Tag Archives: 2010

Counting down: Top 10 education stories of the decade

This is the last installment of my three top ten lists. Wednesday’s was the top 10 events in SFUSD in 2010; Thursday’s was the top 10 U.S. education stories in 2010; today’s is the big finale–the top 10 education stories of the decade (Letterman-style, 10th to first):

10.  The rise of autism: In 2001, the incidence of autism was thought to be one case for every 160 people, which even then was much higher than in previous decades. Today, the accepted incidence is more like one case for every 100 people. Though the increased incidence is as much a public health issue as an educational one, I’ve included the phenomenon on this list because the increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism has had a profound impact on schools. From an educational perspective, autism is a perfect storm–children with autism have expensive needs, but respond well to intervention. No one really knows how much treatment is appropriate according to the framework set by special education laws.

9.  Still waiting for technology to revolutionize education: At the beginning of the decade, most people would have predicted that schools would be using computers and technology in ways that enhanced student achievement and learning. Today, at the end of a decade that has seen an enormous expansion in the use of technology in everyday life, schools are still using computers in much the same way that they were at the start of the decade. More classrooms have computers; more schools have computer labs; but curriculum development has not kept pace with the interconnected, social nature of today’s Internet. Even as students text, access YouTube and update Facebook on their mobile phones, their classroom computers block access to most of those same services.  Teaching students to be smart consumers of sometimes unreliable Internet data and careful stewards of their personal information is of paramount importance for the next decade, but it’s not clear that schools are up to the task.

8. Curriculum wars continue:  A bunch of Intelligent Design believers got elected to the Kansas State Board of Education, and suddenly we’re all debating Darwin again. Then Texas–one of the biggest textbook markets in the country, whose size gives it the power to shape curriculum choices far beyond its borders–decides that American History as traditionally taught is biased. So schoolchildren across the country will now learn, among other things, “about the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”  If anything, these skirmishes should remind us all to pay attention to the compositions of our state Boards of Education–they are powerful enough to create quite a kerfuffle if captured by extremists of any stripe.

7.  After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans rebuilds its schools from scratch:  Prior to Katrina, New Orleans’ schools were considered to be among the worst in the nation–64 percent were deemed academically unacceptable by the state of Louisana, and the graduation rate was about 50 percent. The devastation and displacement of thousands of students in the wake of the disaster created an opportunity for reformers and policymakers, who quickly replaced schools that had been destroyed with a new network of charter schools. The district was rechristened the “Recovery School District,” and dollars flowed in, both from the Federal government and private sources. Recent college graduates, eager to make a difference, also came in droves to teach in the “new” New Orleans public schools.  Results? Initially, very promising–test scores posted by New Orleans have risen dramatically in the five years since the storm. A decade from now, will New Orleans be one of the nation’s highest-achieving school systems?  That kind of sustained improvement will depend on sustained effort and sustained investment. 

6. Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone inspire reform movement: Adopting the motto “whatever it takes,” the charismatic and energetic Canada set out to fight poverty and low academic achievement in a 97-square-block zone in Harlem. Private donations and accolades poured in, and Mr. Canada’s ambitious (and breathtakingly expensive) project was chronicled in a well-reviewed book (“Whatever It Takes,” written by journalist Paul Tough). The Zone’s two charter schools initially showed positive results, but more recent studies have illustrated just how hard it is to break the interconnected cycles of poverty and low achievement.  

5. Landmark desegregation cases reshape student assignment policies:  In 2007, the Supreme Court decided two major school busing cases (Meredith vs. Jefferson County Board of Education and People Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No.1 et. al), striking down any school assignment plan using race as a tie-breaker. The 5-4 decision said student assignment policies could be “race-conscious” but could not take an individual student’s race into account. Many school desegregation advocates fear that the Court’s decision will intensify rapidly resegregating schools and worsen educational inequities between low- and high-income communities.

4. Charter movement reaches a peak:   Though the first charter schools opened in the early 1990s, the charter school movement matured in the last decade, with the number of charter schools doubling since 2000 (there are now about 5,000 charter schools open nationwide). Initially, charters were seen as laboratories for promising practices, but they have since been hailed by some reformers as high-quality alternatives to traditional public schools (in New Orleans, discussed in #7 above, two-thirds of the Recovery School District’s schools have been reopened as charters). Others, notably education scholar Diane Ravitch, who wrote the 2010 book “The Death and Life of the American School System,” the charter debate is really a distraction from a serious conversation about how to fix our educational system, which is and will continue to be dominated by traditional public schools.  Finally, early claims about the stellar academic progress of students in charter schools (as compared to their counterparts in traditional schools), may have been overblown. Several studies released in 2009 and 2010 found that charters, on average, perform no better than traditional public schools.

3. Mayoral control is tempting, but not a magic bullet:  The trend toward big-city mayors assuming control of their city’s school system actually began in the 1990s, when  mayors in Boston and then Chicago took over their city’s schools. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over his city’s schools in 2002, followed a few years later by Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C. In 2006, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was prevented by a judge’s ruling from assuming more power over the Los Angeles Unified School District. Assuming control of failing school districts is tempting for Mayors, who think that controlling school board and Superintendent appointments is a great way to ensure accountability and stability in school leadership. But does mayoral control actually improve schools? Researchers say there is no compelling evidence of a connection between rising achievement and mayoral control.

2. Race to the Top: With the creation of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan dramatically increased the Federal role in education. Is that a good thing? The four options for states to use to turn around failing schools are not supported by any particular research, and the huge jackpot being dangled by the U.S. Department of Education won’t necessarily go where it’s needed the most — instead, it will go to the states that best parrot Washington’s new party line.

1. No Child Left Behind: I don’t think you can underestimate the impact this law had on schools over the past decade. NCLB was one of President George W. Bush’s signature policy achievements, but it was also backed by powerful Democrats in Congress, including the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California. The law drastically expanded the use of standardized tests and set up the unachievable goal of making all students proficient by 2014. Schools that failed to meet growth targets (Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP) for all students and specific subgroups (like members of minority groups and students with disabilities) were subject to sanctions, which became more severe each passing year. The one good thing the law accomplished was to focus attention on the achievement gap, and put schools on notice that they should pay attention to the achievement of all students. But the law’s sanctions and targets were unnecessarily punitive and unrealistic, and led to a narrower focus on basic skills rather than critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

NCLB (re-christened as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, its original name) has been up for reauthorization since last year, but little progress has been made (the Obama Administration says reauthorization will be a top priority for 2011).  Until that reauthorization happens, all of NCLB technically remains in effect, though it’s unclear whether its most toxic provisions will actually be enforced.

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Counting down: The top 10 U.S. education stories in 2010

Tired of top 10 lists yet? Just two more — yesterday I posted my highly-subjective take on the top 10 events in SFUSD in 2010; tomorrow’s list is the top 10 education stories of the decade. Today? the top 10 U.S. education stories of 2010 (again, listed Letterman-style, 10th to first):

10. Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) stalls in Congress: Upon taking office in early 2009, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called No Child Left Behind a “toxic brand” and returned to its old name, ESEA, pledging a revision of the law that was less punitive on schools but equally demanding of achievement.  Early this year, the Administration released a blueprint for revising ESEA, but Congress hasn’t made much progress on the work. Now that control of Congress has shifted to Republican hands, that work could go even slower. Prognosis for 2011? Don’t hold your breath for a bold redesign of the Bush Administration’s signature education law, but Obama insiders say reauthorization will be a top priority in the new year.

9.  Billionaires, everywhere, dabbling in education: Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame and fortune (and “The Social Network” ignominy) gave $100 million to Newark, N.J. public schools. Mr. Zuckerberg’s generous donation was enough to prompt New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to cede some authority over Newark public schools to its high-profile Mayor, Cory Booker. The donation follows similar investments in other education projects by billionnaires Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Warren Buffett; it also, fittingly, has spawned a satiric Facebook group — Billionaires for Educational Reform.  

8. The “parent trigger” comes to Compton:  A mini thunder-clap hit California in early December, when parents at a Compton Unified elementary school announced they had collected enough signatures to satisfy requirements in the state’s “parent trigger” law to demand that a charter school operator be brought in to take over their school.  Not so fast, said State Board of Education President Ted Mitchell. After hearing numerous complaints of intimidation and deception, Mitchell told journalist John Fensterwald that he would ask the California Attorney General to conduct an investigation into the signature drive.  Stay tuned.

7. Teachers had a difficult year:  In several states, including California, New York and Colorado, debates over teacher evaluation and seniority in teacher contracts reached a fever pitch. The Los Angeles Times added fuel to the fire with a high-profile report on a complex statistical approach to measuring teacher effectiveness, called value-added assessment. The Times, using data it obtained from Los Angeles Unified, published a database ranking teachers employed by that school district, prompting anger from teachers –the newspaper report was even blamed for a suicide committed by a teacher who was ranked as ineffective.  Most recently, The New York Times published a critique of the use of value-added assessment in its city’s schools — experts said New York’s implementation of the tactic did not shed much light on teacher effectiveness.

6. Bullying gets greater attention in the wake of several student suicides: The death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide after an intimate encounter with another man was secretly taped by his roommate, led to some national soul-searching on bullying.  Gay celebrities and regular folks taped moving accounts of coming to terms with their sexuality as part of the It Gets Better project; in October the Department of Education issued a 10-page letter as guidance to school districts and colleges, reminding them that students have a civil right to be free from bullying.

5. Michelle Rhee is out (for now), but Cathie Black is in: And the trend of big-city mayors choosing anyone but a career educator to lead a school system continues, with Michael Bloomberg choosing publishing executive Black to succeed Joel Klein in leading the massive New York City school system. Come again? For a minute there, it looked like the New York State Board of Education was going to balk at issuing a required waiver for Black to step into the post — she’s not a certificated educator — but ultimately the appointment went through. In Washington D.C., Michelle Rhee stepped down from leading the city’s public schools after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, suffered a crushing primary defeat. Rhee quickly bounced back, however — in early December she announced on Oprah that she is starting Students First, a nationwide education advocacy organization.

4. States adopt common core standards:  The premise behind the common core standards is good — students in different states should still be expected to learn the same things and all states should offer an equally rigorous curriculum. But there are concerns, too: for one thing, California’s standards are actually more rigorous than the common core. For another, some worry that the common core brings us one step closer to a national curriculum and a corresponding lack of local control in education. So far, 40 states have adopted the common core (including California).

3. Education budgets take a major hit nationally — thank goodness for ARRA and Edujobs!  The deep economic downturn has hit state budgets very hard — a hit that has trickled down to school systems. Luckily, the Federal government came through with significant aid through the ARRA stimulus bill. Just as those funds began to dry up, the Feds came through again with Edujobs — an infusion of cash meant to save teacher jobs in 2010-11 and 2011-12. For SFUSD, that infusion means $10 million in the bank to prevent against layoffs next year (there have been calls to spend some of this money now to restore an hour cut from the T-10 security guards as part of last year’s budget deal with UESF).

2. The year of the Edu-mentary: “Waiting for Superman” made quite a splash when it officially opened in September 2010, but it was just one of several education documentaries bemoaning the state of education in the U.S. today — see “The Lottery” and also “Race to Nowhere” as additional examples that got people talking. My beef with “Superman” and some of the other documentaries is how one-sided they are, reducing the debate to a tidy 90-minute narrative arc, with none of the complexity and context that is necessary to really understanding the problems and difficult choices we face in improving our educational system (they also really minimize the need for INVESTMENT in education — it’s never been more true on a national scale that we get the schools we are willing to pay for).

1. Race to the Top: I just sermonized about the need to invest in schools, and the Obama Administration has increased Federal spending on education dramatically — no more dramatically than the $4-plus billion Race to the Top fund. States were encouraged (and sometimes arm-twisted) to compete for the funds, but the money comes with some big catches: states must link test scores to teacher evaluation and they must agree to implement one of four so-called turnaround models to improve failing schools. The problem? For starters, none of the turnaround models have ever been shown to consistently improve schools; for another, no one has found a way to use student test scores as a reliable and replicable predictor of teacher quality. But the worst aspect of Race to the Top is that the money doesn’t necessarily go where it is most needed — instead it goes to states that are politically willing to play the Administration’s high-stakes game regardless of its questionable policy underpinnings.

Tomorrow: the top 10 education stories of the decade.

Counting down: The top 10 events in SFUSD in 2010

Originally, this post was supposed to be three top ten lists in one: the top SFUSD events of 2010, the top education news stories nationwide in 2010, and the biggest education stories of the decade. But the SFUSD list alone got so long, I realized I’d better do this in parts. So, here’s Part I:

The 10 most important things that happened in SFUSD in 2010 (all lists are Letterman-style, 10th to first, and of course highly subjective):

10. Funding our Future town hall meeting: In early 2010, six moms at Sherman Elementary decided to act after hearing dreadful forecasts for the California education budget. On February 25, they held a town hall meeting, inviting all of our local elected officials and interested members of the public. Amazingly, over 1,000 people showed up, showing the intense concern of parents up and down the state over cuts to education.  The momentum from this meeting has led to the formation of Educate Our State, a grass-roots organization of parents across California who are advocating for the state to take action to fix and fully-fund our educational system.

9. SFUSD expands 9th grade Ethnic Studies course, promising students college credit The college credit promise didn’t pan out after SF State brass balked at giving high school freshmen credit for the course; the district planned to petition the UC system to allow the course to meet its A-G subject requirements (I’ll have to check in to see if we received this approval).

8.  SFUSD shifts the start of school a week earlier, to mid-August:  OK, the Board’s vote to begin school earlier actually occurred in mid-2009, but the implications didn’t start sinking in for most parents and students until spring 2010. Elementary school parents did a fair amount of grumbling, but on the whole, the earlier start of school didn’t seem to be that onerous.

7.  SFUSD posts great results on the California Standards Test:  District students posted the biggest test score gains in five years, with the district’s Academic Performance Index rising from 775 to 791 for the 2009-2010 school year. Fourteen of the 17 SFUSD schools with statistically significant African-American populations met their growth targets, compared to seven of 19 schools in 2008-09.

6. SFUSD is lead plaintiff in historic school finance lawsuit:  Robles-Wong v. California was filed in late May, alleging that the California school finance system is unconstitutional.  The suit has since been combined with another, similar lawsuit filed by Public Advocates and groups representing low-income families in California. Earlier this month, the judge in the case heard a crucial motion, called a demurrer, asking to dismiss the lawsuit. His ruling on the demurrer is expected in January.

5. Student Support Services investigation:  Earlier this fall, news broke that several top administrators in the district, including recently-retired Assistant Superintendent Trish Bascom, were being investigated for embezzling money from after-school grants. Investigations are ongoing, and I expect that the district attorney’s office will bring charges against at least some of these individuals.

4. 10 SFUSD schools listed as “persistently underperforming.” The state of California, following the wisdom of the Obama administration, set out early this year to identify the five percent of schools with the lowest performance. This was not a straightforward sorting exercise — each state set up its own criteria for determining low performance, and in California we exempted very small schools and charter schools. The upshot: SFUSD had 10 schools land on the list, which means we had to decide whether to replace administrators and/or teachers, close schools, or convert schools to charters. The process has been painful, but we were awarded significantly large School Improvement Grants this fall to help us make these changes.

3.  SFUSD cuts $113 million from its budget through 2012:  Cuts that would have seemed unimaginable even two years ago became unavoidable. Most notable: four furlough days in 2010-11 and again in 2011-12, eliminating summer school, and cutting all high school transportation. During the very contentious negotiations over the budget cuts (which required concessions from each of the district’s labor unions), hundreds of layoff notices were issued to teachers and paraprofessionals, which caused additional pain and much discussion about the disproportionate effect of layoffs on struggling schools (most of the notices were eventually rescinded).  

2. SFUSD releases results of highly-critical audit of its special education programs: The Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative released a scathing report after spending several months interviewing teachers, parents administrators and community members and observing programs. Among the findings: students of color are disproportionately identified for special education, and special education programs in San Francisco are unnecessarily segregated; the district spends too much on its special education programming and gets unsatisfactory results for that investment.

1. SFUSD Board adopts new student assignment system: I am not sure the impact of this event can be overstated. Not only did we institute a system that is simpler and more predictable (after what seems like a decade of debate), but the new system led to a complete overhaul of the district’s transportation system as well as a major investigation of SFUSD address fraud that has in just a few months uncovered a large number of cases. I think the Board and staff did a great job staying focused on the data and our ultimate goals for the system, but only time will tell whether the years of arguing, studying and community feedback have led to a system that will truly be fairer and more effective than what came before — I have high hopes but will be anxiously waiting for the first round of data in March.

Tomorrow: The biggest education stories nationwide in 2010