Ed News, Tuesday, September 6, 2016 Edition


A Blog with News and Views of Critical Education Issues

                “I grew up in libraries, and I hope I’ve learned never to take them for granted. 
             A thriving library is the heart of its community, providing access to information 
             and educational opportunities, bringing people together, 
                leveling the playing field, and archiving our history.” 

― Josie Brown

School Calendars
When you were in elementary or secondary school when did the year commence?  If you are over 30 if was probably after Labor Day, right?  Not anymore, as a growing number of districts now kick off the year in August.  Some examples of starting dates for the current school year in L.A. County: Glendale and Pasadena Unified, Aug. 8, Alhambra,USD, Aug. 11, Beverly Hills, Aug. 15 LAUSD, Aug. 16, Culver City, Aug. 22.  Why are districts pushing up the school year?  A Q & A in the “Education Watch” column in the Aug. 15th L.A. Times provides some answers.
Skewering John Deasy and Arne Duncan
John Deasy was the highly controversial superintendent of the LAUSD from 2011 to 2014 who was forced to resign after the disastrous roll-outs of the “iPad-for-all” program and a new student information system.  Joshua Leibner, a 25-year veteran of the district and a National Board Certified Teacher, uses the form of an open letter to author Ta-Nehisi Coates to excoriate Deasy’s tenure as leader of the nation’s second largest public school district.  His comments appear on the LA Progressive website.  “Looking back, the leadership of John Deasy at LAUSD was one of the most arrogantly destructive eras of my pedagogical lifetime,” Leibner complains.  “His tenure at LAUSD was marked by a raging autocratic management style where he took unilateral actions to further the corporate education agenda of Big Business—all justified under a mask of civil rights ‘urgency.’”  Leibner reviews Deasy’s professional career and finds that it consistently includes connections to prominent billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad.  The piece includes a short video (6:52 minutes) of testimony before the school board from a substitute teacher at Washington Prep who was abruptly fired while Deasy observed her class shortly after he was appointed superintendent.                Peter Greene, on his CURMUDGUCATION blog, skewers former Sec. of Education Arne Duncan, for his effusive support of charter schools in a piece for The Atlantic.  Duncan is reviewing a new book-length article that promotes charter schools [Greene includes a link to the story.]  Greene wonders how Duncan, as the Sec. of Education, could be such a supporter of charters at the expense of traditional public schools.  “There was never any doubt that Duncan was a charter fan, but this piece puts him in line with some of the most pie-eyed charter lovers,” Greene concludes.  “All pretense is gone, and in a way, it’s impressive that Duncan could pretend to be even semi-supportive of public education for as long as he did.  But now he can stop pretending, and be the charter-loving, public school dismissing PR flack he always wanted to be.”
Charter Schools
John Oliver, on his comedy show “Last Week Tonight” on HBO, did an extended segment on charter schools on Aug. 21st to mark the start of the new school year.  You can view the piece (18:12 minutes) courtesy of YouTube.              Later in the week, Jeff Bryant, on theEducation Opportunity NETWORK, commented on Oliver’s piece (see above).  He included links to several other articles from Valerie Strauss, Rolling Stone and Mitchell Robinson among others, some of which were critical of Oliver’s take on charters.  “None of Oliver’s critics seriously refuted the crux of his argument,”  Bryant points out, “that there might be something fundamentally wrong by design, rather than by implementation or intent, with the idea that  a ‘free market’ of privately operated and essentially unregulated schools is a surefire way to improve education opportunities for all students.”               Here’s another bizarre tale from the charter school world.  The new leader of a troubled charter school in Woodbury, MN, Bert Strassburg took a payout from his previous administrative position.  In addition, he  moonlights as a psychic!  Perfect credentials for a charter principal, don’t you agree?  This item comes from the Twin Cities PIONEER PRESS.  “Strassburg’s hiring is the latest move in a tumultuous year for the school,” the article explains, “where many board and staff members have resigned and parents and the state have pressured the school to improve its governance. . . .  Strassburg added that no one from the charter school has expressed concerns to him over his departure from his last job or his work as a psychic.”              Two African-American civil rights groups, the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, recently called for amoratorium on the expansion of charter schools.  Despite strong support for charters from low-income Black and Latino families, the two organizations make a strong case for why “charter schools aren’t good for Blacks.”  A story in EDUCATION WEEK looks at the issues involved and what’s at stake.  “The NAACP’s proposed moratorium,” it spells out, “which still has to be approved by the group’s national board in October, cites increased segregation, high rates of suspensions and expulsions for black students, fiscal mismanagement, and poor oversight in charter schools as reasons to hit pause on the sector’s growth.”               Karen Wolfe, writing on her PSconnect blog, dissects the trouble facing the El Camino Real Charter High School (LAUSD) whose principal has been charging his personal expenses and lavish life style on the school’s credit card.  The school then had the chutzpah (that’s Yiddish for audacity, cheek, nerve) to turn around and blame the district for a lack of oversight and supervision.  Her piece is titled “Qué syrah, syrah: Whatever Will Happen to LAUSD’s El Camino Real Charter High School?” [Ed. note: She explains the title in her opening sentence.]                “National Labor Relations Board Decides Charter Schools are Private Corporations, Not Public Schools” is the title of an article in The Washington Post that formalizes what most education experts have been contending for a long time.  The decision is based on two cases the NLRB ruled on at the end of August.  “Charter school advocates have long argued that charters are public schools,” the story mentions, “because they are tuition-free, open-enrollment institutions funded primarily with tax dollars.  But union leaders and other critics describe charters as private entities that supplant public schools, which are run by elected officials, with nonprofit and for-profit corporations that are run by unelected boards that are unaccountable to voters.”                 Fethullah Gülen, the reclusive Turkish cleric who resides in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, is connected to one of the largest charter chains in this country.  Until the failed coup in Turkey this summer, in which he was accused of being involved, most people in the U.S. knew next to nothing about his relationship with schools in the U.S.  Gene Bruskin, a long-time labor activist, now retired, has a profile of Gülen and his reach into the education industry in America.  His profile appears on ALTERNET.  “The lack of transparency of the Gulen charter network,”  he concludes, “and the failure of federal and state oversight are warning signs of the dangers involved in turning over taxpayer dollars for public education to private charter operators.  In the case of the Gulen network, the amount of money involved is enormous—hundreds of millions of dollars.  Shouldn’t there be government investigations? A moratorium on adding more schools to these networks?”              
Vergara v California Redux
On Aug. 22nd a 4-3 majority of the California Supreme Court declined to hear the pivotal Vergara v California case which challenged teacher tenure, seniority and firing policies, thus handing a major victory to teachers unions.  The original case was heard in 2014 and the judged decided in favor of the plaintiffs ruling that such job protections violated the state constitution by not providing a proper education to poor and minority students.  In April of this year a 3-judge appellate court tossed out that finding.  A front-page story in the Aug. 23rd L.A. Times reviews the case and describes the impact of this latest development.  “The outcome left some union opponents looking for a different battlefield in the ongoing wars over public education,” it notes, “while others said they should try the courts again.   The Vergara litigation was closely watched across the country as a test of whether courts would invalidate rules that protect teachers on the argument that they violate the rights of students.”               A follow-up Timeseditorial appeared on Aug. 25th and agreed with the court’s decision but urged that the legislature take up the “problematic” tenure rules and make some changes.  “The teacher protection laws are riddled with problems.  They too often allow uncaring or incompetent teachers to stay in their jobs,” it reads, “which has a direct effect on learning and engagement.  But the lawsuit’s contention — that such rules were so harmful to California’s students as to be unconstitutional — bordered on the silly.  Even supporters of the suit estimated that the number of teachers who ought to be fired was just a few percent of the entire educational force.  Of all the things that prevent California students from succeeding — lack of preschool seats, large class sizes, minimal physical and arts education and so forth — teacher protections are hardly the worst offenders.”               2 letters appeared in the Aug. 27th edition of theTimes in reaction to the paper’s editorial about the court decision in the Vergara case (see item above).  The first took exception with the paper’s conclusion and the second, from a veteran teacher, points out the important role played by administrators in allowing ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom.              What’s next for Students Matter, the non-profit group behind the originalVergara suit?  A new case is being reviewed by a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge that claims districts in California are not following the law when they fail to use student test scores in teacher evaluations.  The “Teacher Beat” column in EDUCATION WEEK has details about this latest challenge:  “The lawsuit, Doe v. Antioch, targets 13 school districts [Ed. note: not including the LAUSD] that it claims are violating the Stull Act, a decades-old state law that, in the plaintiffs’ view, requires districts to judge a teacher’s job performance at least in part on standardized student-test scores.  The districts cited, including Antioch Unified, Chino Valley Unified, and Inglewood Unified, serve about 250,000 students. The case was filed on behalf of four parents and two students, each from a different district in the state.”  The 13 districts targeted in the suit include: Antioch Unified, Chaffey Joint Union, Chino Valley Unified, El Monte City, Fairfield-Suisun Unified, Fremont Union, Inglewood Unified, Ontario-Montclair, Pittsburg Unified, Saddleback Valley Unified, San Ramon Valley Unified, Upland Unified and Victor Elementary.  Stay tuned to the “Ed News” for more information on this case as it develops. 
Corporate “Reform”
Many advocates of corporate “reform” like to propose that schools be run more like businesses.  Stuart Egan, on his CAFFEINATED RAGE blog, turns that concept on its head and humorously suggests that businesses ought to be run like schools!  It’s an interesting concept and he makes a thought provoking point.  “I invite you to try and see if you could run a business like a public school.  Maybe the differences between a public service and private enterprise might become more apparent because you’re not even comparing apples to oranges,” he maintains.  “You’re comparing apples to rocks.”               What is the odd connection between hedge fund managers and local school board elections?  Not sure?  Check out the piece in The AMERICAN PROSPECT titled “Hedging Education, How Hedge Funders Spurred the Pro-Charter Political Network.”  It’s a real eye-opener!  “The hedge fund industry and the charter movement are almost inextricably entangled.  Executives see charter-school expansion as vital to the future of public education,” the author describes, “relying on a model of competition.  They see testing as essential to accountability.  And they often look at teacher unions with unvarnished distaste.  Several hedge fund managers have launched their own charter-school chains.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a hedge fund guy who doesn’t sit on a charter-school board.”              Steven Singer, on hisGADFLYONTHEWALLBLOG, compares corporate “reform”in education to dental floss.  You’ll have to read his piece to catch the connection but it will be worth your effort.  “The problem is the very banality of corporate school reform.  After almost two decades of these strategies pushed on both sides of the aisle,” Singer concludes, “they’ve become the status quo.  It’s just the way we do things.  They’re as common as… well… dental floss.  The federal government saw through the vapidity of that practice.  Isn’t it time the administration does the same for corporate school reform?”
New Science Standards
18 states (including California) and the District of Columbia, have adopted what is referred to as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  The “Curriculum Matters” column inEDUCATION WEEK offers an article titled “Here’s What We Know About the Next Generation Science Standards Tests.”  Students are scheduled to he tested on the new standardsbeginning in the spring of 2018 so it’s time to get prepared for their implementation.  
The Teaching Profession
A number of education experts have pointed out the flaws inherent in using test scores to evaluate teachers.  The “Ed News” has highlighted a number of them over the years.  So what does New Jersey do?  It TRIPLES, from 10% to 30%, the weight assigned to test scores in its latest teacher evaluation system.  A story fromnj(dot)com has the details.  “Student performance on standardized tests was added as a factor in some teacher evaluations beginning in the 2013-14 school year,” the article reports, “as part of New Jersey’s landmark tenure reform law.   The weight of student test scores in teacher evaluations was dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent in 2014-15 when New Jersey switched to the new PARCC exams, short for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.”               An op-ed in yesterday’s L.A. Times makes the case that the best way to  improve the teaching profession isn’t by firing lots of “bad” teachers but by creating and keeping “good” ones.  The author, Karin Klein, is a freelance writer in Southern California who writes often about education issues. “Creating better teachers is more complicated — and more expensive — than claiming we can drastically improve education with pink slips,” she suggests.  “But in fact, pretty great teachers can be made.  Finland does it, in part, by requiring not one but three levels of practical teaching experience for would-be educators, according to a 2010 Stanford University report, carefully overseen by master educators.  (Finland also draws great teaching candidates because the society deeply respects teachers as professionals, on a par with doctors or lawyers.)”  Klein describes a program run by the Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching that provides funding to improve teaching at 23 schools in L.A. and Orange counties including several in the LAUSD.  Diane Ravitch described this as a “sensible article” on her blog.
[Ed. note: My wife and I just returned from a 2+ week vacation to the Pacific Northwest, i.e., Seattle, the wine region in British Columbia and Vancouver.  While we were window shopping in an historic neighborhood of Vancouver I noticed, and bought, the following plaque.  It expresses my feelings toward school teachers to a tee:]
Inline image 1           
Testing & Common Core
The latest batch of California student standardized test scores for the 2015-16 school year were released at the end of August.  This is the second year the state made public results from the newly revamped  assessments that are supposedly aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  A front-page story in the Aug. 25th L.A. Times discusses the scores and how students showed measurable improvement.  “Across the state, 48% of students met English language arts standards and 37% met math standards,” it notes, “according to the test results released [Aug. 24th].  That compares with 44% in English and 34% in math last year. . . . Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District had lower average scores but increased their scores slightly more  than their peers statewide.”               An analysis in yesterday’s Timescompares test scores of students who attended LAUSD charters, magnets and regular district campuses.  Guess which ones came out on top?  If you said “charters,” you’d be wrong.  The correct answer: LAUSD magnets.  “Students in L.A. Unified’s magnet schools performed far better on state tests than did students at other district schools or charters,” the article reports.  “The district often touts magnets as examples of academic excellence, especially in comparison to charter schools.  Part of its plan to maintain enrollment is to increase the number of these themed schools.”
Still not clear on what the Common Core State Standards are or what the latest news is about them?  The EDUCATION WEEK“Explainer” has a short video (2:30 minutes) with some information that you, a colleague or a friend might find useful about the standards. It’s narrated by one of the publication’s education reporters.
Election 2016
Don’t be fooled by the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  The “Ed News” has highlighted items about them in they past.  They are a neoliberal political group that wants to convince Democrats to embrace the corporate “reform” agenda, particularly charters.  They recently announced they will help fund Democratic candidates’ run for office but ONLY if they support charter schools.  An article in the Albany Times-Union focuses on how this is playing out in New York.  The story is behind a paywall.  That’s the bad news;  the good news is Diane Ravitch’s blog reprints it for free.
Chronic Absenteeism
And finally,chronic absenteeism is a major contributor to poor student achievement, dropping out and other academic related problems.  The “Rules for Engagement” column in EDUCATION WEEK features data from a new federal study that pinpoints which districts are plagued by this issue and what some of them are and can do about it.  Interestingly, the phenomenon of chronic absenteeism troubles both inner-city, low-income districts as well as suburban and wealthier ones the authors of the report found.  “While nine out of 10 school districts experience some level of chronic absenteeism,” the article notes, “around half of the 6.5 million students who were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year are enrolled in just 4 percent of the nation’s districts, according to researchers Robert Balfanz and Hedy N. Chang.”  You can find the full study (36 pages) titled “Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence” by clicking here.  



Dave Alpert (Oxy, ’71)
Member ALOED, Alumni of Occidental in Education
That’s me working diligently on the blog.             

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