Jobs, jobs, jobs — and school choice

In an acceptance speech devoted to jobs, family, jobs and jobs, Mitt Romney promised to “give our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow” by promoting school choice. ” Every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance.”

Earlier, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s speech was all about education.

We say that every child in America has an equal opportunity. Tell that to a kid in whose classroom learning isn’t respected.

Tell that to a parent stuck in a school where there is no leadership. Tell that to a young, talented teacher who just got laid off because she didn’t have tenure.

The sad truth is that equality of opportunity doesn’t exist in many of our schools. We give some kids a chance, but not all.

That failure is the great moral and economic issue of our time. And it’s hurting all of America.

Bush also called for school choice.

Go down any supermarket aisle – you’ll find an incredible selection of milk.

You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D.

There’s flavored milk– chocolate, strawberry or vanilla – and it doesn’t even taste like milk.

They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk.

Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?

Condi Rice, another choice supporter, said the “crisis in K-12 education” is a “threat to the very fabric of who we are” in her convention speech. Otherwise education was barely mentioned.

Here’s Romney’s education web page and the Hechinger Report‘s analysis of what would happen to education under Romney or Obama.

Louisiana OKs parent trigger

Louisiana’s state board of education has approved a parent trigger option. However the state — not the parents — would decide who runs the school, reports the Advocate. If a school earns a D or F grade for three years in a row, a majority of parents will be able to trigger a state takeover. Currently, the state gives D and F schools four years to improve. Nearly one out of five public schools in Louisiana meets the takeover criteria, according to the state education department.

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors endorsed the parent trigger idea with big-city Democratic mayors leading the charge.

What’s in a word?

What’s In A Word? asks Eduwonk.

. . .  if you were to substitute “needs improvement” for every instance where the word “failing” is used in the public conversation to describe school accountability efforts wouldn’t the dialogue sound a lot different?  Eg – “Under No Child Left Behind 48 percent of schools have been identified as failing” or “Under No Child Left Behind 48 percent of schools have been identified as needing improvement” are two very different things in practice and also sound different.

Federal law doesn’t refer to “failing schools,” Eduwonk points out. The official phrase is “needs improvement.”

82% school ‘failure’ rate? Not yet

Arguing that No Child Left Behind is “broken,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that 82 percent of schools could be labeled “failing” this year. So far, most states are reporting much lower failure rates, reports Politics K-12.

Under NCLB, states decide what constitutes “proficient” performance and how quickly schools must move toward 100 percent proficiency in 2014. High failure rates may reflect high standards. On the flip side, states where most schools make Adequate Yearly Progress may be setting the bar low.

Wisconsin reports that only 11 percent of schools are failing to make AYP; Rhode Island and South Dakota report 20 percent. Texas is at 34 percent and New Jersey at 50 percent. On the high side, Florida (89 percent) and New Mexico (87 percent) beat Duncan’s predictions with Missouri (81.9 percent) just behind.

Some of the big states — California, New York and Illinois — haven’t reported yet, so the final numbers could move up.

California: Higher scores, more failing schools

State tests scores are up for California schools, but more schools are failing to meet federal proficiency goals, notes California Watch.

While the state accountability system credits school for improving, No Child Left Behind wants students to reach proficiency, which the state defines at a relatively high level. California’s “basic” would be “proficient” in many states.

The targets vary depending on the grade level. For example, for elementary and middle schools and districts to avoid being labeled as failing, 68.5 percent of students will have to score at a proficient level in math during the current (2010-11) school year; 79 percent will have to be proficient in 2011-12; 89.5 percent will have to be proficient in 2012-13; and 100 percent will have to be proficient in 2013-14.

Statewide, a third of districts are in “program improvement,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Only 40 percent of elementary schools and 26 percent of middle schools made Uncle Sam’s goal. Not all high school scores have been released, pending 2010 graduation rates, which are expected to be compiled in November.

By California’s standards, so many more schools are meeting the Academic Performance Index goal of 800 that Superintendent Jack O’Connell is talking about raising the goal.

What's the role for parents, community input?

In a speech delivered to the NAACP last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will “require parent and community input” in turning around persistently low-performing schools. That means “notification, outreach, public input, and honest, open discussion about the right option for each community.”

Can communities and parents help turn around schools? National Journal’s Education Experts discuss  the appropriate way to structure parental and community involvement.

You can’t get meaningful community input by mandating it, responds Chad Wick of KnowledgeWorks.

Requiring “honest, open discussion” is a return to federal micromanagement, writes Rick Hess.

Turnaround and down the drain

School turnarounds rarely work, writes Andy Smarick on Education Gadfly. homas B. Fordham Institute – The Education Gadfly. We don’t know how to transform very low-performing schools and we don’t have enough good people to throw at the job. Nevertheless, the federal government is putting billions of dollars into the School Improvement Fund in hopes of transforming 5,000 failing schools in five years.

. . . while the verbiage is new, many of the details are remarkably similar to tactics tried in the past — replacing staff, improving professional development, providing more site-based control, changing curriculum, etc. In many ways the total package is eerily reminiscent of the interventions under NCLB’s corrective action and restructuring.

Under NCLB, districts avoided controversial strategies, instead going for  “meek interventions, like professional development or turnaround specialists,” Smarick writes. The new plan “will allow lukewarm reforms to pass for meaningful change.”

We should all pause to consider that, if the administration gets its way with the 2011 budget — meaning another $900 million for turnarounds — the federal government, in just a few years, will have invested approximately $5 billion in an area with consistently poor results via previously ineffectual strategies. If we include the significant portion of RTTT funding that will be used for the same purposes (such efforts make up one of four program priorities) the figure swells to over $6 billion.

Education Week has more on the turnaround plans.

Update:  Four percent of students pass state exams. Attendance averages 54 percent. Forty-one percent earn a diploma. Chicago’s Marshall High has been “on the district’s probation list for as long as some freshmen have been alive,”  reports the New York Times. Now it’s slated for a turnaround. That will mean “building improvements” and “new textbooks, technology and supplies.” Plus the new curriculum will be replaced with a newer curriculum. The new principal may be replaced with a newer principal.

Any student reading below a sixth-grade level would be placed in an intensive reading program. Community organizations would be invited to help with mentoring, counseling and other needs.

Current teachers could reapply for their jobs, a mechanism for removing ineffective teachers. At other turnarounds, 15 percent to 20 percent of staff members return, Mr. Fraynd said. All staff members would undergo training, including three weeks of instruction on a new discipline program designed to help students understand how they have misbehaved rather than being purely punitive.

Can this school be saved? It doesn’t seem likely, even if they’ve finally figured out that semi-literate students need an intensive reading class.

Turning around the bottom 1%

The Obama administration will fund efforts to “turn around” 5,000 failing schools over the next five years, says Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Duncan said that might mean firing an entire staff and bringing in a new one, replacing a principal or turning a school over to a charter school operator.

. . . “If we turn around just the bottom 1 percent, the bottom thousand schools per year for the next five years, we could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children,” Duncan said.

States would decide how to spend the turnaround money, which could be as much as $4.5 billion.

Don’t waste billions of dollars trying to do the impossible, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.  Turnarounds rarely work.  What’s necessary is the ruthlessness to close failing schools and open new schools.

Do you plan to invest billions of dollars to try to invent a reliable, scalable strategy for fixing long-broken schools? Or are we going to humbly accept the clear lesson from 40 years of turnaround efforts in education (and even longer in the private sector), and recognize that closures and new starts are the way to go?

So far, the department’s turnaround ideas include both traditional fix-it activities and closing and reopening schools, Smarick points out.