Commentary: Parents want legislature to act on teacher tenure

SpeakUP-Logo-horizontalBy Jenny Hontz

 When LA School Report reported this week that 181 LAUSD staffers are currently being paid to sit around and do nothing while they are investigated for alleged misconduct, costing the district $15 million a year, school board members expressed surprise.

The numbers are staggering, but it should be no surprise to anyone that this is happening. This so-called “teachers jail” system is the result of terribly flawed teacher tenure and dismissal laws that students and parents have been trying to fix for years in court and in the state legislature – so far to no avail.

In surveying our Speak UP members, 92 percent of parents said that “excellent teachers” were “very important” in their choice of a school – more than any other factor. 

But current state law and union contracts make it very difficult for districts like LAUSD to ensure that all students have effective teachers in every classroom. Unionized public school teachers currently receive lifetime job tenure after just 18 months, often with no meaningful performance review.

And once teachers receive tenure, it can take almost a decade and up to $500,000 to dismiss an ineffective teacher – rendering the process so costly and time consuming that districts like LAUSD rarely even bother to try.

That’s why LAUSD opted to pay Mark Berndt $40,000 to quit his teaching job at Miramonte Elementary School five years ago, despite photographic evidence that he spoon-fed semen to his students, blindfolded them and placed cockroaches on their faces.

These flawed laws also contributed to a level of bureaucratic indifference that led LAUSD to ignore repeated warnings of teacher sexual abuse, an atrocity that has now cost LAUSD $300 million over the past four years in sex abuse settlements.

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Commentary: Time to end the great charter school debate in Los Angeles and create great public schools now

Great Public Schools Now holds a news conference Thursday where it announced $4.5 million in initial grants. Center is GPSN Executive Director Myrna Castrejon.

Great Public Schools Now’s executive director, Myrna Castrejon, announces the first grants at a news conference last Thursday.

By Caroline Bermudez

More than once in California, it has taken a major lawsuit to try to propel long-awaited change for its schools. In 1999, the State Allocation Board was sued because of overcrowding in Los Angeles public schools. Last year, a coalition of groups brought a lawsuit accusing the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) of diverting money away from low-income, foster children, and English-language learners.

So it’s a welcome development when instead of looking to the court system to improve schools, educational inequities can be addressed through partnerships among schools, nonprofits and philanthropies.

Great Public Schools Now (GPSN), a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, is awarding grants to successful programs and schools—be they traditional public schools, charter schools or magnet—to replicate or expand their efforts to improve schools for 160,000 students in 10 low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods.

On Thursday GPSN announced its first three grants—$2 million for Teach For America to focus on training more special education teachers for traditional schools, $2 million for Equitas Charter Network to build a school and expand its new K-4 campus, and $500,000 for new space for an after school program run by Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA).

The fact that Great Public Schools Now is open to supporting any type of high-achieving program (and not just charter schools) is a refreshing development in a city whose school board has been hostile to the expansion of charters.

For parents who reside in the low-income neighborhoods GPSN will focus on, they say it’s time for the conflict between traditional public schools and charter schools to end.

Mary Najera, community liaison for Extera Public Schools and a veteran parent organizer who lives in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, said she was excited by the collaborative nature of Great Public Schools Now.

“If charter schools are going to work with traditional public schools, then let’s go for it,” she said. “I love the idea that they’re all sitting at the table together. At the end of the day, it’s not your money, it’s the kids’ money.”

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What’s really in LA Unified’s online credit recovery courses?

Logo_LATimesBy the Times Editorial Board

Because of new rules designed to raise graduation standards, officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District woke up in December to the grim news that only half of its students were on track to graduate, down from 74 percent the year before. The problem was that this was the first year all students had to pass the full range of college-prep courses — known as the A through G sequence – required by the University of California and California State University for admission.

But just a couple of months later, the situation suddenly, startlingly improved, with 63 percent on track to graduate. By the end of March, 68 percent had completed their A-G courses, and an additional 15 percent were close enough that they might be able to make it. The actual graduation rate will not be known for several months.

How did this remarkable turnaround happen, and what does it mean?

Partly, it was that Michelle King, LA Unified’s new superintendent, moved swiftly and decisively, plunging the district’s high schools into a full-bore effort to bring students up to snuff, with extra counseling, Saturday classes and after-school classes.

But also, the district relied heavily on what are known as online credit-recovery classes. These courses, which have helped boost graduation rates locally and across the country, have grown quickly from a barely known concept a decade ago to one of the biggest and most controversial new trends in education.

This is how they work: Students who flunk a course can make up the credit by taking classes either in computer-equipped rooms at school, or at home if they have the equipment and Internet access. Teachers lecture on videos, the computer displays the readings or practice problems, and students take tests that are automatically graded. Written work is supposed to be reviewed by a district teacher. The courses have certain benefits: Students can replay a lecture for missed material, something that can’t happen in a regular classroom. When they can’t concentrate any longer, they can put the course on hold and take a break.

But professors and other education experts are concerned that there is too little quality control to ensure that students have completed the equivalent of a regular classroom experience.

Click here for the full story in the Los Angeles Times.

• Related story: By the numbers: Did ‘all hands on deck’ save LA Unified’s sinking graduation rate?

Commentary: Unified enrollment levels the playing field for high-need public schools

Mauro Bautista

Mauro Bautista

By Mauro Bautista 

Most of us who grew up in Los Angeles in the 20th century had limited choices as to which school we attended. Most attended the local public school as determined by a zone of residence. Some of us, like me, attended a magnet high school and a few others attended private high schools. The 21st century, however, is a great time to be a parent and student living within LAUSD boundaries because there is greater choice.

As the principal of a local LAUSD high school and as a parent of four children who attend LAUSD schools, I can identify with this opportunity of choice. Families in Los Angeles have access to more school options than ever, including zones of choice, magnets, charters, and open enrollment. However, each of these options has different requirements, applications, processes and timelines. This unnecessary complexity makes the process confusing for families and puts traditional public high schools at a great disadvantage.

I experience the negative impact of this fragmented system on traditional neighborhood schools like my school—Mendez High School. Mendez is part of a “Zone of Choice” where families in our neighborhood can choose between three different public high schools. Unfortunately, the Zone of Choice process comes after charters and magnets have concluded, putting us at a competitive disadvantage.

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An open letter to the LAUSD board: Returning flavored milk is an unhealthy step for students

ChocolateMilkBy Brent Walmsley

When one considers that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past thirty years, taking steps to make sugary drinks more available to students represents the height of absurdity. Yet, after five years of implementing a policy in the best interest of student health, the LAUSD board is considering just that.

This potential change stems from a recent discussion amongst Los Angeles Unified School District board members who are reconsidering the current policy of no longer serving flavored milk in schools. To bring flavored milk back into our schools would be an undeniable step in the wrong direction. I implore the board to think long and hard before making a change that could have ruinous health impacts for the nearly 600,000 students in LAUSD.

In a story that can only happen in Los Angeles, LAUSD removed flavored milk after a stunt on the television show Food Revolution hosted by Jamie Oliver. He filled an entire school bus full of sugar to display how much sugar the students were consuming, much of which was coming from flavored milk. Shortly thereafter former Superintendent John Deasy announced that flavored milk would no longer be a part of school meals during an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

While many may have strong opinions about the former superintendent, the body of research that outlines the health impacts of added sugar makes one thing crystal clear—Dr. Deasy acted in the best interests of students when making the decision to ban flavored milk from LAUSD school campuses.

There is much evidence to support this position. Notably, two recent studies out of the University of Southern California and Yale University show that sugary drinks cause impaired memory and cognitive function, and an inability to pay attention—all of which are important factors for improving and sustaining academic achievement. Furthermore, consuming sugary drinks has also been demonstrated to reduce satiety, and when children are feeling hungry, it becomes much more difficult for them to concentrate thereby further impairing their ability to learn.

Given this knowledge, placing flavored milk back in schools would be in direct opposition to any actions taken to help students to achieve greater academic success. And, when we consider a normal school day, we aren’t just talking about one serving. A child could have up to four servings, once at breakfast, once during nutrition, once during lunch, and once more during after-school programming. This amounts to a total of 88 grams of added sugar per day—3.5 times that amount the World Health Organization recommends.

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Commentary: The foundation for charter authorizers must be opportunity, not bureaucracy

light bulb“If he was in the average school he was in before, he’d be on the street,” testified the father of a 16-year old-boy. “This is what these online schools provide — the comfort to know their kids are not going to become hoodlums, or do drugs. … He has a future, a future I didn’t have. Closing the high school would be a disservice to him.”

So spoke hundreds of parents who attended a March meeting of the Board of the Nevada Charter School Authority in Carson City to register their objections to the closing of the Nevada Connections Academy and the Nevada Virtual Academy. NCA, launched in 2008, currently enrolls more than 2,600 students from grades K-12, who take their courses online. Nevada Virtual Academy started in 2007 and serves approximately 2,000 students.

Earlier this year, the Nevada Charter School Authority announced its intention to close these and two other schools, citing graduation rates below 60 percent, which is the minimum mandated by the state. The NCSA, a quasi-independent public agency, was created to oversee public charter schools and ensure that the interests of parents and students are being served. Too often, though, such oversight bodies — which are forming across the country — are coming to resemble the rigid bureaucracy their creation was intended to replace, sitting in judgment over schools and interpreting data on student performance while rarely actually stepping foot in the institutions they rule.

NCSA Director Patrick Gavin, a veteran education reformer, told me prior to the March hearing that schools not doing well should not serve children, which makes sense. But how do we measure their success? It’s true that Nevada Connections Academy’s graduation rates hover around 50 percent, but unlike most traditional high schools, a majority of the school’s students arrive between 10th and 12th grades, transferring from some of the worst-performing school districts in the country with severe credit deficiencies.

The attorney for the NCA pointed out that it enrolls students as late as 14 days before graduation, as they are open to all students at any point throughout the school year. These students, who obviously don’t graduate on time, count against the overall graduation rate; indeed, federal law actually prohibits including a student in the graduation count who was there for less than half of the year.

But it is not simply that kids are transferring late in the year. Some of NCA’s students are unable to attend other schools because they were bullied; others are disabled and homebound due to a whole host of circumstances regarding individual capacity or family issues. Some live on farms hours from the closest school.

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Commentary: L.A. Times breaks up with Gates Foundation; Here’s why it did Gates wrong

Bill-Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates (Credit: Getty Images)

I’m still trying to make sense of the buckshot attack on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation published by the Los Angeles Times editorial board last week. The Times shoehorned a remarkably honest letter from the foundation about the challenges of education philanthropy into a smear of Gates’ work. But it’s clear the editorial board didn’t bother to talk to any educators, or read the paper’s own previous education coverage, in tearing down one of America’s most important champions of classroom innovation.

If the Times writers would like to talk to someone who’s confronted the challenges of building better schools, I invite them to call me at The 74. I worked at the New York City Department of Education from 2007-2012, and during that time I worked closely with the Gates Foundation and others in the effort to advance breakthrough work and improved resources for students in a school system that had been stagnant for decades. (More about this in a second.)

But as someone who’s been in the trenches alongside school leaders and educators, and as a regular reader of the Times’ education coverage, what struck me about last week’s myopic editorial was how the board omitted two key characters from its critique: The LA Times newsroom, and the editorial board itself. Times editors and editorialists were trailblazers in the push to measure teacher performance and support the Common Core — which the board now singles out as major failures, emblems of “a foundation that had often acted as though it did have all the answers.”

Not long ago, few media outlets advocated as zealously as the Times did for the initiatives they now decry. The paper built its own value-add assessment model for Los Angeles teachers and famously published the results using the teachers names — a practice Bill Gates criticized. The Times also advocated for the Common Core standards from their inception through this school year. When state resistance began to swell two years ago, it responded: “What gets lost amid the political and administrative squabbling is the issue that ought to matter most: whether the Common Core standards are a solid improvement …. And with a few caveats, they are.”

With respect to the upset around test scores in some parts of the country, the Times noted last September that while student results on California’s more difficult state tests would likely be lower, “the more important question, though, is whether the test results will show that students are mastering the standards…

“It’ll be years before it becomes clear whether the new tests and the new curriculum live up to their promise,” the Times stated.

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Desperate for bilingual teachers? New paper says you should start with your classroom aides

studentsI have all sorts of principles for guiding my thinking about education. But my grand, unifying theory, the thing that determines how all the other stuff hangs together, basically rests on two claims: 1) there are enormous systemic inequities built into American public education, and 2) the decentralization of U.S. political institutions makes rapid policy-driven changes to these inequities difficult to come by.

One of the corollaries of this general dynamic is that the country’s education leaders also struggle to respond rapidly to changes in their schools.

This is particularly clear when it comes to multilingual students. These dual language learners (DLLs) are amongst the fastest-growing demographic groups in U.S. schools, but schools—and policymakers—have generally been slow to react.

It’s easy to see this as a failure, and push for reforms that might help. We know, for instance, that these DLLs do better when schools support the development of their native languages while teaching them English. Research shows that various forms of multilingual education work better than English-immersion for these kids. Stands to reason that we should update “English-only” laws to provide more multilingual instruction, right?

Well, yes. But as my co-authors and I argue in a just-published paper, Multilingual Paraprofessionals: An Untapped Resource for Supporting American Pluralism,

(It) is no simple matter to switch large numbers of classrooms from monolingual (“English-only”) to multilingual instruction (sometimes called “English Plus”). It is essentially impossible to expand access to multilingual instruction without training and hiring more multilingual teachers. As noted above, just one in eight Pre-K–12 teachers speaks a non-English language at home. Over half of states (and half of major urban districts) report shortages of bilingual or English as a Second Language teachers. The overwhelmingly monolingual language profile of the teaching force means that American schools are similarly English-dominant. In short, the U.S. needs more multilingual adults to decide to become teachers.

This isn’t a complicated principle. Laws without means to implement them are just outlines of wishes, dreams, and priorities. Say we wanted each U.S. high school to launch no fewer than two satellites into geosynchronous orbit each year. We’d write that into the law, but we’d also send some rocket fuel, aluminum, and some microchips (at least). Otherwise, we’d just end up with a bunch of glorified bottle rockets spluttering around on thousands of plywood launchpads.

Say we wanted every elementary school to teach students to ride a bicycle by second grade. We’d buy some bikes (as the D.C. Public Schools did). Otherwise, we might as well just mandate jogging around the school parking lot. Or games of Duck-Duck-Goose.

It’s no different with bilingual education. While it’s a good thing to change laws to allow more languages into U.S. classrooms, that’s just a start. We also need to recruit, prepare, and retain more multilingual teachers. These teachers are a scarce resource. While more than 1-in-5 U.S. students speaks a non-English language at home, fewer than 1-in-10 U.S. teachers say the same.

If only we had a pool of multilingual adults with instructional experience and the language skills necessary to support DLLs’ native language development! If only…

And hey, it just so happens that we might! Around 1-in-5 U.S. paraprofessionals — the classroom assistants or teacher’s aides who give students specialized instruction or support — speak a non-English language at home. Our paper surveys research showing that many of these educators have most—or all—of the credentials that they need to become full-time U.S. teachers.

Many have appropriate credentials, strong literacy and speaking skills in their native tongues, confident English abilities, unique cultural connections to DLLs’ families, and—most importantly—considerable experience as classroom instructors.

Unfortunately, some of these paraprofessionals can’t make it to the front of their schools’ classrooms as lead teachers because they lack a handful of required higher education courses that they can’t access or afford. Others have the requisite degrees, but can’t get licensed because their educational experience is predominantly developed in their native languages, and they struggle to demonstrate their expertise on their state’s teacher licensure exams. Others have trouble navigating complicated bureaucratic requirements that impose undue time or resource barriers on them.

So look, remember what I said at the outset: folks all over the education debate overestimate the power—and importance—of policy wins. Because of local control, states’ rights, and various other aspects of U.S. federalism, most policy changes don’t actually matter for most American classrooms.

It’s difficult to pass big and effective education legislation here, but it’s even tougher to follow up a hard-won policy victory with a coordinated strategy for ensuring that a law’s new goals actually translate into changes at the classroom and school levels.

My team is going to continue looking into this. Our paper is the first in a series of publications on multilingual teacher pathways that New America will be releasing over the next several years. And data on multilingual paraprofessionals suggest that the country absolutely can meet this challenge—and thereby improve DLLs’ educational opportunities—but it’s going to take serious, intentional efforts to help these educators become fully licensed teachers.

The number of dual language learners in U.S. schools will continue growing for many years yet — the best way to help these future workers, homebuyers, taxpayers, veterans, and citizens succeed is to support their development in English and their native languages. But as policymakers, educators, and voters weigh the merits of policies that would expand access to multilingual instruction, they should also be thinking about how we can find and develop the teachers we’ll need to make those policies meaningful for kids.

It turns out that they might not have to look any further than the paraprofessionals waiting in the “wings” of their own classrooms.


Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a Master of Science for Teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife.

This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

Commentary: Does LAUSD want to protect children or a bloated bureaucracy?

MonicaGarciaScottSchmerelson

LA Unified school board members Monica Garcia and Scott Schmerelson

By Peter Cunningham

Across America, parents are demanding more and better educational options for their children while teachers unions and bureaucrats desperately fight to retain their monopoly over public school students.

The latest front in the war against charter schools is in Los Angeles, where a study funded by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) tallied up the financial impact of the district’s 221 charter schools.

The union’s analysis concluded that charter schools cost the district more than half a billion dollars—but nearly all of it was the per-pupil money that followed 100,000 students to their chosen independent charter school.

Notably, the analysis did not include the 53 unionized charter schools in Los Angeles, suggesting that the real motivation behind the study is to protect unionized jobs, at the expense of the education of the children of Los Angeles. UTLA has embraced the findings of the study and is urging the school board to consider the financial impact on the district before granting any more non-union charters.

The essential problem with the UTLA study is that it is designed to bolster a false argument—that charter schools are siphoning money from traditional public schools. Charter schools are public schools, serving the same students with the same tax dollars and they are held accountable to the same—and often tougher—performance standards. Arguing that public charter schools take money from traditional public schools is like arguing that a younger child deprives an older child of parental attention.

• Read more: Contrary to UTLA study, LAUSD makes money from charters

In Los Angeles, parents aren’t interested in protecting a bloated bureaucracy or preserving a steady flow of union dues. They want schools that prepare their children for success, and they are voting with their feet. LA Unified has more charter students than any other district in the country, making up 16 percent of the district enrollment. Over the last decade, the number of LA charter schools has more than tripled.

The same holds true for parents nationwide. A 2015 poll of 1,000 public school parents conducted by Education Post found that 65 percent agreed that, “Public charter schools offer parents in low-income communities options for quality schools that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.”

Only 35 percent of parents agreed with the union’s argument that, “Public charter schools take resources and high achieving students away from traditional public schools.” The pro-charter numbers were even higher among African-American and Latino families, who overwhelmingly make up the Los Angeles student population.

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Commentary: UTLA says ‘unmitigated’ charter growth hurts LAUSD? Inconceivable!

The Princess Bride

By Michael Vaughn

The Los Angeles teachers union just spent $82,000 on a report that concludes that the thousands of Los Angeles families who are choosing to send their children to charter schools are costing the LA school district a half-billion dollars annually.

The report “doesn’t fault charters,” according to the LA Times, “saying that the problems have more to do with state and federal policies as well as district decisions.”

The union’s “analysis” of the report, not surprisingly, does blame charters: “Unmitigated charter school growth limits educational opportunities for the more than 542,000 students who continue to attend schools run by the district, and … further imperils the financial stability of LAUSD as an institution.”

So, let’s get this straight. Report concludes: Bureaucratic system is broken. Union’s analysis and solution: Charters are messing with our system! No more charters!
The union really likes that word—“unmitigated”—when talking about charter growth, which has quite a Princess Bride ring to it.

• Read more: Contrary to UTLA study, LAUSD makes money from charters

Charter growth in California is mitigated by a long, onerous application and approval process. It’s mitigated by performance contracts—the “charter” agreements—that must be approved before a charter school can open and that need to be re-approved every five years. But more importantly, charter growth is mitigated by families and their choices. If families don’t choose to send their children to a charter school, it is quite neatly mitigated away. Charter schools need people to sign up for them, or they don’t exist. It’s quite an efficient system of mitigation.

The problem that charters are presenting to the union is that lots of families in Los Angeles are signing up for charter schools, which generally are not unionized.

So LA families are seeking out charters in droves because they clearly found a charter school that is providing a better public service than what they were getting in the traditional LA school system. The LA union pays $82,000 to learn, allegedly, how that system is inefficient in funding schools. And instead of then analyzing the report and focusing on ways to mitigate the system’s inefficiencies and improve service, the union screams that we must mitigate parents’ choices to protect the system.

It’s prioritizing the system over service to families. And it’s a slap in the face to the families who are choosing charter schools, as LA parent Leticia Chavez-Garcia writes about here.

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Commentary: Is California failing its dual language learners?

sweet little girl bored under stress with a tired face expressionThese days, Washington, D.C., policymakers are focused on working through the details of implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is replacing No Child Left Behind as the nation’s preeminent federal education legislation. The deliberations have included some conversations about how the law treats multilingual students.

It’s early days to know how ESSA — and decisions based on these ongoing conversations — will affect America’s dual language learners (DLLs). But we might be able to get a sense of the new law’s strengths and weaknesses by looking to California’s “Local Control Accountability Plans” (LCAPs), which some see as a conceptual model for ESSA’s decentralized approach. Like ESSA, California’s LCAPs maintain centralized sources of funding, but push decisionmaking and accountability attached to those dollars as locally as possible. (Note: the funding side of LCAPs is knowns as the LCFF — the Local Control Funding Formula.)

So: how’s California’s new model going?

Last month, Californians TogetherPublic Advocates, and The Education Trust-West put out reports that suggest that the local plans are not working well for dual language learners. (For EdSource’s deeper coverage of the three reports, click here) The policy’s basic idea is something like this: California provides increased “supplemental” funding for supporting underserved students — including DLLs — and allows districts considerable latitude to decide how to serve those students. The funds are still intended for serving these particular students, but districts have control over how they’ll use them. That is, instead of prescribing that all funds for DLLs be used to fund one of a handful state-specified school activities, the LCAP system requires districts to work with educators and members of the community to develop strategies suited to their students’ needs.

Yet Californians Together’s report found that “the vast majority of LCAPs lack specific attention to strengthening or providing coherent programs, services, and supports for [DLLs], and fail to address issues of access to program and curriculum.” This appears to be a problem beyond just dual language learners. Education Trust-West concluded that “it is impossible in most cases to trace whether supplemental/concentration funds followed the high-need students who generated them.”

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Commentary: A challenge to elite colleges to set aside more seats for low-income achievers

Harvard Ends Early Admission PolicyMany high school seniors think of spring as college admission season. Yet the nation’s most selective colleges seem determined to rebrand it as rejection season.

Increasingly, the marketplace has rewarded colleges that turn away the most students, and the competition to be competitive has become white-hot. Winning that competition may be great for colleges, but the hidden cost is enormous — for the nation and for young people of great promise but little privilege. They are the ones left behind when colleges become laser-focused on exclusivity and lose sight of their vital role in inviting a new generation of students into opportunity and leadership.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with thousands of enormously talented, hard-working kids from working-class and low-income families. These are brilliant potential first-generation college students. But for kids in such communities, the belief is pervasive that there’s no point in applying to a selective college.

That belief is poisonous to our society, and there has never been a more important time for a cadre of college presidents to step forward and prove it wrong. It’s time to send a message of hope and opportunity to replace a dominant, powerful message of exclusion.

Here’s the situation today: According to a recent report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a mere 3 percent of students at the nation’s most selective colleges come from the lowest-income quartile of American families, and only 11 percent come from the second-lowest quartile — while a stunning 72 percent come from the highest income quartile. And there’s been virtually no progress over the last decade. That’s not a plan to enable social mobility, it’s a way to reinforce a status quo of sharply limited opportunity for the poor, the working-class and a good part of the middle class.  Continue reading

Commentary: Everyone loves pre-K, but no one’s asking the key question: How do we train early educators?

early childhoodAs I’ve recently written, most of the hottest K–12 topics are already settled for the 2016 election cycle. But that doesn’t mean that education is going to be entirely relegated to the sidelines. Keep an eye on early education policy, where various candidates have strong interest in and credentials for making their mark with new, interesting (or, erm, “interesting”) proposals. If you’ve been a combatant in — or just an observer of — the last decade of K–12 battles, it’s time to get ready for a crash course in a whole new realm of edu-politics. So: here’s a guide to sorting serious early education programs (especially pre-K) from the campaign trail posturing.

The usual case for early education is already well established in American public discourse. Research shows that low-income children fall behind their wealthier peers’ language development almost from birth. By age three, the children from the poorest American families have heard an average of 30 million fewer words than children from the wealthiest families. These gaps only grow in the years before elementary school.

Fortunately, early education programs can help. The dollars we spend on pre-K and quality care for infants and toddlers can save us lots of money and energy down the line. If we get kids on track by kindergarten, we spend less on later gap-closing efforts — and those kids are more likely to grow up healthy, wealthy, and wise. Research suggests that they’ll generate more tax revenue through their increased incomes, cost less in public assistance dollars, and generally be better citizens. (The Upjohn Institute’s Tim Bartik is among the best resources for the research behind these programs’ returns on public investment.)

Done right, early education programs work just about as intuitively as they sound. But building a broader system that can deliver on those promises is no simple thing: pre-K’s not like some sort of cream you apply to achievement gaps and, whoosh, they’re gone in two days!

Here’s why: those early word gaps can’t just be closed by rattling off a number of words. Quality matters. Rich, robust language use builds vocabulary and literacy. But pre-K programs’ capacity to deliver that sort of language varies considerably. This should be relatively intuitive: these programs work by exposing children with low linguistic development to the speech of highly-literate adults. So a program’s effectiveness fluctuates along with the literacy levels of its teachers.

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Commentary: The absurd logic behind a Vergara ruling that tells parents they have no recourse

VergaraThis month, a California appeals court restored the state’s teacher tenure laws, which had been ruled unconstitutional by a lower court two years ago. But the ruling was hardly a ringing endorsement of California’s approach to tenure.

Here’s what’s not in dispute in the case, Vergara v. California, even after the appeals court’s decision: Thousands of teachers in schools across California — a small percentage but still a huge number — are not up to the job. These grossly ineffective teachers are derailing their students’ academic futures. Poor and minority students are more likely than others to be assigned to one of these teachers. And all of this is happening because of state laws that make it practically impossible for schools to replace the relatively few teachers who shouldn’t be there.

The nine public school students who brought the case painstakingly proved all these points during a trial. In striking down the state’s tenure laws, the presiding judge wrote that the damage they’ve caused “shocks the conscience.”

The appeals court justices challenged none of these facts. Instead, they overturned the verdict based on the most technical of legal technicalities. They decided that the tens of thousands of “unlucky” students assigned to ineffective teachers aren’t a group that deserves any special legal protection. As for poor and minority students being disproportionately taught by ineffective teachers — the court decided that’s not a violation either, arguing that local school systems could remedy the situation in spite of the law.

• Related commentary: Dmitri Mehlhorn surveys the ruling’s fine print and identifies three key arguments that may sway California’s Supreme Court.

The court doesn’t elaborate on how local officials might do that, though, because there are no plausible explanations. Schools could fire their ineffective teachers, but the court admits this is nearly impossible under the law. Alternatively, schools could spread the harm around by assigning ineffective teachers to classrooms with affluent white students — hardly anyone’s idea of a “solution,” and something that no district has ever actually done.

Still, according to the appeals court, the theoretical possibility that a district might be able to circumvent all evidence and experience is enough to absolve state laws of the actual damage they’re doing to students.

That means we’re left with a situation where the justice system has acknowledged that California’s tenure laws are robbing tens of thousands of students each year of the education they deserve, but claims the state has no obligation to fix the problem.

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Commentary: In the fine print of the Vergara ruling, 3 key arguments that might sway CA’s Supreme Court

Elizabeth Vergara, at the press conference

Elizabeth Vergara at a news conference. She and sister Beatriz are among the nine student plaintiffs in the case.

On Thursday, a three-judge Court of Appeal overturned a trial court’s decision in the case of Vergara v. California, upholding the state’s existing education laws in a ruling of significance for millions of public school students in the state and across the country. (Read more about the sharply divided reactions after the ruling).

The real implications of Thursday’s decision, however, may be even more far reaching, as the appellate court’s semantic choices could hamper broader civil rights enforcement in education and elsewhere. The appellate ruling language, therefore, sets up a far-reaching controversy for review by California’s Supreme Court.

Beatriz Vergara vs. the State of California

Nearly two years ago, at the conclusion of a two-month trial, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu found that California had denied Beatriz Vergara a decent education.

The California laws at issue mandated that teachers receive specific job security protections, known as tenure, after two years in the classroom. Judge Treu found that this time period was far too short to exclude ineffective teachers, and that the job security protections made it onerous to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms. The operational and political reality of public school systems, therefore, led these ineffective tenured teachers to be highly concentrated in schools that served low-income students of color.

Judge Treu further concluded from the evidence at trial that good teachers were the linchpin of a decent education.

Since Vergara and several of her fellow plaintiffs were students of color from low-income families, and since education is a fundamental right under California’s constitution, Judge Treu’s findings of fact made the relevant education laws constitutionally suspect. In legal terms, that meant that the laws were subject to “strict scrutiny,” so they had to be “necessary” to achieve a “compelling” state interest. Judge Treu did not find them necessary for a compelling state interest.

Thus, Judge Treu struck down the laws in question. His decision met with immediate and widespread approval. Almost every major newspaper editorial board of the left, right and center — including the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal — applauded the ruling as creating an opening for public schools to better serve students like Vergara. Even President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said that the decision presented an opportunity to build a new framework that better served teachers and students.

Unfortunately, the decision was decried by the California Teachers Association, by far the most powerful lobbying group in California. The CTA invested heavily in a local and national campaign to undermine the legitimacy of Judge Treu’s ruling, while also bringing high-powered legal resources to appeal the decision.

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Commentary: College remediation is not just a problem for those ‘other’ kids

unnamedThis is college acceptance season, the weeks when millions of high school seniors pore over their offers and agonize about which campus offers the best fit and the best financing. The real pressure is off, the essays and test scores a distant memory.

Until you consider the results of a new study that revealed this:

More than half a million college freshmen—approximately one in four students who enter college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of college, costing their families nearly $1.5 billion annually.

My bet is a lot of parents read these kind of reports about struggling students and education problems and think: That’s a bummer, but that’s someone else’s problem.

That someone else being, um,  low-income families or kids of color? Students in chaotic urban schools or remote rural schools? Or maybe new immigrants or students with disabilities? All those students not “cut out” for four-year-colleges?

Pick your “other,” but the problem is not about you or your kid, not about anyone comfortably striving or hailing from the honor roll of all those so-called good high schools, right?

Wrong, in this particular case.

Some 45 percent of those students came from middle- and upper-income families, according to “Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability,” a new research report written by Education Reform Now and sponsored by Education Post.

Not only does college remediation cut across all income levels, it’s also not a problem confined to community colleges. Nearly half – 40 percent – of remedial students were enrolled in public and private four-year colleges.

While underprepared students average two remedial courses each during their first year, higher-income students at private four-year colleges take more remedial classes than lower-income students at those same colleges, suggesting these schools enroll many lower-achieving but higher-income students.

Which means this: If your kid attends an expensive private university but isn’t ready to write college papers or pass a college math class, you will be paying an extra $12,000 for material he or she should have learned in high school.

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Commentary: Time for Trump to get honest with his coalition of fear. It’s not walls they need, but better schools

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

How to explain the baffling rise of Donald Trump, the bullying, narcissistic real estate mogul dominating the Republican presidential primaries? How did a celebrity talk-show host with so little grasp of public policy — or good manners — come so close to becoming the GOP nominee?

Economic anxiety is clearly a big part of the answer. Trump has managed to tap into a rising tide of fear swamping working-class voters as they have watched their jobs disappear, wages stagnate and savings vanish — a coalition of fear that unites the underemployed, undertrained and the xenophobic. They have little hope for a financially secure future, and they now believe their children may be even worse off.

Against that backdrop, you’d think Trump would have a lot more to say about K-12 education. While the basic governance of public schools remains in the hands of governors, state legislators and local school boards, presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have shown the out-sized influence that the nation’s chief executive can exert over education policy.

And the next president ought to use every bit of that influence. After all, guaranteeing schoolchildren a high-quality education is among the most certain solutions to the problem of restoring the great American middle class. It would do more than igniting trade wars, banning immigrants or building walls. It would convert fear into hope.

A focus on revamping public education would help repair not only the economy but also the nation’s civic fabric, which Trump, instead, is threatening to rip to shreds. He plays to the basest instincts of some of his supporters, pandering to their xenophobia and lending legitimacy to their resentment of people of color.

A more thoughtful candidate would explain that the real problem is an economy transformed by the forces of globalization and technology. That means that today’s workers must know more to command good jobs.

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Commentary: Progressives like Bernie Sanders may be confused about charter schools, but black parents aren’t

Bernie Sanders isn’t the only progressive who is confused about charter schools. On the left, misunderstandings and mischaracterizations about non-traditional public schools abound, many of them spread by an educational establishment that fiercely guards its turf.

One of the most popular misconceptions is that charter schools represent “takeovers” by wealthy corporate interests or rich conservatives who are indifferent to public education and greedy for the tax dollars that keep public schools open.

That helps explain Sanders’ bungled response, during a recent CNN Town Hall, that he didn’t support those charter schools that are “privately run.” (More from The 74: Feeling Confused by The Bern? 4 Theories on What Sanders Actually Thinks About Charter Schools)

In fact, public charters are no bastions of 1 percenters. Instead, many of them serve as lifelines for poor kids, rescuing them from schools where little learning takes place. That’s why they are so popular with black families.

The contentious debate over charter schools is a fault line through the political left, a divide pitting public education reformers against those who favor the status quo. Though many black educators, especially those employed in grades K-12, are fierce opponents of charter schools, black parents take a different view.

Last year, the Black Alliance for Educational Options released a survey of black voters in four states — Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey and Tennessee. It found that majorities in each state favor charters. Roland Martin teamed up with TV One, where he hosts a black-oriented news show, to sponsor a similar poll, and it showed similar results: more than 70 percent of black voters support charter schools.

It’s easy to see why if you take a clear-eyed look at the state of traditional public schools, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Lots of them are sub-par, with low scores on standardized tests, principals and teachers who fail to inspire and mediocre graduation rates.

Given limited means, many black parents feel trapped. They have neither the resources to buy homes in neighborhoods with good schools nor the money to afford private or parochial schools. Suburban school districts, by the way, punish parents who enroll children who don’t live in the district — some going as far as to make arrests. (The 74: Opinion: Why Are We Arresting Mothers for ‘Stealing’ An Education?)

(The income gap helps explain the difference in support for public charter schools. In 2011, the median wealth for a white household was $111,146, while it was $8,348 for a Latino household and $7,113 for a black household, according to government data.)

Public charter schools are free to attend, just like traditional public schools. They have open attendance policies. (Many public charters have more applications than seats; those schools usually select students through a lottery.)

To be sure, charter schools are no panacea. Some have failed; others are not doing any better than nearby traditional schools.

But the best among the charters are posting substantial gains, even among students from less-affluent families. Those are kids whose best chance for gaining a toehold in the economic mainstream is through a first-rate education.

Progressive politics are supposed to promote the poor, stand up for the weak and advocate for the voiceless. If so, the progressive movement ought to be a strong supporter of public charter schools.


Cynthia Tucker Haynes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist and a popular radio and television commentator. Her weekly column, which appears in newspapers around the country, focuses on political and cultural issues, including income inequality, social justice and reform of the public education system.

This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

Commentary: Cirque du LAUSD

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Representatives from charter schools line up outside LAUSD headquarters for this month’s board meeting.

By Nick Melvoin

Last week’s Los Angeles Unified School Board meeting was a political circus. Scores of parents, students and advocates in a packed boardroom vied for a chance to speak as the board debated their futures in real time. And while the politics may interest an arm-chair social scientist—“everyone is in such a bunkered battleground” as board President Steve Zimmer put it, before climbing back into his bunker and abstaining on the most contentious vote of the day—our children deserve better than a trip to the circus. Putting aside the merits of the issues discussed, the manner in which the board makes its decisions—and, superficially at least, invites community input—is absurd.

Parents, students and teachers waited more than eight hours to be given a chance to speak. And their futures were left to a process by which the board “cobble[d] together a plan, concocting at least half a dozen proposals and amendments during a lengthy and at times contentious discussion.” And this comes months after the school had to submit their petition.

Unfortunately, dysfunction is the norm, not the exception, for school board meetings. When schools are up for renewal, parents—many of whom have to take hours if not the entire day off work to advocate for their children—often line up starting at daybreak. In many cases, they don’t speak until late in the day, if at all. Parents and community stakeholders are left outside for hours or are relegated to an “overflow” room where they can watch the board meeting (unless, of course, the live stream doesn’t work). And despite stories of parents who are unable to speak after hours of waiting, board members at times let their supporters speak even when resolutions are postponed or abandoned.

Democracy is messy, but it doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. And despite lip-service about the need to engage parents and the community, nothing says “we don’t want your input” more than making parents line up at 5 a.m. to maybe, just maybe, get two minutes to speak before midnight.

When I was a teacher, I streamlined processes to ensure instructional time wasn’t lost and my students and I had a clear understanding of what was expected of us. I encourage the school board to do the same.

Here are a few ideas for new processes that could increase parent engagement and allow for more productive board meetings.

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Commentary: The political grandstanding of the LAUSD board

(From L): LAUSD school board members Monica Ratliff, Ref Rodriguez and Richard Vladovic

(From L): LAUSD school board members Monica Ratliff, Ref Rodriguez and Richard Vladovic

By Caroline Bermudez

With the Los Angeles Board of Education poised to consider the expansion of another successful charter school at its March 8 meeting, parents demanding more choice deserve to know what is driving the district’s questionable practices around charter review.

There is an anti-charter narrative so strong that it defies reason, and few illustrate it better than the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The board, according to charter school organizations, is denying their petitions to open new schools. Since last July, LA Unified has turned down seven petitions and approved seven others. Just two years ago, the approval rating for new charters was 89 percent.

The reasons LA Unified cites for some of these charter schools not being allowed to expand? The handling of food contracts and problems with signatures.

And while established charter schools tend to have their contracts renewed (this academic year, the approval rate was 100 percent, the previous year it was 97 percent), the process is not without pain.

Charter leaders have long complained that the list of items a school must “fix” to secure a renewal is onerous, time-consuming and has little to do with students or outcomes.

Hillel Aron of L.A. Weekly wrote about the efforts of a former LA Unified board member, Bennett Kayser, to turn down charter school applications at every opportunity or even close down high-performing schools.

According to Aron’s article, Andrew Thomas, an education researcher who ran unsuccessfully for an LA Unified board position last year, said of Kayser at a candidate debate: “To vote on principle or ideology to close a school—it’s beyond the pale for me.”

But intellectually dishonest (or bankrupt, as was the case with Kayser) criticisms of charter schools certainly do not begin or end in Los Angeles. Policy researcher Conor Williams has written about the petty battles waged against charters across the nation, silly squabbles that include allegations of copyright violation.

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