Notes from the CUBE Issues Seminar

small_chicagoI’ve been in Chicago this weekend attending the Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE)  summer issues seminar.  It’s gorgeously clear and balmy outside (rare for Chicago in June!) but I have stayed indoors to attend all of the various sessions, because they are jam-packed with interesting and useful information.

I heard a presentation from Greg Darnieder, special assistant on college access to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Mr. Darnieder outlined various initiatives the Obama administration is starting up to improve access to college, and highlighted the urgency of the task. What stuck with me was that high school graduation can no longer be our goal — the future is limited for people who get no further than a high school diploma (and even then, 1.2 million members of the Class of 2008 nationwide did not get even that far). We need to be urging students to “get one more piece of paper” after they graduate, whether that piece of paper is the completion of a certificate program, a two-year degree, or a four-year degree.

Mr. Darnieder also talked about work he did while working for the Chicago Public Schools under Secretary Duncan, where they aggressively supported students in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to make sure low-income students qualified for every dime in potential aid for college.  If the form is filled out incorrectly or incompletely, or turned in after the deadline, students can be forced to wait a year before enrolling in college programs. FAFSA return rates nationwide are much lower than they should be, and I intend to look at ways we can better support students in San Francisco to make sure we help them avoid any barriers between them and a post-secondary education.

Then we heard an engrossing but very sobering presentation from Steven Biedermann, who manages the assets of the Chicago Public Schools, on the economic outlook for schools and the country over the coming years. The take-away point: trillions in wealth we had two years ago is gone and is not coming back for a long time, if ever.  Mr. Biedermann talked about the importance of having an investment policy for school districts’ cash management, expressed outrage about the lack of investment in education in his state and across the country. He also made some entertaining observations about disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich; comforting only to someone who had despaired that any other state could approach California’s level of dysfunction.

Other highlights:

  • A presentation from Austin, TX public schools on their efforts to expand access to rigorous Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs to all students, followed by a group discussion with other district representatives on their efforts to make rigorous course work available to everyone;
  • A talk by Vicki Phillips, the director of the Education Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ms. Phillips outlined new initiatives her organization will be funding, including research into alternative measurements of teacher effectiveness;
  • A Conversation on Race with staff attorneys from the National School Boards Association, discussing the use of race in student assignment plans in the context of recent Supreme Court decisions.

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