Tag Archives: news

Dialoguing with Duncan

Interesting. I hit “publish” on my last post — a kind-of rant on the Obama Admininstration’s approach to chronically low-performing schools–and got into the car to drive to a meeting, only to hear Education Secretary Arne Duncan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.  Mainly, he kept saying that anyone who has doubts about the administration’s plans to improve persistently low-performing schools is simply upholding the status quo. Perhaps if I thought the administration had done a good job culling approaches that are actually based in research, I might agree — but they haven’t and I don’t.


Diane Ravitch tells it like it is

I missed this interview in USA Today earlier in the week with Diane Ravitch, NYU professor and former Assistant Secretary of Education under the first President Bush. Once considered a right-of-center advocate of school choice, vouchers and high-stakes testing, Ms. Ravitch has over the years had a change of heart. Her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, is causing quite a buzz in education circles, because it is her strongest indictment yet of No Child Left Behind and other Bush-era policies she helped enact.  To my mind, the most striking passage in a very interesting piece is this one, when Ms. Ravitch answers the question, “What should parents do to ensure their children are getting the best  education?”:

There are two different questions. One is what should parents do, and the other is what should policymakers do. If policy­makers simply say, “It’s every family for itself,” we’re going back to the early 19th century, before we had public education. Some people had private tutors, and some people sent their kids to religious schools, and some people got together and had little schools that they created. Then at a certain point, there was an awareness that the public had a responsibility to educate the children of the community. If we’re doing a bad job of that, we really should develop public policy that looks to improving the quality of those schools and not just close them down and hand them over to private entrepreneurs. Because then we’re creating a marketplace, and markets have failures. Markets do not succeed in providing equal opportunity. They succeed in creating winners and losers. We saw that in the [economic collapse] of the fall of 2008, and that could happen to our schools as well.

Read the entire interview >>>>

Company only hires people with autism – ABC News

Tonight’s ABC News has a wonderful story to kick off Autism Awareness Month. Specilisterne (it means specialists) is a thriving Danish company that tests software–a click-by-click process so tedious it causes most testers to lose focus and make mistakes.

Thorkill Sonne, who founded Specilisterne in Copenhagen, believes that everyone does not have to fit in socially-accepted little boxes. He means to change the nature of that box completely. He is turning disability on its head, hiring his employees because of their ability. Sonne says workers with high-functioning autism have different brain wiring that gives them an edge.

Sonne told ABC News, “they have a good memory, they have very strong attention to details, they are persistent … within their area of motivation and they follow instructions.”

But Sonne has another motivation besides good business: he has a young son with autism, and hopes his successful example will create more opportunities for people with autism. Many of the employees at Specilisterne were unemployed for decades, because they were considered by most employers to be too out-of-sync socially and too distractible to be good workers. 

Mads, another employee at Specilisterne, told ABC News he hadn’t been able to keep a job in 20 years before landing his current job. He told us, “Most of my colleagues are like me … we have in common to be weird.”

The Economist gets it wrong

Usually I can count on The Economist magazine to offer a bemused but pragmatic analysis (albeit from a European viewpoint) of events and issues in the U.S. Not this time! A brief article on California’s education woes is pure conservative party line (with a halfhearted dig at Prop. 13 tacked on at the end for balance). It’s almost as if the writer just phoned in the commentary from a comfy perch in the magazine’s Washington bureau (there is a Los Angeles dateline, so maybe the writer phoned in the piece while relaxing poolside at the Chateau Marmont).  But really, when you look at who is quoted, it’s not surprising the article takes the slant it does:

Eli Broad, a Los Angeles philanthropist who is trying to reform education, blames a combination of California’s dysfunctional governance, with “elected school boards made up of wannabes and unions”, and the fact that the state’s teachers’ union is both more powerful and “more regressive” than elsewhere. The California Teachers Association (CTA) is the biggest lobby in the state, having spent some $210m in the past decade—more than any other group— to intervene in California’s politics.

The CTA has used its money to defeat almost any reform that might have turned the standards into reality. It helped to defeat ballot measures that, for example, would have given California a school-voucher system and changed the probation period for teachers. It ensured that the state has “laughably easy teacher tests”, as [Mike Petrilli of the D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute] puts it. It is also the biggest donor to the state’s Democratic Party.

Ah. I see. A controversial promoter of charter schools (not a big fan of elected school boards he) and a researcher from an organization that is considered by many to promote a conservative agenda of privatizing public education.  That explains it.

I’ve certainly read other criticisms of CTA and the amount of money it spends to influence elections, but I think we owe them a debt of gratitude for their work in passing education-friendly legislation and for crushing multiple attempts to introduce vouchers here in California (most of the time, the state PTA and CTA are on the same side in supporting or opposing legislation – and lucky for us PTA members, CTA has a bankroll to actually get the message out).  And if I were making a list of the biggest causes of the crisis we face here in California’s educational system, I’d put outdated, inequitable funding formulas and inadequate funding altogether at the very top of my list: not CTA.

And the winners are . . .

Delaware and Tennessee win the first round of Race to the Top — $600 million total ($100 million going to tiny Delaware and $500 million going to Tennessee).  Education Week’s analysis finds that these two states really stood out when it came to stakeholder support, especially union support.  But the magazine’s Politics K-12 blog also speculates that politics could have had something to do with the selection because two key Republican moderates hail from those states:

 Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del . . . are the ranking minority members in the subcommittees in their respective chambers dealing with K-12 policy, and both are considered leading moderate voices on education who have worked well with Democrats in the past. In fact, in an interview with the Washington Post’s David Broder, Secretary Duncan singled out Alexander and Castle as the two Republicans who had offered ideas that were incorporated into the administration’s ESEA blueprint.Of course, the Obama administration has stressed repeatedly that politics would play absolutely no part in Race to the Top and set up a process intended to keep just these sort of considerations out. But the fact that Tennessee and Delaware apparently submitted such stellar applications might be a lucky break for the administration as its works to get GOP support for its ESEA ideas.

Update: the Dept. of Education has posted all the score sheets and reviewer comments for each state’s application. California came in 27th out of 40 states and did particularly poorly on its discussion of data systems to support instruction.

Card swipe system brings equity to SFUSD lunches

Good piece in BeyondChron today on the improvements our “point-of-sale” (POS) card swipe system will bring to school lunches at the middle- and high-school levels:

It is heartening to see that even in the face of one of the largest budget disasters in recent memory, facing a two year deficit of $113 million, the SFUSD is now piloting a new lunch setup – called the Super Choice Menu – aimed at banishing the stigma and removing the barriers keeping all students from having all choices available to them.
The Super Choice Menu offers several lunch options in the cafeteria, and half a dozen other choices in the former snack bar, but all choices are complete meals, not snacks, and all of them are available to all students. Standing in one lunch line or the other is no longer an indicator of a student’s financial situation – anyone can go to any line and get lunch.

In other words, the POS system makes it possible to have paid- and free/reduced lunch students standing in the same line, and making the same lunch choices. It’s hard to overstate the humiliation (from a middle-scholer’s perspective)  of having to stand in the free/reduced lunch line while your friends stand in the paid line. Many would rather skip lunch and go hungry rather than reveal their status. The POS system represents a huge improvement that will also allow us to offer better food choices to every student.

Monday morning miscellany

Student assignment —  I spent the weekend fielding calls and emails from parents who did not get a choice in Round I of the 2010-11 assignment process. The highlights on Round I are here; along with five years of demand statistics. While I do believe that the current process generally works out in the long run for people who are willing to stick with it and be a bit flexible in their school choices, I understand that it is frustrating and that in general the mechanism is way too complicated and almost impossible to understand. And in the short run, people who end up with none of their choices feel that they have very few options. That’s why we are changing it! I do think that the new “strategically simple” and “non-wasteful” focus on the choice algorithm will maximize people getting what they want. And if it’s any consolation to people who would like to know *exactly* what their choices will be next year, I’m in the same boat as you, since my daughter will be heading off to middle school in 2011. My family will be among the “guinea pigs” in the first year of the redesigned process (and no, we don’t live in CTIP 1).

Diversions — I saw “Seussical the Musical” at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts over the weekend and it is beyond fabulous. There is one more weekend of performances coming up, so don’t miss this great production! My kids loved the little carnival before the show (come early to enjoy the bounce house and other games), and were utterly enthralled by the beautiful costumes and wonderful performances. It is hard to believe these are high school students!  Buy tickets online (click the buy now! link) >>>>>

Good reads – Yesterday New York University’s Diane Ravitch penned a very interesting Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, on the negative effects of  “big ideas” on the educational system. Ravitch’s new book is causing quite a stir in education circles. Formerly a supporter of charter schools and the No Child Left Behind legislation, Ravitch now has nothing but contempt for these big conservative reform ideas.  In yesterday’s Op-Ed, she writes:

Today there is empirical evidence, and it shows clearly that choice, competition and accountability as education reform levers are not working. But with confidence bordering on recklessness, the Obama administration is plunging ahead, pushing an aggressive program of school reform — codified in its signature Race to the Top program — that relies on the power of incentives and competition. This approach may well make schools worse, not better.

Those who do not follow education closely may be tempted to think that, at long last, we’re finally turning the corner. What could be wrong with promoting charter schools to compete with public schools? Why shouldn’t we demand accountability from educators and use test scores to reward our best teachers and identify those who should find another job?

Of everyone writing about education policy today, Ms. Ravitch is making the most sense.  Read the entire article here  >>>

Politics — Interesting to note that two of my colleagues on the school board (Commissioners Maufas and Fewer) have joined progressive slates for the Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC). This little known committee is tremendously powerful in making endorsements for local elections, because our electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic and generally votes for the Democratic Party endorsements.  Full disclosure: I was asked by several members of the City’s political elite to run, but ultimately decided against it — both for personal reasons (in the words of my husband – “You’re kidding, right? Another volunteer position that calls for spending hours in evening meetings?”)  and because I wasn’t sure I wanted to politicize my position on the school board to that extent. Of course, being somewhat political is unavoidable — we have to run citywide after all! — but I am not sure it’s such a good idea for me to get so deeply ensconced in deciding who gets the Party nod for Supervisor, School Board and other races, particularly in the City’s current politically-polarized environment.

Thoughts from the Town Hall meeting

Tonight’s “Funding our Future” town hall meeting was in turn inspiring, frustrating, maddening and energizing. Overall, it was great to see so many people turn out on a weeknight — the large auditorium at Marina Middle School was completely filled, with an overflow crowd watching a TV feed in the school’s cafeteria. I got to the event 40 minutes early, but even then the parking was almost full. 

The organizers, dubbed the “Sherman Six,” started this whole effort in January after feeling angry about proposed budget cuts.  Then the event caught on like wildfire, causing the Sherman Six some sleepless nights wondering how they were going to accommodate a thousand adults and at least a hundred children in Child Watch.  But the event came off without a hitch, and appeared beautifully and extensively organized. My heartfelt thanks to the Sherman Six and all of the other parents and community members who pitched in to make this happen — I am hoping it will mark a turning point in our community’s engagement in the policy (and political) process — locally and at the state level.

So .  .  .  any solutions? Well, it depends on how you define “solution.” I think my takeaway from our state legislators (Senators Mark Leno and Leland Yee, and Assemblymembers Tom Ammiano and Fiona Ma) was that there are lots of ideas out there to reform California’s tax structure and governance system, but not a clear front-runner — nor anything that will happen in the next two years.  Even though it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, I appreciated the bluntness of Senator Yee’s statement that no matter how upset we get,  “cuts are coming. They’re coming.”   I do think we have to resign ourselves to hunkering down and getting through this, learning how to be smarter and do without things we’d rather have or used to have at some point in the past.  Fairness will be a crucial part of this discussion, and there is clearly anger at perceived unfairness around the Superintendent’s proposed cuts.

As one UESF member said to me after the meeting, “we’re sitting on a tinderbox.” Teachers, paraprofessionals and other school staff are angry, and they want to be sure that cuts are not landing disproportionately on them. And while I do believe that the Superintendent and his cabinet are trying hard to be as fair and strategic as possible about the cuts, I acknowledge that people at the school sites need more convincing.

If you weren’t able to attend the event, SFGOV-TV did record it and will re-broadcast it sometime this week. I also imagine the program will be available in their Video on Demand area in the coming days. I’ll post a link when it’s up.

NYTimes dips a toe into school selection fray

Today’s Bay Area page of The New York Times carries a news story on the student assignment redesign plan (full disclosure: the article is authored by Jesse McKinley, whom I knew many years ago when I worked at the newspaper, but I was not interviewed by him). It’s generally my experience that it is frustrating when the news media covers a topic in which I happen to be expert or intimately involved — so many fine points are left out or glossed over! The piece today is no exception.

Take, for one thing, the comments attributed to my friend and neighbor Michele Menegaz, the current chair of our Parent Advisory Council. She’s quoted as saying:

I’ll be honest with you; we’re really frustrated . . . We’re really concerned that what’s being put forward now doesn’t reflect the best of our research and it doesn’t reflect the needs the community expressed.

What members of the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) are concerned about is the fact that the system as proposed may place more emphasis on “local preference” — a priority for the school located in the attendance area where the applicant lives — than parent choices. In addition, the PAC has expressed frustration that most of the debate has centered on which children should attend which schools, rather than building quality schools across the city. The report they issued to the Board earlier this month is eloquent on both of these issues, and I think the Times article should have spent more time discussing why the PAC is frustrated — especially when you consider other voices represented in the article.

Specifically, Marina parent Zach Berkowitz (also an aquaintance of mine) is quoted as saying that the Board is failing to make education a central topic in the school assignment redesign. The reporter encountered Mr. Berkowitz at Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole on student assignment, when he (Mr. Berkowitz) gave public comment to the board advocating for a return to neighborhood schools. Mr. Berkowitz expressed the same frustration to me privately after the meeting, but I pointed out to him that the Board HAS spent significant time looking into educational quality at segregated schools.

All of the data we’ve examined over the past year has indicated that when the concentration of African-American, Latino and Samoan students at a school rises above 60 percent, indicators of school quality often suffer. Those indicators include teacher satisfaction and turnover, API score, and discipline issues.  I have consistently said that student assignment is not the only factor, nor even the most important factor in addressing educational quality at low-performing schools, but our data has also consistently indicated that school composition IS a factor. So I am dismissive of the same old complaint that the Board is ignoring “education” and instead engaging in some irrelevant kind of “social engineering.”

Anyway, the larger point is that both Ms. Menegaz and Mr. Berkowitz are used as evidence in the article that people are discontented with the new plan, but each person’s favored alternative to the staff proposal is diametrically opposed to the other’s. In other words, if we were to make Ms. Menegaz happier, Mr. Berkowitz would be even more frustrated, and vice versa. <sarcasm>Clearly, the redesign effort has worked beautifully, since apparently no one is happy with the current proposal. </sarcasm>

PTA moms to Phil Matier: We’re outraged at proposed budget cuts!

Crystal Brown and Linda Shaffer got up very early this morning to do a TV segment on the upcoming Town Hall Meeting. They were on message — nice work, ladies!  Watch the clip >>>>