Pre-k for all?

Education reform has proven unpopular with teachers’ unions, a key Democratic constituency, so President Obama’s second-term education agenda will focus on preschool and college aid, writes Joy Resmovits on the Huffington Post. “Teacher quality measures have all but dropped off the administration’s billboard agenda . . .  and after Tuesday’s speech, both teachers’ unions issued effusive statements.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, criticized the president’s call for two years of pre-kindergarten for all students.  “The equity agenda was missing from the first term and it’s also missing from the second term,” she said.

” . . . the thing for me that’s missing is the recognition that some schools, some families, some kids need more help than others,” Wilkins said. “When we have a tight budget … poor kids need pre-K first.”

Obama said high-quality preschool saves $7 for every dollar spent. That number comes from the Perry Preschool Project in the 1960s, which involved poor black children with low IQs  and dismal prospects and included weekly family visits by well-educated teachers. (The Perry kids did poorly in school and life, but not as poorly as the control group.) Head Start hasn’t produced lasting benefits. Preschool programs for middle-class kids do not improve school readiness.

Obama’s plan is expected to resemble a Center for American Progress proposal to provide two years of pre-kindergarten to every child, “paid for with federal funds matched by state spending, to the tune of $10,000 per child,” reports Resmovits. That could cost up to $100 billion. “It is unclear how the president would pay for the program while not increasing the deficit, as he promised Tuesday,” she concludes.

First, fix Head Start, argues Education Gadfly.

Ed Trust: Waivers hurt high-risk kids

The Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers let states shortchange low-income, minority and disabled student, charged Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, at Senate hearings.

Although states had to set high achievement goals to get a waiver, failure to reach the goals has no consequences, Haycock said in prepared remarks.

“This means that, in a state like New Mexico, a school can get an ‘A’ grade even if it consistently misses goals for, say, its students with disabilities, its Native American students, or its English-language learners.”

. . . “This is very definitely a step backward from the civil rights commitment embedded in” No Child Left Behind, Haycock said.

In conjunction with the hearings, Education Trust released A Step Forward or a Step Back? State Accountability in the Waiver Era, which opts for “a step back,” reports Ed Week.

In addition to goals that don’t matter, most states still aren’t using multiple measures to hold schools accountable, the report said.

. . . many states are vague in spelling out how districts will be responsible for turning around the most struggling schools. They single out Maryland and Georgia (two Race to the Top states that are also struggling!) for only requiring more planning when schools persistently fail to improve.

Waivers “eviscerate” accountability, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Helping teachers teach in tough schools

It’s important to make high-poverty, low-performing schools satisfying places to work, concludes a new Education Trust report, Building and Sustaining Talent: Creating Conditions in High-Poverty Schools That Support Effective Teaching and Learning.

Despite widespread assumptions that students are the primary cause of teacher dissatisfaction, research shows that the culture of the school – particularly the quality of school leadership and level of staff cohesion – actually matters more to teachers’ job satisfaction and retention, particularly in high-poverty schools, than do the demographics of the students or teacher salaries.

The report looks at districts that are improving the teaching environment in challenging schools.

 

Teach for America grows, but . . .

Teach for America‘s expansion is raising questions, reports AP. With experienced teachers facing layoffs, do high-poverty schools need inexperienced teachers, however bright, who commit for only two years in the classroom?

“There’s no question that they’ve brought a huge number of really talented people in to the education profession,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority children, and a longtime supporter of TFA.

But, she said, “Nobody should teach in a high poverty school without having already demonstrated that they are a fabulous teacher. For poor kids, education has to work every single year.”

High-poverty,  high-minority schools employ nearly twice as many teachers with fewer than three years’ experience, AP reports.

One third of TFA graduates are still teaching, according to the organization. Sixty percent work in education, including administration, starting new schools or developing policy.

In Why I did TFA and you shouldn’t, Gary Rubinstein explains why he no longer recruits for TFA. Twenty years ago, TFA recruits took “jobs that nobody else wanted,” he writes. The alternative to a “barely trained” TFA teacher was “a different substitute every day.”

The 2011 corps is nearly 6,000, twelve times as big as the cohorts from the early ’90s. Unfortunately, the landscape in education has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Instead of facing teacher shortages, we have teacher surpluses. There are regions where experienced teachers are being laid off to make room for incoming TFA corps members because the district has signed a contract with TFA, promising to hire their new people.

TFA has spawned arrogant education reformers who are “assisting in the destruction of public education,” Rubinstein charges.

In a follow-up post, he writes about how he’d fix TFA.

So here’s my plan: TFA becomes a three year program with the first year composed of training, student teaching, substitute teaching, and being paired up as an assistant to a corps member who is in her second year of the program, which is her first (of two) years of teaching.

First-year recruits would train at a university while grading papers, calling parents and subbing for a second-year TFA teacher, he proposes.

You will tutor kids after school. If necessary, you will cook dinner for the teacher you assist. First year teaching is a two-person job and you will be the behind the scenes person who does a lot of the dirty work so that the second year corps member can succeed. You will also be subbing throughout your city. Perhaps you have to sub twice a week. Do that for a year and you will have no trouble facing your actual classes in your second year.

With a year of preparation — and an assistant — the first year of teaching wouldn’t be so traumatic, he writes. Perhaps more people would want to remain as teachers, building on their first two years of experience.

 

Civil rights, disability groups trash Harkin bill

Adequate Yearly Progress bites the dust in Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s bill to rewrite No Child Left Behind, now out in draft form. Instead, students would have to make “continuous improvement,” reports Ed Week.

There would be no specific achievement targets, either for entire groups of students, or for particular subgroups, such as minority students, English-language learners, or students with disabilities. In the vast majority of cases, states would decide how—and whether—to intervene in schools.

Harkin worked with Republican Sen. Mike Enzi on the bill.

Where’s the teeth? ask critics.

. . .  Democrats for Education Reform already likened the draft’s “continuous improvement” standard to saying you’re losing weight without ever getting on the scale.

Advocates for poor, minority and disabled students complained the bill has “no meaningful mechanism” to hold schools, districts or states accountable in a letter to Harkin and Enzi. The groups included the National Council of La Raza, the Education Trust, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The lack of goals is “a total deal breaker,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust.

 

Building better teacher evaluations

The Education Trust has released Fair to Everyone: Building the Balanced Teacher Evaluations that Educators and Students Deserve.

Most teachers are currently evaluated through “drive-by evaluations” — brief, annual drop-in observations of classroom practice. Teachers are rarely given criteria or standards used for these observations. And they rarely receive actionable feedback. In fact, no matter how strong (or weak) her instruction may be, or how much (or how little) her students learn, nearly every teacher in America is told she is doing a “satisfactory job” and given no advice about what or how to improve. 

Teacher evaluation systems should include multiple visits by well-trained observers using clear performance standards and measures of teacher impact on student learning, such as multiple years’ worth of value-added data, the report concludes.

 

Low-income kids are ‘priced out’ of college

Only five of the nation’s 1,186 four-year colleges and universities give low-income students a reasonable chance to earn a bachelor’s degree at an affordable cost, concludes a new Education Trust report, Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students (pdf).  A sixth, Berea College in Kentucky, charges no tuition.

Ed Trust looked at what students pay after receiving financial aid.  The average low-income family must spend 72 percent of annual household income to send one child to a four-year college. Middle-class families contribute 27 percent of household income and wealthy families spend 14 percent.

Ed Trust looked for colleges with a net price (total attendance cost minus total grant aid) of $4,600 or less, a graduation rate of at least 50 percent, and at least 30 percent enrollment by students from low-income families. Not a single public flagship university made the list. The only private non-profit was Berea, a liberal arts school with no net price. It’s free.

With a focus on the Appalachian region, Berea largely enrolls students of modest means, and manages to support their studies through a sizeable endowment, required work-study, and a “plain living” budget. The college can point to academic success as well, having boosted its six-year graduation rate from 50 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2009.

The affordable public universities are: the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, two City University of New York (CUNY) schools, Queens College and Baruch College, and Fullerton State and Long Beach State in California.

All are based in states which outpace their peers in providing need-based financial aid. What’s more, each of the five universities has a clear commitment to closing gaps of access and success between high-income and low-income students, and between students of color and white students.

Pell Grants for low-income students are under attack in Congress. If the rapidly growing grant program is cut, it will be even harder for low-income students to afford college.

At low-cost colleges — especially community colleges — Pell Grants cover tuition and students’ living expenses. That encourages people to enroll for the grant money, even if they’re not serious about taking classes. “Pell runners” who lose eligibility for aid at one college, enroll at another, hoping nobody checks their record.

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.

‘Stuck schools’ stay stuck

Most high-performing schools are leaving low-income and minority students behind, concludes Stuck Schools Revisited: Beneath the Averages, a new Education Trust report that analyzes data from Maryland and Indiana.

In Maryland, the achievement gap in reading narrowed from 2005 to 2009, but African-American and Latino students often lag behind.

“In Indiana, gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers have remained both wide and stagnant,” Ed Trust reports. 

Army rejects 23% of high school grads

Today’s Army won’t take all high school graduates: 23 percent of would-be enlistees flunk the academic test, reports Education Trust in “Shut Out of the Military.”

. . . 29 percent of Hispanic Army applicants and 39 percent of African Americans were found ineligible. Furthermore, when minority candidates did gain entry into the armed services, they achieved lower scores on average than their white peers. These ratings exclude them from higher level educational, training, and advancement opportunities provided by the Army.

Qualifying rates varied widely for white applicants with 27 percent of Maryland’s white high school graduates failing the test compared to 10 percent in Indiana.

Questions cover basic skills and knowledge, such as:

“If 2 plus x equals 4, what is the value of x?”

Seventy-five percent of 17- to 24-year-olds don’t qualify to take the test because they did not complete high school, are physically unfit or have a criminal record, the Pentagon reports. Ninety percent of Army enlistees are high school graduates or non-graduates who’ve earned at least 15 college credits; the other 10 percent include GED holders who score 50 or better on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. The Army is exceeding its recruiting goal (slightly), the Pentagon reports.