The Drumbeat for Mayoral Control

Do mayors run better urban school systems?  That is the question the Wall Street Journal asked yesterday as it used Rochester (NY) Mayor’s Robert Duffy’s bid to take over his struggling city schools as a launching pad to discuss the merits of mayoral control.

Duffy is lobbying the New York Legislature to take over his schools, seeking to dissolve the current elected school board and replace it with a board appointed by himself and the city council.  The pressing demand?  The need to close failing schools and reopen new ones better aligned with student needs and learning expectations.

For those that read the WSJ’s education coverage, this is a regular drumbeat.  Back in March of 2009, the Journal wrote (and Eduflack opined on) an interesting piece on the growing embrace of mayoral control, riffing off of the notion that President Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan were advocating for mayoral takeovers in order to implement their aggressive school improvement plans.  As it did 17 months ago, the Wall Street Journal cites successes in New York, Boston, and Washington DC to make its case for giving the keys to the schools to the municipal leader.

Interestingly, yesterday’s article by Joy Ressmovits seems to note there has been no mad rush to add to the powers of our nation’s mayors.  Despite last year’s declarations, we are not seeing huge numbers of urban districts turning to mayoral control.  Despite efforts in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, such moves seem to be the exception, not the rule.


First, there is no clear “mayoral control” model for which one can buy the playbook and just implement the plan.  In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg had a particular plan in place, and he and Chancellor Joel Klein have implemented it step by step.  In our nation’s capital, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee have tried to crib from NYC and build a NYCDOE South in DC.  But leaders in Boston have behaved very differently, both in leadership style and in organization.  The same can be said for Chicago.

Second, because there is no one-size-fits-all model, there is no guarantee of success.  Just look at Cleveland, where student performance on NAEP has actually declined since the mayor’s office took control of the schools.  Or look at NYC, where despite an historic increase in test scores, many still believe that the current regime isn’t working, even seizing on the recent realignment of the state assessment to discredit recent gains.  And in DC, after two years of real gains, this year’s scores seem to have flatlined some. 

Third, there are real political ramifications for taking over the schools.  Case in point here is Washington, DC, where Fenty is in the re-election fight of his life this fall.  One of the central issues to the campaign?  Control of the schools.  Fenty’s chief opponent, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has made major issue of how the DC Schools are run.  So much so, in fact, that he has strongly suggested one of his first orders of business when elected mayor would be the removal of Rhee as schools chancellor.  Who would have thought a superintendent would be a major campaign issue for an urban mayor? 

If we just look at the NAEP, clearly mayoral control is not the answer to school success.  The top districts (including Charlotte, NC and Austin, TX) on the NAEP TUDA are those run by school boards.  Mayoral control superstars like NYC and Boston are still posting scores below the national NAEP average (though above the large city average).

In hearing Mayor (and hopeful NY LG) Duffy tell his tale, one has to believe there has to be a middle ground.  Can’t we adequately deal with failing schools without needing to seize control of the district?  Can’t school boards be held to the same accountability as we expect of the superintendent and the principals?  Aren’t there incentives (beyond the current federal dollars) to get school districts to make the necessary changes to turn around histories of failure?  Aren’t there ways to bring in the reforms Duffy seeks without having to go to the state legislature and ask for the nuclear option to deal with the schools?  And as we assess our ability to turn around struggling districts, what measures should we use, besides NAEP, to determine success?

Lots of questions.  But who has the answers? 

Around the Edu-Horn, August 16, 2010

L.A. district to launch first full-time online school (from ASCD)

RT @edfunding CA first to file edujobs fund app. Using its own state formula to distribute $ to districts.

RT @PoliticsK12 Read @TeacherBeat for his take on the value-added debate heating up in LA after big Times’ story:

Saving $$ by resizing, consolidating MI schools —

Is Obama the biggest bully in education?

From @hechingerreport, great video interviews asking if we should do ed reform in a recession —

Straight Talk on Detroit Schools

Sometimes, it can be near impossible to get straight talk on education statistics.  Just talk a look at a simple topic like high school graduation rates.  Most urban school systems, those that are homes to many of our dropout factories, will say their official graduation rates are in the 80 – 90 percent range (offering a convoluted formula of who counts, who doesn’t, and such).  Talk to high school critics like Jay Greene, and those same grad rates will be 20 – 25 percent lower.  Same data, different formulas, severely different results.

Over at Fortune magazine, the editors are profiling the “visionaries” of the rebirth of Detroit.  One of the Motor City stars highlighted in the piece is Carol Goss, head of Detroit’s Skillman Foundation.  The profile on Goss and what she is trying to do in the city is interesting.  But what is even more interesting is the sidebar of Detroit education statistics offered with the piece (a sidebar found in August 16 edition of Fortune magazine, but not on the web version.)  
According to Fortune, Detroit Public Schools has:
* 84,600 students enrolled in 2009, compared to 167,000 in 2000
* The 2008-2009 graduation rate for high school seniors was 60 percent
* The new high school graduation rate target for DPS is 90 percent
* Currently, 2 percent of Detroit public high school students are prepared for college-level math
* 11 percent of high school students are prepared for college-level reading
* 35 percent of Detroit’s high school students are accepted to postsecondary institutions
Eduflack does not repost these numbers to embarrass Detroit, its schools, or its teachers.  To the contrary, I offer up these very frank and honest numbers as hopeful inspiration for school improvement across the nation.  The President of the United States has set a national goal of producing the highest number of college graduates per capita by 2020.  The US Department of Education is pledging to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act so that is ensures that each and every child is college and career ready.  And virtually every education reformer has promised to improve graduation rates, while boosting student achievement across the board.
Real change cannot happen if we don’t have solid, reliable baselines to know exactly where we are starting.  These startling numbers of Detroit’s college readiness show all where the city’s schools truly are starting from.  As an honest starting line, it allows Detroit to document real progress.  Instead of using inflated grad rates and soft measures of proficiency, Detroit tried a new approach for K-12 public education.  Brutal honesty.  Shock us with the truth, and we may just trust your progress in the out years.
Eduflack has long been a fan of the improvements Robert Bobb has tried to make in Detroit.  And I’d love to believe Fortune that Goss “has the money and credibility to win people over.”  So let’s remember these numbers when Detroit offers up its progress reports in a year or three (particularly after Michigan has implemented Common Core Standards).  And let’s start the watch to see if other other urban districts are willing to perform a similar statistical strip show, offering up ever blemish.  Only then will we ever be able to truly declare mission accomplished in our communal quest to improve our public schools.

Around the Edu-Horn, August 6, 2010

Measuring MT student success after high school —

RT @hechingerreport Should we try to reform education during a recession?

RT @alexanderrusso This Week in Education: Innovation- Success For All’s Overnight Success

New education data website from ED —

Florida says outside audits show test results are accurate (from ASCD)

About Those i3 Matching Funds …

By now we’ve all seen the list of the big Investing in Innovation (i3) winners.  Nearly 1,700 contestants entered the squared circle, and only 49 emerged as “winners,” with the survivors now left to prove that their research-based innovation is the best damned innovation in the entire education land. 

(Bear with Eduflack, I’m trying to build up the hype here.  I’m amazed by how little excitement or enthusiasm has come from the announcement of $650 million in i3 grants earlier this week.  This should be a much bigger deal than it is.)

When I first saw the list on Wednesday afternoon (thank you Michele McNeil and Politics K-12 for giving us the list a day before we all expected it), I was taken by a few things.  The first was the absence of the Chicago TAP program from the list.  For the past year, I have been all but certain that TAP would win one of the $50M biggies.  Perhaps the recent study on TAP’s effectiveness was more damaging that most expected.

The second was how few school districts actually won i3 grants.  Throughout the process, most talked about how these were LEA based.  We all knew that some non-profits and institutions of higher education would win.  In fact, we expected that some of the larger grants would go to reform-minded non-profits (as it did).  Yes, I am surprised so many IHEs put in winning applications.  But I am more surprised how the list seems to say that innovation is coming from outside influences, and not from the entities (the districts) entrusted with educating our children.

Yesterday, I (and I’m sure much of the free world) received an email from the good folks over at the NewSchools Venture Fund, as it congratulated nine “NewSchools supported ventures” that won i3 grants.  And it got me really thinking.  This week’s 49 winners all need to find a 20 percent match to actually receive their oversized checks from the US Department of Education.  I assume that these nine NewSchools groups (including Teach for America and KIPP) will be able to find the outside funding necessary.  But what happens to those orgs that may not be able to secure a few million in outside funding in short order, in this economy?

When applications were solicited, it was made clear that such outside funding did not have to be lined up to win.  Securing that third-party funding could be done after selection, meaning you only needed to hustle for the dollars if you actually needed the money to close the deal.  So we now have 49 innovative education programs scurrying to secure $130 million in matching funds to qualify.  Once the Gates Foundation puts money down on the horses it is going to back, and other large foundations do the same, who is going to pick up the slack for the many remaining groups, particularly those in the “validation” category?  Will we see dollars coming from local foundations?  In-kind contributions of staff and benefits?  Creative book keeping to hit the magic mark?

It all raises a bigger question.  How many of the 49 selected applications will fail to meet all of the requirements (meaning the 20 percent private funding match) by September 8?  Will today’s winners be denied their checks tomorrow?  Personally, I’m willing to bet at least five of the winners will have to seek waivers and extend their private-sector fundraising efforts. 

Without question, those writing the checks want to put their money on winners, particularly in the education space.  And these 49 are as sure a bet as there is.  But 49 groups scurrying for $130 million in 34 days, including five weekends (one of them a holiday) is asking an awful lot, even for innovators like this lot.

The Case for Quality Online Learning

Eduflack is back on his edReformer soapbox today, offering up the latest thinking of online K12 learning and the misperceptions surrounding it.  A decade ago, we watched colleges and universities struggle with transitioning from bricks and mortar to online.  Now, we are starting to see the same challenges in K12.  Check it out over at edReformer, as well as a wealth of other posts and streams on e-learning and online instruction.


Around the Edu-Horn, August 3, 2010

RT @TeacherBeat CCSSO Unveils Draft Teaching Standards:

RT @edReformer edReformer: Breaking News: Dept of Ed Puts Hundreds Millions Into Early Childhood

The problems with alt cert in MI —

Caperton and the education deficit —

MN opts out of math common core —

Dual Enrollment for All!

When most discuss the merits of dual-enrollment programs in our high schools, thoughts immediately turn to those classic over-achievers who are looking to earn a high school diploma along with two or three years of college before they turn 18.  We talk of how K-12 systems and higher education systems struggle to work together.  And sometimes, we even discuss how we shouldn’t rush our kids and deprive them of a “traditional” high school experience.

Meanwhile the high school dropout rate has remained steady for decades (and Eduflack is one who believes that the dropout rate is, unfortunately, close to one-third.)  Drop-out factories remain prevalent in many of our urban and rural communities.  Too many students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds do not have access to college prep high schools (with AP and IB classes).  Yet we continue to talk about how every student should be college ready when the odds are against at-risk students to even get through high school.

So what is one to do?  A new study from the Blackboard Institute finds that dual enrollment programs could be the great equalizer.  In the report, Columbia University’s Elisabeth Barrett and Rutgers University’s Liesa Stamm found that dual enrollment can benefit all students, not just those on the fast track.  Specifically, the found dual enrollment offers all students benefits such as:

* Enhancing the academic rigor of high school curricula
* Providing students with a broader range of academic and career-oriented courses and electives
* Offering students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school
* Introducing high school students to college academic expectations and preparing them for college-level study
* Making education more interesting and relevant, to the extent that students can take courses that relate to their interests or career goals
* Facilitating the transition from high school to college
* Improving student prospects during the college admissions process as a result of college credits earned
* Accelerating progression to college degree completion
* Reducing the costs of college education by enabling students to earn college credits while in high school that are generally tuition-free

Of course, these are all arguments we have heard before.  But the study’s authors also point to the significant role that dual enrollment can play in helping at-risk students … if they are provided the right support services.  Such services include academic supports, course re-configurations, college preparatory initiatives, career exploration, and mentoring.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was the discussion of online dual enrollment.  First, the statistics.  According to the report, 70 percent of school districts had one or more students enrolled in a fully online or blended course.  Nearly 70 percent of those enrolled in online learning do so at the high school level.  Nearly two thirds of school districts expect growth in their fully online courses and 61 percent see growth for their blended courses.  

Despite popular opinion, these online courses are not being used to help accelerate those already far ahead.  Yes, they are being used to supplement AP offerings.  But school districts also reported they are using online to assist students who need extra help or credit recovery, to let students who failed a course take it again, to get around scheduling conflicts, and to offer courses not offered at the school.  It becomes particularly important to rural school districts, serving as “a cost-benefit mechanism for small rural school districts to provide students with course choices and in some cases even basic courses that would not otherwise be available to them.”

So why is all this important?  If we are serious about improving high school graduation rates and having those high school diplomas serving as more than just a glorified attendance certificate, we need to do things differently.  When one-third of students fail to earn a high school diploma, our high schools are failing.  When half of those going on to college need remediation, our high schools are failing.  And when too many students — particularly those from historically disadvantaged communities — don’t see the value of staying in school, our high schools are failing.

If we truly intend to make each and every child “college and career ready” after leaving high school, we need radical changes to how we teach in high school.  A rearrangement of the deck chairs simply won’t do.  We need to teach new courses in new ways.  We need to personalize instruction.  We need to emphasize the value.  We need all students to see what they are capable of.  And we need to recognize that different students learn in different ways.

The Blackboard Institute report reminds us a robust dual enrollment program can be key to transforming a high school.  And it highlights that online learning — and online dual enrollment programs — can be a core component to a high-quality, 21st century high school.  Need more?  Such dual enrollment and online programs are beneficial for all students, not just those on the Most Likely to Succeed list.  Dual enrollment for all!


Testing Throwdown in NYC

When are lower student achievement scores a good thing?  That seems to be the question thrown about up in New York City this past week, where Big Apple officials have been grappling with the reality that city students’ performance on the state’s math and reading proficiency tests fell after a newer (and harder) exam was put into place.

As always, it is most fun to read the evolution of such stories in the New York Post, which first reported on the plunge, and then editotrialized on the issue twice — first on Thursday praising the new “truth-telling” and then again today, condemning the United Federation of Teachers for jumping on the test score drop to “discredit all education standards.”  

It should be no secret that state standards — and the tests that measure those standards — have been a problem for some time.  Since the introduction of NCLB, we’ve witnessed states lowering their standards so that they could continue to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress,” regularly reducing the bar so the number of students hitting proficient increased year after year after year.  In this educational shell game, it meant reducing the standards again and again to keep up.

The NY Post refers to the problem as “junk tests” but the real issue seems to be the standards behind them.  Tests are only as good as what we are expected to measure.  Garbage in, garbage out.  Did anyone really believe that more than three-quarters of NY students were proficient in reading and math?  Of course not.  But New York State’s definition of proficient and a common sense definition of the same are quite different.  How else do you explain such strong proficiency numbers at a time when half of students require remediation?

One can’t fault the NYC DOE for playing the hands it has been dealt.  When taking the old state proficiency exam, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein posted some long-term gains.  Year on year, test scores increased.  That is progress.  Now that they have a new test aligned to new standards, the game starts anew.  These scores serve as the year one baseline.  Next year, we expect to see gains.  And the year after that, more of the same.  Rince and repeat.

But those looking to discredit the improvements in NYC based on this one test are going to be sorely mistaken.  Just take a look at the other measures around us.  On the NAEP exam, the Nation’s Report Card which offers one standard measure for all students across the nation, NYC has seen gains in student achievement (while the rest of New York state has remained flat).  And as Eduflack wrote earlier this year, Chancellor Klein has shown real improvement on high school graduation rates.  So at a time when the teachers’ unions are calling for multiple measures to evaluate teachers, we are seeing that multiple measures support claims of NYC schools improvement.

Ultimately, while this makes for some lovely rhetorical skirmishes in the city that never sleeps, it doesn’t negate a very simple truth.  Over the last decade, NYC schools have come a long way.  But they still have a long way to go.  At no point do I remember hearing Klein declare mission accomplished.  Progress has been made, but there is still much to do, particularly in addressing achievement gap issues in New York.  The new test provides a clearer, stronger view of the challenges before NY educators.  And the pending adoption and implementation of Common Core standards offers a clearer picture of where one has to go.  

Instead of using the latest round of test scores to throw recent reforms out the window, improvements on measures such as NAEP and grad rates should show what is possible, and the growing need to redouble current reform efforts.  If anything, these scores demonstrate that more must be done.