There’s Gambling in Our Ed Assessment Casablanca?

Yesterday’s release of the National Center for Education Statistics’ report Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto National Assessment of Education Progress Scales: 2005-2007 seemed like it was almost lifted from the movie Casablanca.  We are shocked, shocked to learn that many states’ “standards” are hardly standards at all.  For years, we’ve been reading about how student proficiency on state exams has been on the rise, while NAEP scores have remained virtually stagnant.  Now, NCES paints a grim picture of the situation, demonstrating that most states are below or only meet the basic learning standards established by NAEP.
How can that be?  The cynic in us says that states have been downgrading their state assessments to meet NCLB and AYP expectations.  As they need to demonstrate year-on-year gains in math and reading, they’ve had to readjust their tests and their scoring scales to demonstrate such gains.  It is why we hear that, according to state data, students in Alabama beat students in Massachusetts when it comes to reading proficiency.  Of course, there is no telling what those numbers would look like if Bay Staters were taking Alabama’s state test instead of their own MCAS.  The full NCES study can be found here.
Perhaps the strongest statement on the NCES report came from Congressman George Miller, the chairman of the House Education Committee.  In response to the latest data comparisons, Miller said: “The quality of a child’s education should not be determined by their zip code.  It is unacceptable that many states have chosen to lower the bar rather than strive for excellence.  This means that many students aren’t even expected to rise to meet rigorous standards — they are allowed to linger in a system that doesn’t challenge them to do better and doesn’t help them to develop the complex skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the jobs of the future.”
These are strong words from the man who is in charge of managing reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year, the Congressman who will ultimately decide the future of AYP, the adoption of core standards, and the development of the assessments and data systems to track against those standards.  And they are right on the money.  Effective assessment has hardly been a strong suit in U.S. public education, particularly considering the rough patchwork that has long made up our testing systems.  That’s why so many people are providing a big bear hug to the notion of common core standards.  In the pursuit of a better mousetrap, we hope that core standards provide a common baseline for all assessment, regardless of the state administering the exam.  If we accept the concept of core standards, it means that fourth grade reading proficiency means the same thing in Alabama as it does in Massachusetts, the same in Texas as it is in Oregon.  And if the we are all working off the same standards, in theory, we should all have similar benchmarks by which to measure proficiency.  Proficient is proficient.
But if we are moving from the promise of core standards to the realization of common expectations, we can’t overlook some of the core realities that underly the data.  Yes, we should be appalled that proficiency percentages on state exams don’t track well with NAEP proficiencies.  But we should be equally appalled (if not more so) by what NAEP itself tells us.  
As Eduflack has discussed before, the eighth grade reading NAEP has long been considered the best measure of true student achievement.  It provides a strong longitudinal approach to learning (as kids have been taught reading four eight years), and those reading skills are essential to success in other academic subjects.  We look at Massachusetts, with the highest eighth grade NAEP scores, and see it as the gold standard in reading proficiency.  But only 43 percent of Massachusetts eighth graders score proficient or better on the reading NAEP.  Is that really the bar we want to set, where nearly six in 10 students are scoring below proficient?  Is that the best we can do, or the best to which we aspire? 
Core standards will only take us so far.  At some point, we have to raise our game when it comes to both teaching and learning, ensuring that all students are gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to both hit the mark on the requisite assessments and achieve when it comes to both college and career opportunities.  Standards only mean so much if we aren’t achieving the goals they set forth. 

Millions and Millions of Minutes

It’s been used by education reformers and praised by the folks like Newt Gingrich.  Business leaders point to it as a sign of the looming “crisis” our education system may be facing.  It’s been screened at policy events and cited in opinion pieces.  The “it,” of course, is the movie 2 Million Minutes: The 21st Century Solution.  Produced by Robert A. Compton, the film is demonstrates how the United States is failing to keep up with the world (notable India and China) when it comes to education.

The movie is essentially the visual equivalent of Tom Friedman’s World Is Flat tome, watched through an entirely education lens.  Those living in the education policy world (particularly those who pay attention to international assessments like PISA and TIMSS) will not be surprised by what they see and hear.  China and India do a remarkably better job graduating students from high school (or high school equivalents) and the hard work is represented on international benchmarks and other assessments that measure student learning, particularly college and career readiness.  These countries are adapting, and adapting quickly, meeting today’s educational challenges and thus preparing for tomorrow’s economic opportunities.  Their students may be venturing across the Pacific to attend American colleges and universities, but the message is clear.  They are building a better 21st century mousetrap when it comes to teaching necessary skills and knowledge.
And for those looking for some positive news, the film’s producers have also found some American success stories in some unlikely neighborhoods.  So it does provide some hope, it what many may see as a hopeless situation.  The trailer can be viewed here. 
But 2 Million Minutes raises some interesting questions, particularly as we look at issues like common core standards and the assessments that will soon follow.  When it comes to programmatic and instructional innovations, Eduflack would like to believe the United States is second to none.  In my travels, I have seen communities, schools, and classes that were long written off succeed, despite the odds, out of sheet will.  They turned it around when it came to effective reading instruction.  They implemented groundbreaking STEM initiatives, ensuring that students and jobs were properly aligned.  They implemented technologies in ways never thought possible.  And they even enacted whole school reforms to boost expectations and drive achievement gains.  
Assessment, though, remains a tough nut for us to crack.  It was little more than a decade ago when it was every state for itself, with a mismatch of tests, standards, and expectations littering the national map.  In 2002, we made the national commitment to measure reading and math achievement (and in theory, science) in grades three through eight, presumably to give us a common frame of reference.  But assessments still vary, the once-a-year tests have their limitations, and we are still left with only the samples found in NAEP to stand as our only true common yardstick for student achievement.
If we are serious about running a school improvement and innovation race with the Chinas and the Indias of the world, we need to get serious about the assessments we will use to evaluate our successes.  That means setting new expectations for learning that measure beyond a common bubble sheet.  It means differentiated learning, investments in teachers, and holistic measures of effectiveness.  And it means a focus on higher order skills and the multi-faceted assessments that truly measure critical thinking, performance, and meaningful progress for all students.
At state education agencies across the nation, they recognize that current state assessments just aren’t cutting it.  But they are also pragmatists, recognizing that the new common core standards will demand a revision of any assessments used in the schools.  So no one is ready to invest in assessment overhaul now, knowing that it may be coming again in a year or two once the common standards are adopted.
Hopefully, the end game is not to simply find the one state assessment that is better than many others (and I know quite a few states that believe theirs is the gold standard).  Instead, we need to be looking at the assessment systems coming out of countries like Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and Singapore to guide our thinking., a new approach that measures not just the memorization of key facts, but the true comprehension and application of those facts in multiple learning venues.
Assessments and accountability aren’t going anywhere (particularly as we see what other nations are doing to leapfrog us on current international assessments).  So our challenge is to build a better assessment system, aligning a strong system of national standards (coming through the common standards push), a strong and robust commitment to teaching and learning in the classroom, and the evaluation of that learning through the proper assessments.  It is the only way we are going to be able to out-innovate the other guys, and it may be the only way that 2 Million Minutes becomes simply a warning of what could be, and not a self-fulfilling prophesy for where American public education is headed.

The Great White Whale of Teacher Quality

At the heart of EdSec Arne Duncan’s remarks at Teachers College last week has his new never-ending pursuit of the illusive “teacher quality.”  Clearly, the search means more than the “highly qualified teacher” definition currently found in NCLB.  More than the qualities that currently win one additional monies through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF).  And even more than the plans floated more than two years ago by Sen. Joe Lieberman et al to redefine HQT as “highly qualified and effective teacher.”

So with states and school districts across the nation scrambling to demand effective teachers and pledge policy and funding to support new efforts under expected Race to the Top, i3, and such funds to implement teacher quality efforts, what exactly are we using as our benchmark for such actions.  Surely, how students perform on their standardized test scores is an important piece to the equation.  But is there more to effective teaching outcomes than simply student achievement?  And are there key inputs that need to be factored into the process as well, recognizing that quality teachers come as the result of both effective preparation and effective teaching?
While nailing Duncan’s latest teacher quality demands to the schoolhouse door up at Columbia was THE story last week, we’ve also had two new reports designed to support, enhance, or rethink the efforts moved by the EdSec and his Brad Jupp-led teacher quality team.  Earlier this week, Hope Street Group released its study on Using Open Innovation to Improve Teacher Evaluation Systems.  This follows on the heels of the Forum for Education and Democracy’s Rethinking Learning Now campaign’s Effective Teachers, High Achievers report. 
As part of its new phase of education reform dialogue, the Hope Street Group released a series of eight recommendations around how to measure effective teaching, including:
* Objective measures of student achievement gains must be a major component of teacher evaluation
* Clearly defined standards of quality instruction should be used to assess a teacher’s classroom performance
* Teachers, teacher groups, and unions should be included in developing and implementing teacher evaluation systems
* Teacher evaluation systems themselves must be periodically evaluated and refined
* Teacher evaluation systems should reflect the importance of supportive administrators and school environment to effective teaching
* Components of teacher evaluation that rely on observation and discussion must be in the hands of instructional leaders who have sufficient expertise, training, and capacity.
* Evaluations must differentiate levels of teaching efficacy to identify opportunities for professional growth and drive rewards and consequences
* Information from teacher evaluations should be comparable across schools and districts, and should be used to address equity in the distribution of teaching talent 
Hope Street’s full report, shaped by actual teachers (a novel concept in education policy), can be found here.   The group is clearly building on the accountability recommendations released earlier this year from the Education Equality Project (EEP), while looking to provide some additional support to Duncan and his teacher quality efforts.  Focused primarily on outcomes, Hope Street is all about results and who is the final arbiter of said results.
And what of the Forum?  No surprise, but the education policy minds at the Forum take a decidedly different world view of teacher quality, focusing primarily on the inputs that go into effective teaching.  The Forum first focuses on the current obstacles to true teacher quality, emphasizing dramatically different levels of training (with those least prepared teaching the most educational vulnerable students); disparate salaries; radically different teaching conditions across districts, schools, and classrooms; and little mentoring or on-the-job coaching to help teachers improve their skills.  And they look to international models (those found in Singapore, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and others) for inspiration, seeking a system that requires high-quality teacher education for all candidates, completely at government expense; a year of practice teaching in a clinical school; mentoring for all beginning teachers; equitable salaries; and ongoing professional development embedded in 15-25 hours a week of planning and PD time.  The full policy brief can be found here.
The Forum limited its demands of the federal government to seven, including:
* Create incentives for recruiting teachers to high-need fields and locations
* Strengthen teacher preparation
* Make teacher education performance-based
* Support mentoring for all beginning teachers
* Create sustained, practice-based collegial learning opportunities for teachers
* Develop teaching careers that reward, develop, and share expertise
* Mount a major initiative to prepare and support expert school leaders
Two different paths.  Two different perspectives.  Two different rubrics.  So which direction are we headed?  Clearly, Hope Street is more closely aligned with the priorities, objectives, and goals of the U.S. Department of Education and reform-minded school leaders such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee.  And the emphasis on results — recognizing that talks of teacher quality are relatively hollow if they don’t translate into improved achievement and performance in the classroom — are key if we are to turn around our nation’s low-performing schools and improve overall student achievement while closing the persistent learning gaps our school districts have struggled with for decades.
But can we achieve that vision without first addressing the ideas and issues laid out by the Forum?  Can we achieve results-based improvement in teacher quality if we do not first address those inputs that go into building and supporting an effective teacher?  In an era where results are king, how important is the process that gets us there?
From the cheap seats, it seems clear that this should not and cannot be an either/or approach.  If we want to see the tangible results (as advocated by Hope Street and others) we need to invest in the systems and structures that build and support effective teachers (as called for by the Forum).  If we don’t, teacher quality will remain that great white whale for the EdSec and policy voices across the country, always top of mind, but always out of reach.  If we are going to catch our Moby Dick, we need to find those areas of agreement between the inputs advocates and the outcomes champions and find the common ground to build comprehensive expectations and rubrics for real teacher quality.  It may be the only way to have the true impact so many are now looking to have on what happens in the classroom.

Playing Games with LA’s Future

For more than a year now, we have been hearing about the dire financial state of public education in California.  We’re ridden a roller coaster of threats of massive teacher layoffs and a two-year ban on the purchase of any textbooks or instructional materials.  We’ve viewed district after district struggle to meet the school equity requirements placed on them by the courts.  And we’ve witnessed state officials dance a West Coast two-step to quickly eliminate the barriers to additional federal education funding.  And even though California has spent more of its education stimulus dollars, percentage wise, than any other state in the union, schools in the Golden State are still hurting and are still facing tough decisions and even tougher cuts.

Fortunately, Cali Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has now stepped up to make a major investment in the future of the state, or at least in the future of the greater Los Angeles area.  In the name of creating jobs, growing the economy, and strengthening the community, the guvernator yesterday signed a bill that could deliver upwards of a billion dollars to the City of Angels, money that would be coupled with a $150 million bond pledged by the business community.
Unfortunately, not a dime of these funds will ever see an LA classroom or be used to help an LA teacher improve their craft and meet the new demands being placed on our public schools.  Not a dollar of it is doing to school improvement or innovation.  And not a penny will go to support Los Angeles’ blossoming charter school movement.  No, the entire kitty is designated to go an build a new football stadium for the city, a stadium for an NFL football team that does not exist.  The full story can be found here.
Why does this matter?  In these tough economic times, we have to make choices.  Schwarzenegger signed the controversial spending bill claiming that this stadium investment would generate jobs and bring an economic boost to Los Angeles.  Noble goals, yes.  But there are few facts to back it up.  Even since the renaissance of baseball stadium construction launched two decades ago in Baltimore, we have heard how new sports stadiums result in jobs and economic development.  But in study after study, researchers have found that such impact lasts only as long as the construction cranes are on site.  Once the venue opens to the public, the economic impact is complete.  Jobs are temporary, manifest in the construction itself.  Then the community goes back to normal.  That’s why cities have shied away from paying the tab for such construction projects in recent years, leaving it to the teams that will enjoy the long-term benefits of a shiny new stadium.
In an era where dollars are in short supply in California, if the goal is really to invest in job creation and economic strength, is this really the best investment for the citizens of Los Angeles?  Right now, the state is trying to move heaven and earth to get Race to the Top dollars, following the belief that these dollars can serve as make or break for the future of California education.  If successful, RttT would likely result in a few million dollars a year for four years to LAUSD.  Yes, LAUSD’s cut of a successful RttT grant likely won’t even cover the laundry costs for the school district’s athletic teams. 
Imagine what would be possible if they could muster the strength to move this $1 billion from a stadium that may be used on any given Sunday and instead invest it in LAUSD.  One billion to ensure that LA students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to hold 21st century jobs.  One billion to improve high school graduation rates.  One billion to demonstrate the relevance of K-12 education to the futures of K-12 students.  One billion to truly innovate and improve.  A $1 billion targeted investment at what LA public schools need the most.  
Football stadiums may be the sexy choice, but they’ll break your hearts and empty your wallets.  If the goal is to create jobs and strengthen the economy, it doesn’t take a Vegas oddsmaker to tell you that the schools are a far better bet than a new stadium.  Years from now, LA will have its new stadium (which may or may not remain empty), but how many area kids will have the high school diplomas, skills, and jobs necessary to enjoy a beautiful LA Sunday afternoon in its friendly confines?

Retraining Teacher Training

Big to-dos this afternoon up at Columbia University, Teachers College.  Speaking before a packed house of students, teacher educators, and reps from the education policy community, EdSec Arne Duncan continued his push for improving teacher preparation in the United States.  Duncan challenged education schools to “make better outcomes for students the overarching mission” of today’s teacher preparation programs.

Clearly, today’s remarks at TC were “good cop,” compared with Duncan’s “bad cop” words a few weeks ago at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.  Duncan praises AACTE and NCATE for their efforts to improve the quality of teacher preparation and the assessment and evaluation of prospective and new teachers.  He recognized the good works going on in states like Louisiana and New York.  And he applauds the innovations happening at institutions such as Emporia State University, Alverno College, and Black Hills State University.  He honored the good work of teachers, while calling for a common level of quality and effectiveness at schools of education across the United States.  The EdSec’s full remarks can be found here.
As Duncan embarks on his national effort to retrain our models of teacher training, he raises some essential issues.  With so much new money soon funneling into school districts for teacher training, hiring, retention, and reward, teacher quality is a must-discuss topic.  If we want tomorrow’s teachers to succeed (particularly if we are going to measure them based on student assessment data), we need to prepare today’s education students for these new paradigms and expectations.
One of the logical next questions coming out of Duncan’s TC speech is which are the IHEs that are failing to live up to these new expectations?  One would be hard-pressed to find a teacher’s college that would say they are failing at their mission.  This is particularly true when we think about their actual job description.  For decades now, the task before our colleges of education has been simple.  The taught the cores of both content and pedagogy.  They were expected to graduate a significant number of their students (at grad rates similar to the institution as a whole).  Their graduates were expected to pass state licensure exams.  And those graduates were expected to find employment with local school districts (or at least districts somewhere in the state).  These were our expectations of our ed schools, and based on these standards, most were indeed living up to the expectations.
Through his rhetoric, though, Duncan is looking to dramatically change the rubric by which we measure teachers.  Teacher quality measures are all about using student test data to determine teacher effectiveness.  We are no longer seeking “highly qualified” teachers, as mandated in NCLB, but are now seeking highly effective ones.  Clearly, the teaching profession is facing major changes.
But we need to learn to walk before we can truly run this race.  Through years of research, we know the components of effective teacher training, including strong content and pedagogical training, intense clinical experience, and mentoring and ongoing development once one hits the classroom.  This is particularly true of hard-to-staff schools and those being targeted by Duncan for school turnaround efforts, where quick-and-easy, low-impact teacher training efforts simply leave new teachers unprepared for the challenges of the modern-day classroom.
How do we make these components of a high-quality teacher education program the norm, particularly for those schools serving historically disadvantaged communities?  How do we find the balance between the inputs that go into building an effective teacher and the outcomes that prove it?  How do we ensure that teachers are the primary drivers of school innovation and improvement, and not merely stakeholders to whom new changes happen to?
And just as important, how do we build the data systems to prove it?  Across the nation, we have doubts about the power of our current collection methods.  We want to use student data to evaluate and incentivize teachers, but need to make sure we have the collection mechanisms in place to do so.  We need to break down firewalls and strengthen our connections.  But Duncan’s charge forces us to take it a big step further.  We collect student performance data.  We are to use that data to evaluate the performance of current teachers.  And now we want to use that data to determine those teachers colleges and alternative certification programs that are doing the job (along with those who are not).  A noble goal, but not one we are equipped to deal with, at least not with our current data systems.  
Before we start calling out individual schools of education for failing to live up to the expectations set by the EdSec (and Eduflack will admit there are quite a number that would make that list), we need to first set a clear rubric for how we are measuring effective teacher education.  Until then, we will simply be assembling a hit list of “laggard” colleges based on personal opinion, anecdotes, bias, or wild conjecture.  And while that may make good fodder for the blogs and faculty senate meetings, it is hardly the stuff that a new renaissance in teacher education should be based.
The EdSec is definitely on the right track.  But we must be sure we are making decisions based on good data and even better expectations.  We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the quality and effectiveness of teacher preparation.  That means one chance to get it right.  Before we start asking colleges and universities to make changes to drive innovation and improvement, we need to be clear on what we are asking for and how we will measure it.  It is the only way to ensure we are truly improving, and not merely changing.

From the Mouths of TFAers

When Eduflack was a very green Capitol Hill staffer, a wise veteran imparted some basic advice that I have not forgotten now going on almost two decades.  Never talk in an elevator.  Capitol Hill is one of those places where people (the unelected, of course) like to make themselves seem far more important than they really are.  They brag to friends and strangers alike about the legislation they’ve “written” their “access” to leadership, and other attributes that make working on the Hill so appealing.

The advice was offered as we were listening to a legislative assistant talk about the counsel they were providing a particular senator.  As we were both intimately familiar with the issue and the senators involved, we knew the story was hogwash.  The lesson to me was simple.  Don’t talk in an elevator.  You never know who is listening, and you never know what life such elevator tales will take on.  And all of this was before the regular use of the Internet and our happy go lucky blogs and tweets.
After a recent flight from Charlotte to Washington, DC, I would add never talk on an airplane to the list.  Typically, I want to be ignored on a plane.  Introvert that I am, I don’t want to engage in conversation, and I don’t want people to engage with me.  I want to be left alone with my readings and perhaps a quick game of Book Worm on my iPhone, using the confines of that flying tube to gain a few free moments where I don’t have to focus exclusively on work and the outlying issues that surround it.  But this flight just wouldn’t let me bury my head in a few newspapers and start thinking about the next day.
For this flight, I was seated directly in front of a regional manager from Teach for America.  As luck would have it, he was a chatter, as was the businessman seated next to him.  TFA was asked what he did for living. He stated he worked for an education non-profit called Teach for America.  The businessman clearly had never heard of the organization, so he inquired as to whether it was a new group and if it was surviving in the current economy.  I think Mr. TFA (who was part of the very first teacher cohort) was surprised that there was someone who had not heard of Teach for America.  So he went on to provide a wealth of interesting tidbits and bragging points to demonstrate that Teach for America was not your average bear education not-profit.
Of course, Eduflack’s ears perked up, interested to hear how this Teach for America executive (I believe he was a regional manager for sites in a number of states in the south and southwest) would begin describing an organization so well known in education circles to someone so unfamiliar with it.  Some of the highlights:
* Teach for America recently embarked on a $142 million fundraising drive, and has already raised more than $149 million
* Teach for America’s new strategy is to reach out to more and more charter schools, seeing them as a quicker point to help close the achievement gap.  “There are a lot of good charter schools and a lot of bad charter schools,” he explained.  The key was to find schools that would buy Teach for America whole cloth.  And in his eyes, KIPP can do no wrong.
* Teach for America is beloved and has never run into any opposition.  In fact, Boston is the first and only school district where any teachers have ever had any problems whatsoever with Teach for America coming in.  And isn’t that just short-sighted of them.
* Teach for America is becoming so selective that it recently determined a student who “wrote” the new University of Virginia financial aid policy was a questionable candidate.  (As an alum of Mr. Jefferson’s alma mater, I won’t get into the number of underlying issues here)
* The ranks of devout Christians joining Teach for America is growing by the day, in large part because the work of a Teach for America teacher is so demanding  that they need the supports that their beliefs provide them to do their secular work well.
What I found most interesting, though, was that the notion of recruiting and placing teachers didn’t come up until nearly 10 minutes into the conversation. Teach for America was about school improvement.  It was about closing the achievement gap.  It was about partnering with schools who couldn’t fix themselves.  It was about the organization serving poor communities and black communities and such.  But the notion of teachers (and teaching for that matter) didn’t come up until deep in the conversation, when Mr. TFA wanted to demonstrate how exclusive and competitive Teach for America slots were.  Then he began discussing how they place only the best college graduates in schools that need their help, making clear they did not want students who attended education schools or formally studied education.
Now I’m not naive, I realize that Mr. TFA was trying to play to his audience (and certainly had no idea that Eduflack was sitting two feet in front of him).  He read his seatmate as a good southern Christian who believed in school choice, so he tried to play up those issues.  But listening to the whole conversation (which ran for almost half of the flight), I was struck by how “off message” Mr. TFA was.  Don’t get me wrong, Eduflack is a Teach for America fan.  I believe that TFA plays an important role in school improvement, both literally and rhetorically.  But this certainly isn’t the way that Wendy Kopp talks about her organization.  This isn’t the way TFA has been positioned in education improvement discussions.  And it certainly isn’t how the org is depicted as it moves into countries like India and Australia.  
Teach for America is an organization that prides its good press (and moves heaven and earth to deal with any media that is just the tiniest bit critical).  It is a group that has an incredible network of alumni and advocates who would do anything and everything to protect the TFA brand and promote the TFA mission.  But as a fly on the wall, it seems that a little message discipline may be in the works for Teach for America.  A cynical listener, unfamiliar with Teach for America, could have listened to this conversation and heard that TFA had just raised $150 million to move smart, motivated devout Christians into public charter schools across the country.  Does that sound like the Teach for America we have all grown to know and love?  
I’d willing to chalk the experience up to a green TFAer excited about the program, but I know he has been part of the TFA family since the beginning, an original corps member who moved into a leadership position (at least this current one) years ago.  If this is what we’re hearing from seasoned TFA vets, what else is being said out there?  Perhaps it is time for Kopp and company to warn their staff about speaking on elevators and airplanes … or at least to only do so once they have the corporate messaging and stump speech down.

Public Schools and “Philanthropy”

What role should philanthropy and fundraising play in the operations of our public schools?  We like to believe that, through local taxes and state taxes and a little help from our friends in Washington, we have more than enough to fund a high-quality public education.  Yet in an era of school improvement and school turnarounds, we hear more and more about the need for corporate and philanthropic support for our public schools.  We listen to calls for alternative funding for teacher salaries and instructional interventions and new school models.  We know of virtually every major public school districts clamoring for moneys from the Gates Foundation, and Broad, and Wallace, and just about anyone else who is willing to invest in K-12 school improvement.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a column by Robert McCarthy talking about the current struggles DCPS is enduring to secure those much needed private funds.  As the legend goes, DCPS Chancellor is asking many a deep pocket for funding to help pay for her turnaround of the schools in our nation’s capital.  Some money, particularly that being raised by the recently established DC Public Education Fund, is still on the ledger sheet (important since much of this money is intended to pay for Rhee’s new teacher pay system, whereby we eliminate tenure and boost salaries for high-performing teachers).  But much of the typical philanthropy that has flowed into DC appears to be in doubt, with traditional DC philanthropists concerned about how their money is being spent and how DCPS will be held accountable as responsible stewards of the dollars.  The full story can be found here.
While issues of accountability are important, and surely donors should know specifically how their education dollars are being spent, the issue in Washington, DC raises a significantly more important concern.  In an era where our urban school districts are spending between $15,000 and $20,000 per student for public education, why is that not adequate resources for an effective public education?  Should the success of our struggling school districts really require the kindness of strangers to provide a core education to every student?
Perhaps I am naive here, but it seems that school budgets should be constructed so they are addressing all of the necessary expenditures of operating a school district — salaries, buildings, transportation, textbooks and instructional materials, technology, breakfasts and lunches, athletics and extracurriculars, even afterschool programs.  Such funds should be constant each and every year.  If a district hits a patch where the committed dollars coming in from federal, state, and local sources are inadequate for meeting the educational needs of the students, then we have a problem.  Then (as we are experiencing now) we tap emergency funding, make difficult decisions, and try to carry on.  Rarely does the acceptance of a grant (along with the oversight, redtape, and additional accountability provisions attached to it) allow one to backfill such cuts.  And that shouldn’t be their intention.
Third-party donations, be they from philanthropies, corporations, or one-time federal grant programs, are meant to supplement and provide value-add to the core instructional day.  They are used to bring in a new program designed to help a segment of the student population.  They are used to provide targeted professional development and support to teachers.  They are used to jumpstart a new effort or say bring in a new computer lab.  But they are not designed to be funds to support the ongoing operations nor are they dollars guaranteed to continue for the perpetuity of a school’s existence. 
And that really becomes the danger with the path some are now pursuing.  Yes, philanthropy plays an essential role in education reform and school improvement.  Targeted dollars can be used to spearhead specific initiatives, act where action was previously impossible, and generally goose a school into change and reform it may have previously ignored.  But it is not a continuous spigot of funds designed to supplement the dedicated moneys coming from the government.  Philanthropic support is designed to have a specific beginning and a specific end.  It falls to states and school districts to use a grant period well, build the reform into their core operating structure, and carry on — both financially and operationally — well after the third-party support is gone.  Otherwise, we simply move from one latest and greatest idea to the next, with nothing taking hold and nothing having real impact.
We are running a real danger here when we expect that philanthropic support for our schools is intended to help fund core operations in our classrooms.  Such supports are intended to innovate and spur action where it otherwise may not be possible.  But if we are extending a hand out to ensure adequate funding of per-pupil expenditures and core instruction, we have a much larger issue to address.  We should be strengthening our schools to improve based on the resources available.  Outside funding then helps us accelerate the process.