Commentary: Making sense of state’s new school evaluation system is practically impossible

Los-Angeles-Times-logoBy the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board

It’s not easy to measure the performance of a school, because there are so many things that go into providing a good education. But neither should it be as hard as the State Board of Education is making it.

After three years of work, the board recently revealed a draft of its new annual accountability system for California schools. These are the report cards, in effect, that are to replace the old single-number Academic Performance Index by which schools have been judged for the last decade and a half. The API was based almost solely on the results of the annual standardized tests taken by students.

The board’s determination to measure schools by more than merely test scores is laudable and has led national thinking on the topic. But the new system is more than overly warm and fuzzy. Making sense of it is practically impossible.

Click here for the full article from the Los Angeles Times.

Could Donald Trump make social security great again — and win over 7 million voters in the process?

#EDlection2016By Kirsten Schmitz

Donald Trump has promised to make America great again. One thing he says he won’t look to change? Social Security. While maintaining the Social Security status quo might seem at the very least unobtrusive, it neglects an opportunity to extend coverage to the over 1 million teachers and 6.5 million government workers whose jobs go uncovered.

On February 29, Trump told Georgia rally attendees, “we’re going to save your Social Security without making any cuts. Mark my words.” He made similar remarks at an April rally in Wisconsin — both states, interestingly enough, extend social security coverage to only some of their teachers — and spoke favorably (though without specific recommendations) about preserving the program in a statement to AARP. Though no official stance on the topic appears on his website, and recent adviser statements seem to hedge toward cuts, let’s assume Social Security under Trump remains as is. He’s missing — perhaps not for the first time — an opportunity for real greatness.

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

While existing state pension plans aren’t offering all workers adequate retirement benefits, Social Security at least offers them a solid floor of benefits. Expanding Social Security would help millions of uncovered workers, including all teachers in California, Illinois, and Ohio (where Trump will be accepting his party’s nomination tonight). Further, universal Social Security coverage would actually reduce the program’s existing deficit by 10% — yes, reduce — by more evenly distributing the program’s legacy costs. While Social Security isn’t designed to take the place of a stand-alone retirement benefit, it would provide all teachers with a much deserved and too often missed baseline of secure, nationally portable retirement benefits.

Neither candidate has broached the idea of universal coverage, though Hillary Clinton has proposed its expansion by increasing benefits for high-need groups, including widows and caretakers. Trump has yet to commit to any one approach – only promising not to make cuts. But to this point neither Clinton nor Trump has taken any steps towards addressing the benefit coverage gap that impacts millions of educators, many of whom will ostensibly head to the polls in November.

Kirsten Schmitz is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners.

This article was published in partnership with

Flashback: That time Arne Duncan, Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton traveled the country talking about education

#EDlection2016By Peter Cunningham 

In the spring of 2009, newly-elected President Barack Obama took a meeting in the Oval Office with civil rights leader Al Sharpton. Reverend Sharpton told the White House he wanted to talk about education so Education Secretary Arne Duncan also attended. Sharpton also brought along an unlikely guest: former House Speaker and GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich.

By all accounts the meeting went well but towards the end, according to Secretary Duncan, the President suddenly suggested that the three of them go on the road together to talk about education. “You’ll get tons of media,” he said.

Duncan was somewhat flabbergasted by the idea but nodded. When he got back to the department, he stuck his head in my office and said, “You won’t believe what just happened.”

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

As the Assistant Secretary for Communications at the U.S. Department of Education, I had the delicate task of organizing school visits with Reverend Sharpton, Speaker Gingrich and Secretary Duncan. Reverend Sharpton wanted to see schools serving low-income kids of color. Speaker Gingrich wanted to see charters. Turns out they are mostly the same.

As a lifelong Democrat and strong supporter of President Clinton, the notion of spending quality time with his nemesis Newt Gingrich was not high on my bucket list. Nevertheless, I became friendly with one of his top staffers and the Speaker himself turned out to be pretty agreeable. A few months later, at my request, Speaker Gingrich even came to the administration’s defense in social media over a little dust-up involving the president’s back to school speech.

The Sharpton-Gingrich tour visited schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C., where we chatted with teachers and kids. Before talking to the media, we typically spent a few minutes together in a holding room collecting ourselves.

“Who wants to go first,” I asked. Everyone pointed to the others.

“What do you want to say?” I asked.

“The kids are learning,” said Sharpton.

“Charters are working,” said Gingrich.

“This is amazing when people come together around education,” said Duncan.

“Let’s do it,” said I.

And we did – just a few times before scheduling more visits became difficult. The episode was one of the more surreal experiences I had in Washington.

In today’s polarized political environment, it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton and a Democratic cabinet member on the road together. Hard to imagine perhaps, but more needed than ever.

Newt Gingrich is scheduled to speak tonight at the Republican National Convention, where the theme is “Make America First Again.” Who knows, maybe he’ll bring up his visits to some of America’s best schools.

This article was published in partnership with

GOP convention commentary: Is obsession with local control of public education out of control?

#EDlection2016A new RNC dispatch from Peter Cunningham, executive director of Education Post:

If Republican conservatives stand for one thing above all else when it comes to public education, it is local control. Just as some conservatives see tax cuts as the only answer to an ailing economy, some also see local control as the antidote to everything wrong with schools. Yet, the evidence for local control as a strategy to improve schools is weak, at best.

Consider standards. By law, the federal government is prohibited from setting learning standards and, historically, states have set them all over the place. To their credit, governors and state education leaders on both sides of the aisle came together and created the Common Core State Standards, believing that common standards across state lines make sense.

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

But, after the federal government offered incentives to adopt the standards, local control zealots fought back and prompted some states to abandon the standards they helped create, including Indiana, the home state of the Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence. Ambitious, common standards may be good for kids and for American competitiveness, but they now violate conservative principles. The quality of the standards is, of course, irrelevant.

Look at integration. Sixty-two years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools illegal, local control has undermined most efforts to promote integration in the world’s most racially diverse country. Today, our schools are more segregated than ever.

When it comes to innovation in education, conservatives often point to charter schools, which are authorized at the state and local level. But the biggest threat to charter schools is not centralized oversight, but rather its absence. While the best charters have closed achievement gaps, on average only a third out-perform traditional neighborhood schools. The real problem facing charters is quality control and local control does little to address it.

The accountability argument against local control also applies to traditional public schools. Until the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, there was no real accountability in public education. Low-performing schools languished for decades. Graduation rates in thousands of high schools serving low-income students hovered around 50 percent.

For the last 15 years, the federal government has forced states and districts to provide objective proof that kids are learning and to take action when they aren’t. Alas, under the new federal education law passed in 2015, local control zealots on the right conspired with the left to weaken federal oversight of schools.

On issue after issue – teacher training and evaluation, curriculum, funding equity – local control trumps fairness and quality, but don’t expect to hear any complaints at the Republican convention in Cleveland.

This article was published in partnership with

Commentary: California — the state of magical thinking when it comes to education

Westside Rentals signBy Caroline Bermudez

The great Joan Didion rose to literary fame chronicling her love-hate relationship with her native California. In Where I Was From, she unleashed a cool invective about the state’s less than firm grasp of reality that still applies today:

“A good deal about California, in its own preferred terms, does not add up.”

California, in particular Los Angeles, is defined by its contradictions. It’s a place of indescribable beauty teetering on the edge of environmental disaster. It exudes a glamour and carefree spirit that draws thousands of hopefuls, but as you stroll through the city’s rejuvenated downtown area, you see rows of tents nearby inhabited by the homeless. The University of California system is the nation’s crown jewel of public higher education, yet prisons comprise a bigger chunk of the state’s budget.

Perhaps the most glaring contradiction of California is how it regards K-12 education as both a priority and an afterthought.

A report cited by a recent article in L.A. Weekly shows how out of reach a good school is not only for its many residents scraping by, but also for those who, if they lived in other regions of America, would have a surfeit of options:

“The jaw-dropping takeaway here is that the average home price near the highest-ranking public schools in L.A. is $1,430,000, the report from RentCafe found.”

The same RentCafe report the article refers to determined most high-achieving schools are concentrated in one wealthy area of Los Angeles:

“It defines highest top-ranking campuses as those with ratings of between 8 and 10 on the GreatSchools site. Those compose 12 percent of public elementary schools in L.A. Most of these campuses are on the Westside, the report states. That makes sense, since the median home price on the Westside is now $1.2 million.”

To live in proximity to an excellent public school, a resident of Los Angeles will have to pony up seven figures.

Pause here for a second.

But what about renting?

The outlook does not improve much, according to the report:

“Renters spend approximately $617 more on rent every month to live near top-performing elementary schools in L.A. than those living near low-ranking schools,” a RentCafe spokeswoman said. “That amounts to more than $7,400 a year.

The average rent in a bad-schools neighborhood is $1,614, while the same in a good-schools area is $2,231, the site says. That’s a 38 percent rent difference.”

Continue reading

Commentary: Democrats rewrite education platform behind closed doors, abandon core party values

Clinton-Obama panelBy Peter Cunningham

The Democratic Party has always stood for one thing: we fight for the little guy. In the field of education, the little guy is the student. He can’t vote. He doesn’t have much say about his school. He mostly has to do what he’s told. And he is trusting us to do right by him and set him on a path to success.

That should mean that we are giving him a good school filled with hard-working adults who set high expectations and hold themselves accountable for results. It should mean that when the student isn’t learning the adults in his school don’t blame factors outside the classroom. Instead, they make the most of things under their control – like time, curriculum, technology, parents and the trusted relationship between teacher and student.

It should mean giving him and his guardian the freedom to find the right school for his unique needs, whether he is gifted or struggling, non-English speaking, poor, gay, straight, trans, athletic, artistic, emotionally stable or vulnerable. It should mean that we don’t allow adult rules about governance or working conditions to inhibit the child’s right to a quality public school and an effective teacher. The needs of the student come first.

Unfortunately, the new Democratic platform does not fully commit to any of these things. Instead, the one adopted behind closed doors in Orlando last weekend affirms an education system that denies its shortcomings and is unwilling to address them.

For example, Democrats are now against “high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners as failing.” No argument here, but what about standardized tests that truthfully and fairly identify underperforming schools and struggling students? The platform is silent.

Democrats are also against “the use of standardized test scores as a basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools.” OK, but are there any circumstances when Democrats support closing schools? What if those schools show little to no growth? What if parents stop choosing those schools? Would we keep them open anyway? Again, the platform is silent.

Democrats are also against “the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.” Obviously, they didn’t check with America’s most-prominent Democrat, President Barack Obama. He thinks test scores, along with other measures like classroom observations, examples of classroom work, and feedback from peers, parents and even students, should inform evaluations.

Continue reading

Response: What NPR’s ‘hit piece’ got wrong in attacking Rocketship’s ‘impressive results’

(Photo credit: Ms. Nguyen taught a social-emotional lesson while an NPR reporter visits her class / Rocketship)

Ms. Nguyen taught a social-emotional lesson while an NPR reporter visited her class. (Photo credit: Rocketship)

Last month, NPR’s Education blog published what is being called a “takedown piece” on Rocketship Education. As co-founder and CEO of Rocketship, a leading network of nonprofit public charter schools, I have grown accustomed to anti-charter attacks like this. But my staff and parents are not. They flooded my inbox with outrage over the voices missing from this story. As for the voices included in the story, six of the nine Rocketship sources contacted me to express their frustration over how NPR’s blogger mischaracterized their comments (more on that below).

The story did get one thing right. Our students’ “results are undoubtedly impressive.” But rather than dig in and really understand what underlies our Rocketeers’ impressive achievements, NPR’s blogger, Anya Kamenetz, went to great pains in trying to undermine our success and defend her personal anti-testing thesis.

Eliminating the achievement gap is hard work. As Paul Tough’s latest work highlights, it is particularly hard for people who have not worked or lived in low-income communities to understand the unique challenges of teaching in high-poverty schools like Rocketship. And I’m sure it was very hard for Anya Kamenetz to understand, as she herself did not visit a single Rocketship school.


If our schools are really what NPR’s blogger portrayed, the critical question she didn’t ask is: Why did 90% of Rocketship students return this year? They don’t have to enroll at our school. They have a seat at their zoned district school waiting for them. But they come back, year after year. And they tell other families to do the same.

Over 250 parents of Rocketship Mosaic Elementary crowd into a standing room only reauthorization hearing in February 2016 to demand their school stays open another 5 years. (Photo Credit: Rocketship.)

Over 250 parents of Rocketship Mosaic Elementary crowd into a standing room only reauthorization hearing in February 2016 to demand their school stay open another 5 years. (Photo credit: Rocketship)


In our most recent parent survey, 72% of parents stated that “I have recommended Rocketship to another family.” To be clear, these are parents who actually recommended Rocketship, they are not simply saying “they would recommend.” 2,276 parents responded to this annual survey. Sure, not every parent is happy every day. But most days, most parents love their Rocketship school. So much so that they tell other families to enroll.

Continue reading

Commentary: How to weed out bad-apple teachers? Ask parents

bad-applesBy Lindsay Sturman

The epic battle over how to improve public education in California grew more stratified last week when a bill to mildly reform California’s onerous teacher employment laws was gutted beyond recognition and quickly died. With it went the hope that our elected officials would finally decide the question which is at the heart of the debate: Is there a fair way to fire a teacher? 

Assembly member Susan Bonilla’s AB 934 was meant to address (and head off) the issues raised in Vergara v. California, a lawsuit brought by nine students who argued the laws are too protective. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed; an appeals court did not. Now the state Supreme Court is expected to decide this summer whether to take up the case. While both sides agree there are ineffective teachers in our public schools, and they are concentrated in low-income communities, they can’t agree on what to do about it. Unions say there is no objective way to evaluate teachers, arguing principals can be biased and incompetent, and test scores are influenced by factors outside of a teacher’s control (such as poverty). The default system is that teachers get almost no scrutiny, and terrible teachers are left in the classroom indefinitely because no one is identifying the bad ones.

No one, that is, except for parents.

When a teacher is mean, lazy, chronically drunk in class or “grossly ineffective,” the parents know immediately. They know from their friends, from their kids or simply from observing a class. What has been overlooked by all parties in the debate is that in the absence of workable teacher dismissal laws there is an outsize role parents play in what happens to truly bad teachers. In affluent and high-performing schools, PTA parents — with booster club money, political clout and enough free time — will march into the principal’s office, file petitions with the district and protest until someone does something about a poorly performing teacher. That something is coaching (or nudging) the teacher to improve, and if that doesn’t work, “coaching them out.”

The phenomenon of “coaching out” is when administrators are forced to work around the stringent dismissal process, which can take a decade and cost $250,000and convince incompetent teachers to leave on their own. Teachers only agree to this when there is another job waiting for them. That job is very often in a low-income, low-performing school, where turnover and vacancies occur more frequently. This shuffle of teachers is known as the “Dance of the Lemons” and was part of the testimony in the Vergara trial.

But the parent part of the equation went unnoticed amid bigger headlines (such as teachers calling students racial epithets and slurs such as “whore” and no one doing anything about it, and that students can lose nine to 12 months of learning from one year with a grossly ineffective teacher). Mark Douglas, assistant superintendent of personnel services at the Fullerton School District, referenced the role of parents. He said the Dance of the Lemons results in the transfer of less effective teachers to economically disadvantaged schools because an “(ineffective) teacher can exist without parent pressure at a lower-end school.”

In other words, bad teachers cannot survive in affluent and high-performing schools because they can’t survive the parents. Empowered parents will hold everyone’s feet to the fire until a poorly performing teacher gets support, improves or moves on. If parents are constantly pressuring a school to stay on its toes and strive for excellence, is it such a surprise when affluent students do well? It’s important to note that parents in low-income and low-performing schools do protest and fight to get rid of ineffective teachers, but their voices go unheard in the same way voices from low-income communities across the country go unheard. Just look at Flint, Mich.

Continue reading

Commentary: A promising bill on teacher effectiveness is gutted in backroom deal

Beautiful young teacher writing on the blackboard

By Ben Austin

Last month, my organization, Students Matter, issued its support of California’s AB 934 – a state bill that, though imperfect, honestly attempted to address the grave defaults in the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws challenged by the student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California. (A 2014 ruling in that case sided with the students but was overturned by an appellate court earlier this year; the plaintiffs are now appealing to the California Supreme Court.)

Students Matter worked with California Assemblymember Susan Bonilla’s office for months to craft commonsense legislation that supported effective teachers and prioritized quality across California’s public education system. When introduced, the bill drew praise from parents, educators, community leaders and newspaper editorial boards across the state.

All that progress was eliminated last week with the strike of a pen.

Late last Tuesday night, Students Matter got notice of a new version of AB 934, revised in advance of an upcoming vote before the California Senate Education Committee. Watered down and gutted beyond recognition, the new AB 934 preserves the unconstitutional and unjustifiable disparities in students’ access to effective teachers caused by the current laws.

• Read more: Parents want legislature to act on teacher tenure

Rather than bring California in-line with the states making strides toward educational equity, AB 934 continues California’s decades-long tradition of robbing students of the quality education they deserve. In an about-face betrayal of California’s students and hardworking families who depend on our public schools, AB 934 now abandons California’s 6 million public school students and hard-working public school teachers by embracing a harmful, unpopular and unconstitutional “business as usual” mindset.

So what happened? A backroom deal that was manufactured by the state’s most powerful special interest groups, which swapped a promising bill out for a reinforcement of the status quo. And while the new AB 934 might work for those groups and their lobbyists, it’s a bad deal for California students, parents, teachers and voters, who trusted their elected representatives to serve and protect the people.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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

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


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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.”

Continue reading