TFA spinoff turns teachers into leaders

Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America alumni move into policy and advocacy roles, is expanding rapidly, reports Education Week.

Jennifer Aguirre, who teaches Spanish, won a LEE fellowship with a Baltimore community-organizing group run by a TFA alumnus. She’s now considering a public policy career.

“You have people who know something’s wrong,” she said, “but they need to be given the resources needed and encouragement to step out of their comfort zone and try to tackle a huge problem.”

LEE funds workshops with donations from Teach For America, private foundations and individual donors.

Electoral work amounts to less than a third of LEE’s budget, its officials say, but it has nevertheless fueled popular accounts of the organization, mostly critical. Such accounts accuse the group of supporting candidates who espouse a particular “corporate” brand of education policy focused on expanding charter schools and test-based accountability.

Bill Ferguson, a TFA alumni and LEE member, was elected to Maryland’s Senate, where he’s sponsored “parent trigger” legislation.

LEE officials say the group coaches candidates and reviews their campaign materials but doesn’t support particular policies.

The right to nonpolitical homework

Can a teacher require students to be activists? There’s a First Amendment right to nonpolitical homework, concludes the New York Times‘ ethics columnist.

A parent wrote:

For my daughter’s high-school biology class, the students are required to take a public action addressing climate change. They have a wide range of options of what they can do: write a letter to a public official, design a website, develop a public-service announcement or organize a flash mob. They are required to submit proof that they presented their work publicly — that is, that they mailed the letter, launched the website, etc. Is it ethical for the school to require students to speak publicly on a specific issue? Or even to give extra credit for doing so? Does the students’ right to free speech also give them the right not to speak publicly on this topic? KATHARINE LONDON, CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

The teacher can “teach climate change as hard science” without “universal community support,” responds the ethicist. But requiring public support for a divisive idea is not science.

Asking students to create the groundwork for a presentation (letter, website, flash mob) is not unethical, because it’s mostly a way to make students investigate a subject in a less conventional, more practical context. They will understand the ideas with greater depth. It’s a creative means for self-directed education. But forcing them to publicly advocate for that idea is something else entirely. That’s an extension of civics. And if a civics instructor demanded all her students campaign in public for a controversial environmental view that she personally supported, it’s pretty easy to see how this would be a problem. Here again, the issue is not about the subjective accuracy of the concept; it’s about forcing someone without agency to serve as a conduit.

The biology teacher might respond that students could “address” climate change by writing a letter saying it’s all hooey. That would be a brave student. But, even if students were given a real choice about what opinions to voice, mandatory activism is creepy.

And . . . organize a flash mob?

Gates targets education policy

The Gates Foundation, with a whopping $37 billion in assets, is spending more to influence education policy, writes Joy Pullman in Heartlander Magazine. The foundation funds “myriad seemingly grassroots” advocacy groups. That’s causing concerns, she writes.

“Philanthropists, unlike teachers unions, they don’t have an obvious constituency,” said Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State political science professor. “Teachers unions represent teachers. Who does the Gates Foundation represent?”

Gates has spent $173 million to develop Common Core State Standards and to persuade 46 states to adopt them, writes Pullman. At an Indiana legislative hearing, 26 of the 32 people who testified against a bill to withdraw Indiana from the Core are members of organizations the Gates Foundation funds.”

“The Gates Foundation completely orchestrated the Common Core,” said Jay Greene, who runs the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. Still, Greene thinks the foundation is following education reform trends already adopted by the “D.C. elite,” not setting them. Gates and the U.S. Department of Education are together “push[ing] down into states and localities the consensus they have already arrived at,” he said.

The Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2009 after four Gates employees moved to the U.S. Department of Education.

Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, worries that Gates has too much influence.

“I’d like others—particularly [in] the communities that are impacted by the most high-profile school policies—to have at least an equal voice to those from the outside,” he wrote in an email to School Reform News.

Nearly everyone Pullman interviewed “agreed Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation’s employees are, as Greene put it, ‘good people trying to do good things.’ But that does not quell their concerns.” (She must not have talked to Diane Ravitch.)

There are people who think Bill Gates is trying to get even richer by giving billions of dollars away. I think that’s crazy. But I do worry about the foundation’s enormous clout in education debates.

Conspiracy theories about nefarious philanthropists are “laughable,” writes RiShawn Biddle. There’s nothing stealthy about the Gates Foundation’s role in advocating for the Common Core, he adds. Bill and Melinda Gates are “doing nothing more than what any of us would do if we had the cash: Using their dollars and influence to  engage in efforts to improve the world in which they live.”

The American Federation of Teachers gave $6 million to advocacy groups and charities in 2011-12, reports the Education Intelligence Agency. The largest donation was $1.2 million to Californians Working Together, which backed a state ballot measure that raised taxes to fund schools.

Most of the donations were ho-hum, but I was a bit surprised to see $10,000 went to the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center and another $9,155 to the Center for Citizenship Education in Mongolia. I like Rabin. I favor good citizenship in Mongolia. But is this why teachers pay union dues?

Talking ’bout education — or not

ED in ’08, which tried to get presidential candidates to discuss education issues was a “successful failure,” argues Alexander Russo. (Most people consider it a plain old failure.) Advocates learned what works — and doesn’t work — in the political arena, Russo writes.

I don’t think K-12 education will be a key issue in this campaign. Obama is focusing on subsidized college loans to appeal to middle-class voters. Romney’s going to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs.

Obama’s willingness to fund vouchers in Washington, D.C. — a deal has been struck with the Republicans — is interesting. Urban blacks, who are less enthusiastic about Obama this time around, support school choice.

The Education Department denied Iowa’s request for a No Child Left Behind waiver because the state hasn’t approved a statewide system for evaluating teachers.  Iowa is a battleground state. That’s politically gutsy, writes Mike Petrilli. Or foolish.

‘Unreasonable’ parents

Parents are driving teachers out of the profession, writes Ron Clark, founder of an Atlanta school and author of The End of Molasses Classes.

We’re educated professionals who can advise parents about their child’s development, Clark writes. “Trust us.”

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I tell a mom something her son did and she turns, looks at him and asks, “Is that true?” Well, of course it’s true. I just told you.

Stop making excuses for your children, Clark adds. “Be a partner, instead of a prosecutor.”

Not all teachers are trustworthy, responds Charlie Zegers, a teacher’s son, on Dads Good.

We’ve been burned by lazy teachers who don’t want to deal with kids who might need extra help, or by short-timers counting the days until retirement, or by inexperienced newbies who don’t know how to handle difficult situations. And we’ve been burned by layoffs and hiring decisions that push good young teachers out the door in favor of the entrenched, the tenured, and the politically connected. And while we know that most of you are dedicated educators that go above and beyond the call of duty to help our kids learn, we’ve also seen your unions work just as hard to protect the jobs of the least-deserving among you.

If parents seem unreasonable, “there’s a better-than-average chance that our trust has been betrayed in the past by another member of your profession,” Zegers writes.

Update:  Parents deserve respect — and rarely get it, writes Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union on Dropout Nation.

Why is it that when parents advocate for their child’s well-being and right to a high-quality education, we are called “anti-teacher”?

Don’t fear parents, Samuel writes. Parents love their children and will support effective teachers.

 

Gates’ money is everywhere

Bill Gates is putting his billions into education advocacy, writes the New York Times. That includes “financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, ” creating new advocacy groups and “bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.”

“We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” said Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” Berkeley Education Prof. Bruce Fuller tells the Times.

Researchers are careful about criticizing big-spending foundations, says Rick Hess. “Everybody’s implicated.”

The Gates Foundation funds the Education Equality Project, Education Trust, Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies, the Times notes. (And a whole lot more.)

Harvard, for instance, got $3.5 million to place “strategic data fellows” who could act as “entrepreneurial change agents” in school districts in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere. The foundation has given to the two national teachers’ unions — as well to groups whose mission seems to be to criticize them.

The Gates Foundation is not Dr. Evil, responds Rick Hess, who says his “implicated” quote referred to all education foundations, not just Gates.  He’s written in the past that few researchers bite the hand that feeds them — or might feed them in the future.

“Academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty–where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.”

The Gates Foundation’s efforts to influence public policy through research and advocacy resembles “the Ford Foundation’s decades-long effort to change educational finance policy through the far less democratic approach of litigation or Ford’s current giant investment in promoting a very particular equity agenda,” Hess writes.

I’ve been writing Community College Spotlight for a year now. I’m paid by the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Teachers’ College of Columbia, which uses grants from, among others, the Gates Foundation. Many of the initiatives to improve community college graduation rates, redesign remediation, offer dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students and improve college readiness are funded, in part or full, by the Gates Foundation. I’m dubious about dual enrollment for struggling students: If  they can’t handle high school classes, how they can handle college classes? Nobody’s told me to cheer for every Gates idea. On the whole, I think the foundation is investing intelligently in the search for solutions to the most critical problems in education.

BTW, a recent comment accused “billionaire education reformers” of trying to push all students to a bachelor’s degree, regardless of their academic preparation or motivation.  This is not true of Gates. The foundation is heavily invested in improving community college programs that lead to a vocational certificate or associate degree.

The Gates Foundation is very, very influential in education because it puts lots of money behind the programs and policies that its people think are going to improve education. They’re not infallible. But what’s the alternative? Give billions to do the same thing only with laptops for the kiddies? That’s not going to happen.

Does education research measure up?

Is there a crisis of quality in education research? In a forum Sept. 29, a team of education experts will discuss National Education Policy Center‘s new book, Think Tank Research Quality: Lessons for Policy Makers, the Media and the Public.

On National Journal, one of the book’s authors, University of Colorado Education Professor Kevin Welner, argues that shoddy think tank research is pushed to the fore by marketing campaigns drowning out more rigorous academic research.

The state of public discourse on education is woeful, with academic researchers conducting high-quality studies but talking mainly to one another, while along a parallel track run meaningful conversations between policymakers and well-connected advocacy think tanks.

Drawing on our Think Tank Review Project, the book presents 21 reviews of recent think tank reports on key issues such as school choice, early-childhood education, education finance, teacher quality, and standards-based accountability.

“New entrepreneurial providers (like the NewSchools Venture Fund) and advocacy and research operations (like the Education Trust or the Fordham Institute)” have challenged the old gatekeepers of research (ed schools, ed journals and national associations), writes Rick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Now, there is a continuing, worsening embrace of what I’ve called “the new stupid” in how data and research are used, but that points to problems with how practitioners and policymakers use the research that they read. As I argued a couple years ago in Educational Leadership, “Today’s enthusiastic embrace of data has waltzed us directly from a petulant resistance to performance measures to a reflexive and unsophisticated reliance on a few simple metrics.”

NEPC’s Think Tank Review Project is not the ultimate arbiter of good research, Hess writes, though it can contribute to the discussion.