating the Court’s January 2014 order. They held off imposing sanctions, none of which will solve the underlying political problem.

Most of the possible sanctions suggested by the plaintiffs would impact thousands of people who are not to blame for decades of state underfunding of our public schools.

There is another, better way. While the Court "can't engage in active dialogue with other branches of government", it can -- and should -- appoint a special master who can act as a bridge-builder who helps shape a remedy that can both pass the Legislature and meet our constitutional obligation to schools.

The appointment of a special master is a well-established practice in complex cases, and the Court included the prospect in its 2012 ruling when it wisely decided to retain jurisdiction.

For a special master to be successful, legislators must acknowledge the Court's obligation to uphold the sanctity of the state constitution. They also need to acknowledge that much of the problem is their own fault as well as the fault of more than 30 years of bad decisions by governors and legislators who came before them.

Just as legislators must respect the Court's involvement, the Court must acknowledge that they cannot write a budget or pass laws. The heart of the problem is the lack of public enthusiasm for major changes in school funding policies. Most voters do not seem bothered by the inequities and inadequacies found unacceptable by the Court.

The success of a special master will also depend on the freedom he or she has to develop a plan based on what is best for our students rather than the preferences of special interests that have been woven into existing state policies.

While the Court is limited to ruling on what is brought before it, a special master would have a broader view of the state's obligations.

Education is the state's "paramount" duty, but not its only duty. Education policies and funding must take into consideration the effect they have on higher education, early learning, and the social services that children need in order to learn.

The Court must act to uphold the constitution and protect the rights of our children. Appointing a special master who will "foster dialogue and cooperation in reaching a goal shared by all Washingtonians" is still the best option.

Read the full post here.




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.

Read the full post here.




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.

Read the full post here.




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.

Read the full post here.




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.





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