Board's Eye View

Though I am not inclined to give teachers too much autonomy until they start showing signs of it working to improve our schools, Jonathan Zimmerman raises some interesting issues in his When Teachers Talk out of School essay in this morning's Times. Citing cases of teachers censored or dismissed for making Facebook comments about students ?-- ?I hate their guts? or my students are ?rude, disengaged, lazy whiners? -- Zimmerman leads us into more tender, and interesting, territory by mentioning the case of the teacher asking students to read books banned from the school's library. Is this a freedom of speech issue? Zimmerman seems to be on the verge of seeing it as a professional conduct question:

All professionals restrict their own speech, after all, reflecting the special purposes and responsibilities of their occupations. A psychologist should not discuss his patients' darkest secrets on a crowded train, which would violate the trust and confidence they have placed in him. A lawyer should not disparage her clients publicly, because her job is to represent them to the best of her ability.

And he even admits that teachers ?have a responsibility to transmit the topics and principles of the prescribed curriculum.?

Zimmerman then gets a little squishy when he talks about the need for teachers to teach? ?democratic capacities,? including ?reason, debate and tolerance ? so that our children learn to think on their own? ? which sounds like a reasonable part of the curriculum --? but quickly falls...

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There has been the ?silver bullet? debate, the ?secret sauce? battle, the ?demonize teacher? tirades, and the ?cracking the code? kerfuffle over Waiting for Superman. Now, according to Diane Ravitch, it's the miracle workers perfidy. Sinners, get ye to your rosary beads ? and fast!

According to Ravitch, writing in a recent New York Times op-ed essay, titled, of course, Waiting for a School Miracle, all these high-powered education reformers, from President Obama to Arne Duncan to Jeb Bush to Michael Bloomberg, are claiming ?miracles? for their reform efforts; and Ravitch is there, a one-woman Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Devil's Advocate, to throw some almighty holy water on the hype fires.

Unfortunately, while accusing these folks of? ?statistical legerdemain,? Ravitch commits the sin of rhetorical tromperie: none of her targets claim anything miraculous. ?I will leave to others the task of sorting out Ravitch's claims about the? accuracy of the reformer's claims, but from the research I've seen so far, nobody's cooking books ? the dispute seems to be one of whether the glass is half full or half empty. And Ravitch proves herself? as good at cherry- and nit-picking as the next guy or gal.

The problem is that slippery rhetoric is as unhelpful as saucy statistics.? In her Times essay Ravitch very clearly cites four speeches (including a press conference) and four schools, ?to illustrate her point that ?the accounts of miracle schools demand closer...

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The other night, during one of our marathon budget workshops, we heard from a woman who had started a ?walking school bus? pilot program in one of our schools.? It's part of an anti-obesity grant and she had a wealth of information about the benefits of walking to school. She warned, ?We are raising a generation of kids who are afraid to walk.?? As soon as she finished, several hands shot up; parents worried about ice and snow, worried about roads without sidewalks, worried about kidnappers?..? My board colleagues immediately ditched the notion of cutting back on busing.? And it occurred to me that perhaps we are already well into the second generation of kids afraid to walk.? And so the obesity epidemic continues, with its many deleterious physical, emotional, and economic effects.? As a Times' headline today has it, Heavy in School, Burdened for Life. Three social scientists write that ?obesity affects not only health but also economic outcomes: overweight people have less success in the job market and make less money over the course of their careers?.? ?The researchers find that fat women are more prone to educational and economic disadvantage than fat men, but the point is that ?obesity is occurring in children at younger and younger ages, so prevention needs to start as early as primary school.?

Get out of the school buses, folks.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

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A friend emailed this morning:? ?Breathtaking."? It was the first of many such emails and phone calls.

They were all referring to our board of education's vote last night (a board I am a member of) to impose a school budget that raises the local property tax levy by 9.8 percent (triple the New York state average) and, by the way, a budget that was soundly rejected ? by a 3 to 1 margin of 18% of registered voters ? at the polls on May 17. As I wrote then, the board overruled the popular will just minutes after the results were in because ? well, because it could (see the ?contingency? law below), 4 to 3. Aside from getting the Tin Ear award for politically dumb moves (the gang of four might have waited a respectable few days, at least, before rubbing their power in the voters' noses), the rush to tyranny revealed a great deal about the board's isolation from its community, not to mention a deafness to some harsh economic realities (it is a poor community with average family income of just over $30,000, and an unemployment rate of about 9 percent). Needless to say, the community roared back, packing the high school cafeteria a few days later, forcing one of the four to change his mind and the board to rescind its previous vote and promise to go back to the drawing board. As I wrote last week, Round 2 had gone to...

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The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,

but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here

to the unfinished work which they who fought here

have thus far so nobly advanced.

--Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863

My father, an Army logistics officer in World War II, only told a few war stories when we were growing up in the 50s and 60s. The one about crossing Italy in the winter in a Jeep ? ?Half the time it pulled me and the other half I pulled it,? my father laughed ? made me a lifelong lover of Jeeps*.? I thought he made up the one about losing his hearing as a result of ?an enemy bullet piercing his helmet and spinning violently around on the inside, bursting ear drums and his dreams of being a lawyer ? until I found the helmet in the back of a closet one day.? I once caught my father in the bathroom, his foot hoisted into the sink, a washcloth carefully tending a set of shockingly gnarled and yellowed toes ? frostbite, he admitted, from the war. He didn't say it, but my guess was that it came from the pulling part of that winter Jeep trek across Italy. The body remembers....

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I'm not sure how many of the 200-plus people who packed our cafeteria last night had read Rick Hess' How Supes and Principals Should Not Respond to Tight Budgets, but it was as if Hess were channeling (a new power of his) the room as our supes and principals and teachers and board of ed were taken to the proverbial woodshed by a crowd of angry taxpayers, who said, in no uncertain terms, Get Real! The district (i.e. the administration and board of ed) had tried to pull a fast one last week, hiding behind the skirts of the state's ?contingency? law (the phrase ?this is not the USSR!? was used several times last night, though, unfortunately, in this matter I'm sorry to say the resemblance is a little scary) to impose a property tax levy increase of 9.8 percent, just minutes after voters had rejected that notion by a whopping 3 to 1 margin.? ?This is a democracy!? was shouted numerous times during the hour-long public tongue-lashing. And at some point in the haze of hoorahs and cheers as the board voted to rescind its decision from last week and go back to the drawing board, I felt a whoosh of air behind me and turned to see ? no lie -- Mssr. de Tocqueville, notebook in hand, scurrying from the room?.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

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In a lengthy essay for the Washington Post New York State Regent Roger Tilles provides more evidence for why the Empire State has slipped so badly educationally in the last couple of decades: the tendency to fiddle while Rome burns.? Tilles was one of three members of the state's Board of Regents to vote no on proposed principal and teacher evaluation regulations. (See here.) Luckily, he was in the minority (14 Regents voted Yes), but his dissent is worth noting as it illustrates some of what perpetuates the institutional aversion to improvement.

?I support a rigorous system of evaluation,? writes Tilles, who has great credentials, including service on two state Boards of Education, teaching at education schools of three universities, and being on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. ?It is imperative that we develop a system that is effective and fair and that will lead to better student learning. Unfortunately, the regulations ? which link 20-40 percent of a teacher's evaluation on the results of student standardized test scores ? don't have some of the elements necessary to make them either fair or effective.?

Tilles raises legitimate concerns about the use of these tests ? the quality of the tests, their snapshot nature, the unintended consequences of their being high stakes -- but seems to forget that 20% of the teacher score comes from ?locally-selected measures of student achievement? and that 60% of evaluation is based on ?other measures.?? (See Regents summary of...

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It's school budget voting day in New York. And in my little district, with fewer than 2,000 K?12 students, voters are being asked to approve a $41,249,180 budget, which is a remarkably lean one, considering that it is just .77 more than last year's budget (that's less than one percent).

According to our state school board association (NYSSBA), that's pretty good:

Reflecting the difficult economic times, the average school district spending increase [in the state] would fall for the seventh year in a row?. The average proposed spending increase of 1.3 percent for 2011-12 is lower than the 1.4 percent average this year, the 2.3 percent average in 2009-10, 5.3 percent in 2008-09, 6.1 percent in 2007-08, 6.3 percent in 2006-07, 6.6 percent in 2005-06, and 6.9 percent in 2004-05. The five-year average is 3.9 percent.

Much of the restraint, obviously, is due to the busted economy; in New York, state aid to districts was cut by $1.2 billion.? In our district, if the voters approve the budget, we will be axing 22 teachers, 11 percent of the teaching staff. (New York City thinks it has it bad: Bloomberg's proposed teaching cuts ? 6,100 --? represent only 8 percent of Gotham's teaching force.)

What's not so good ? and if there is a ?burning issue? in my district, this is it ? is the proposed 9.8% local tax levy increase, more than double the increase on the ballot in surrounding districts and nearly three times...

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Andrew Cuomo is not considered an education reform governor, but the Democratic leader of the Empire State has taken some bold stands in reining in education spending (by a billion bucks) ? even if it was courage born of necessity.? After caving in on Last-in-First-Out (LIFO) in March (see here), the new governor came back on Friday with a letter to the state's Board of Regents Chancellor, Merryl Tisch, asking for a tougher teacher evaluation system than the one the Regents had first proposed -- and which the Regents (having just hired John King as Commissioner (see here), will take up this afternoon.

According to the letter, Cuomo wants the Regents, who answer, officially, to the State Legislature not the Governor, to make ?comprehensive changes? to the evaluation plan, including:

? Increase the percentage of statewide objective data, like measuring student growth on statewide test scores, used to evaluate teacher performance;

? Impose rigorous classroom observation and other subjective measures standards on school districts when evaluating teacher performance;

? Require a positive teacher evaluation rating be given only when the teacher receives a combined positive rating on both subjective and objective measures, such as student growth on statewide tests; and,

? Accelerate the implementation of the evaluation system.

Though the devil is in the details, which Cuomo provides in his letter, there seems little doubt, as the Albany Times Union put it, ?that the letter puts him ?on course for clash...

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In another major sign of how far the school reform movement has traveled, New York's Board of Regents today appointed John King, an African American and former managing director of Uncommon Schools, Commissioner of Education. (See my Education Next story on King's key involvement in New York's Race to the Top bid last year.)

King is smart and hardworking and tough on the details.? He'll need all those gifts and more as he takes on the challenges of running a once moribund school system, with the third highest enrollment numbers in the country (2.7 million K?12 students, after California, with 6 million, and Texas, with 4.6 million) and a powerful teachers union.

Good luck, Mr. King.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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