fresh voices from the front lines of change







Numerous observers have noticed K-12 education has finally gotten some meaningful attention in the presidential primary debate – at least in the Democratic Party.

The subject had been virtually a no-show in the contest until the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit earlier this month. It finally arose when, according to a transcript, a Detroit parent asked the candidates about the poor conditions in her child’s school.

First to respond was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who questioned, rhetorically, why we “can’t come up with the money to make sure that Detroit has good and qualified teachers” and “somehow we can not make sure that there are summer programs … and after school programs” for children?

“We have got to change our national priorities,” he said. “We’re not going to give tax breaks to the wealthy. We’re going to ask them to start paying their fair share of taxes so we can raise the money to make sure that every child in this country, in Detroit, in Vermont, gets the quality education that he or she deserves.”

When the question pivoted to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she proposed to “reinstate a program we did have during the 1990s where the federal government provided funding to repair and modernize public schools … to force the Governor and the state to return the schools to the people of Detroit … [and] to set-up inside the Department of Education, for want of a better term, kind of an education SWAT team, if you will. Where we’ve got qualified people, teachers, principals, maybe folks who are retired, maybe folks who are active, but all of whom are willing to come and help.”

Whether you agree with the candidates’ responses or not, the subject – the conditions of struggling schools in Detroit and elsewhere – is what urgently needs to be addressed by the candidates.

Unfortunately, both in that particular debate – as well as in the larger debate among all the candidates in the primary – the attention often veers away from the issue of adequate and equitable resources for schools to a host of other distractions.

Something Rotten In The State Of Michigan

In Detroit, specifically, the physical conditions in school buildings are so bad teachers have staged mass “sick outs” earlier this year in protest. As the New York Times reported, the teachers were protesting, “unsafe, crumbling, vermin-infested, and inadequately staffed buildings.” When the mayor visited a school, “He saw a dead mouse, children wearing coats in cold classrooms, and a gym floor too warped for play,” according to the Associated Press. “There’s no question about the legitimacy of the issues,” he said.

It’s true the responsibility to address local conditions in public schools resides primarily at state and local levels. But what happens when local and state governments can’t or won’t?

In Detroit’s situation, the city is clearly on the brink of total financial collapse that prevents it from adequately addressing the immediate needs of children. You can argue all you want about how the bankruptcy came about, but certainly children should not be victimized by the behavior of the adults.

In Michigan’s case, the state’s leadership is in clear dereliction of its duty to children, not only in Detroit but also in Flint, where alarming lead levels in the city’s water have been directly linked to the negligence of “nearly every person in the governor’s inner circle,” according a recent review of evidence by The Guardian.

Let’s also be clear, that Detroit and Michigan aren’t alone in being incapable or unwilling to address the immediate needs of children.

We Have An Education Funding Crisis

“The nation’s per-pupil spending on K-12 public schools dropped in 2013 for the third year in a row,” according to The Washington Post.

After years of chronic underfunding, many school systems across the country are stretched to their breaking points. A prediction the website Education Dive made, that 2016 would be a year filled with school budget crises, appears to be accurate. That article spotlighted Los Angeles and Chicago and districts across the states of Washington and Pennsylvania, which are now indeed all sliding into alarming states. You can add Baltimore to the list.

Last month, thousands of parents, teachers, students, and public school advocates staged “walk-ins” at more than 900 public schools in more than two dozen cities across the nation to protest budget cuts and inadequate funding of schools and teachers. This week in Boston, over 2,000 students walked out of class to protest funding cuts to their schools.

Recent surveys of voters in Virginia and North Carolina find large majorities want schools to get more funding.

California is being sued for inadequate education funding, and the Kansas Supreme Court has declared state education funding unconstitutional.

Why Money Matters

In the recent second edition of a report originally released in 2012, Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker updates his review of the empirical evidence on whether and how money matters in education.

An executive summary at the Albert Shanker Institute explains that on average, improving “the level and distribution of funding across local public school districts can lead to improvements in the level and distribution of student outcomes.”

Spending more money, the summary continues, on improvements such as “smaller class sizes, additional supports, early childhood programs and more competitive teacher compensation … benefit students, and there is scarce evidence that there are more cost-effective alternatives.”

Another recent report makes the case for more funding of schools in a different but equally persuasive way. In an overview of the report for Slate, Jordan Weissmann explains that the authors looked at what happens in school districts following court decisions that forced states to increase their funding. They found that such judicial decisions generally led to gradual improvement in test scores “in low-income districts, both in absolute terms and relative to their peers in wealthier districts. The improvements in student achievement were fairly large and, according to some of their calculations, pretty cost-effective.”

Weissmann looks at another recent study which finds “10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.31 more completed years of education, about 7 percent higher wages, and a 3.2 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.”

His conclusion from these studies is that when schools get more money, they “seem to use their new funding in reasonable ways – smaller classes, longer school years, and better paid teachers – rather than wasting it all on, say, layers and layers of administration.” And “they get results.”

So if schools in so many places are having a funding crisis, and money matters, why isn’t the debate more focused on this?

No More Distractions, Please

In the case of the CNN debate, a follow-up from CNN’s Anderson Cooper to Clinton questioned, “You’ve been endorsed by two of the biggest teachers’ unions … but union rules often make it impossible to fire bad teachers and that means disadvantaged kids are sometimes taught by the least qualified. Do you think unions protect bad teachers?”

For years, the problem of “bad teachers” has been an obsession with the media and among those in the “reform community.” And no one disputes there are without a doubt some percentage of ineffective teachers in the K-12 system.

But surely there are inadequate performers in any form of employment – wherever one chooses to look in the public and corporate sectors. Is there any evidence that teachers are more likely to be under-performers than other employees? Do we know who the underperformers are and what to do when we find them?

The Obama administration and most state governments have devoted nearly eight years and many millions of dollars to create elaborate teacher evaluation systems to handle the issue of “bad teachers.” What are the results? So far, nothing to write home about.

A recent report in The Washington Post looked at a new study of these systems and concludes, “The median proportion of teachers deemed below proficient has ticked up from less than 1 percent to less than 3 percent.” An improvement, the authors contend, “but not a landmark change.”

Digging deeper, the authors found that a confounding element in the system is the professional judgment of principals who “are dealing with the constraints and challenges of real life” and not just calibrating data.

These findings don’t surprise experienced educators. As classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene writes on his personal site, “Finding bad teaching is hard.” And it doesn’t appear the federal government is very good at it.

Of course, the inadequacy of new evaluations doesn’t mean finding low-performing teachers is impossible. In another post on the topic, Greene explains that old state evaluations were indeed poor, and he offers his remedy, which relies mostly on local control, input from multiple observations and, in short, on, “Hire a really good principal and let him do his job.”

Such remedies don’t provide presidential candidates with great talking points and don’t help media stars create sexy news. But hearing how our potential leaders might take on the real crisis at hand – the inadequacy of how our education system is funded – might take the whole nation in a direction closer to more meaningful change.

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