The Trump-ization of Local Edu-Politics

When Eduflack first ran for local school board six years ago, I remember questioning my own sanity. I spent countless hours knocking on doors, wanting to talk education policy with voters who just weren’t looking for such deep dives. Instead, they just wanted the promise that our schools would stay as strong as they had been, that taxes wouldn’t grow astronomically, and that their kids would continue to have the same opportunities that students before them did. They wanted soundbite politics, like they got in other political campaigns.

As a member of the Falls Church (VA) Public Schools Board, I served as both vice chair and chairman. I spent almost as much time working with the public and the schools as I did in my day job. Much of that time was spent talking with families about their own experiences and challenges. And much of it was informing the community of the limited role of a local school board – to approve an annual budget, to hire a superintendent (if necessary), and to review the performance of said superintendent each year. Many failed to realize that a good school board member was one who let the superintendent, the administrators, the principals, and the teachers do their respective jobs. It was to provide the resources to those entrusted with our kids; it wasn’t to micromanage every action, every decision, and every thought that occurred in the district.

I was reminded of this last week in seeing the horrible actions coming out of Bridgeport, CT, where an exemplary superintendent by just about all measures resigned from a challenging urban district. There, the supe didn’t resign because she received a better job elsewhere, or because she struggled managing the budget, or even because of test scores or student behavior issues. No, she resigned because of the school board. One particular board member, actually. There, a member of the board of education dramatically overstepped her role, and  allegedly made it her mission to regularly harass and malign a superintendent who was doing a strong job. Playing the role of the bully, the school board member has now dealt a painful blow to every child and every teacher in that district.

I’d like to chalk it up to a once-in-a-blue-moon experience, but I hear too many stories of school board members who fail to understand their roles, seeing the board as an opportunity to stick it to a supe they disagree with or dislike, or general seeing board service as a stepping stone to world domination. In many of these instances, we see local school board races now taking on the tone, tenor, and vitriol of a Donald Trump presidential campaign, with those seeking a school board seat hurling insults, falsehoods, and blame, all in the hope of securing a job that pays nothing and demands long, thankless hours.

In fact, I’m seeing such a Trump-istation of local edu-politics in my own local school district in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Eduflack wrote about the growing discord in my community on the future of our highly rated public schools. That community infighting has now spilled into next month’s school board election, with some candidates doing their very best to “make WW-P schools great again.”

Most communities would celebrate being a high-ranking school district, particularly in a competitive state like New Jersey. According to the most recent high school ratings in NJ Monthly, our community’s two high schools are ranked number 2 and number 9 in the state. Yet we have two candidates, running as a ticket for school board, condemning the current district leadership for “lowered educational standards and learning.” As an “example” of such mismanagement, they note that “High School South was always ranked in the top 10 high schools in NJ. Now South is ranked 35.”

It’s a terrific soundbite for two candidates seeking to run as change agents and against the system. It’s also a soundbite that warrants four Pinocchios by any political fact checker. That 35th-ranked high school is actually the ninth best high school in the state. But we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way, should we?

This Trumpian duo is also quick to attack “teacher resignations,” noting that educators leaving the job are a reflection that “teachers are unhappy, and leaving in droves.” Of course, these highly educated individuals don’t note how many of those teacher resignations are actually retirements, earned by teachers after decades of service. And they certainly don’t note that many teachers postponed retirement after the collapse of markets (and retirement plans) in 2008, and that we just happen to see the markets now back up to pre-2008 levels. Such distinctions just muddy a good “damn the establishment” talking point.

Sadly, the campaign has also taken on the tenor of a Trump rally, as the two look to scapegoat and blame others for perceived wrongs. The superintendent is to blame for focusing on social-emotional learning and the whole child, and is regularly attacked because he — <shudder> — actually hires administrators to help manage a complex district. The state is to blame for taking away “final exams,” (yes, they are actually campaigning to “restore final exams.”) Technology is blamed for many of our ills, with the added wrinkle of the candidates wanting to “focus on children as individual learners,” but failing to note the very reason technology is used as part of a strong personalized learning program in a district like ours.

The most egregious of the attacks and scapegoating is directed at supposed bleeding heart parents who are concerned about the mental health and general well being of their kids and of students throughout the district. These candidates and those who stand up for him actually have attacked the notion AP classes should be available to all those who wish to do the work. Instead, they say it should just be for the elite of the elite.  The candidates accuse misguided parents for watering down the AP program and costing kids like theirs a chance to get into Harvard or Princeton. The candidates allege that our community has so destroyed the value of AP classes that’s 80 percent of the district’s students are in honors language arts classes, when the actual number is half that (just 40 percent). I guess it is just far easier to attack “those kids” who are devaluing honors classes and denying “our kids” what is rightfully theirs.

Typically, Eduflack chooses to stay out of such local education politics, wanting to keep my views to myself. It’s a tough job serving on a local school board. Those who choose to pursue such public service have to do it eyes wide open, for the right reasons. They have to do so seeking to speak for the community and do whatever is necessary to support a superintendent and all of those who work for the school district. And they have to do so fully not understanding what is — and what is not — the appropriate role for a school board member.

So it is unfortunate when one sees the negativity, blame, and vitriol playing out on the national presidential campaign stage seep into the local edu-politics in a community that would be the envy of most cities and towns across the United States. It is sad to see candidates put forward incomplete stories, whispered innuendo, and downright falsehoods to try to justify a narrative of a school system in crisis. And it is disheartening to see individuals try to heighten an “us versus them” thinking in a community where all should be focused on our kids, what we do well, and how we can do it even better TOGETHER.

Hopefully, such political shenanigans are an anomaly. Hopefully, we see that positivity trumps negativity and that a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy beats out “they are out to deny us what is ours” approach. Hopefully, we put the interests of kids above the personal grievances and petty politics of the adults in the room. Hopefully.

But the recent actions in Bridgeport tell us that “hopefully” isn’t a synonym for likely. Sadly, we may soon see many more Donald Trumps in waiting using local school boards to practice the politics of blame, negativity, hatred, and lies to forward their own personal agendas. And it will be great superintendents, exemplary educators, and our own kids who will ultimately pay the price.

With Schools, It All Comes Down to Local Politics

When Eduflack moved to New Jersey, he promised himself that he would never, ever get involved in local edu-politics. After serving as CEO of a state-based education reform organization in Connecticut and as a school board chairman for one of the nation’s top K-12 districts in Virginia, I had had more than my fair share of politics as it relates to local schools.

Sure, a few times I slipped off the wagon. At the beginning of the year, I felt compelled to weigh in on our local battle, which made its way to The New York Times, on parents that were pushing for more tests and higher stakes in our community. And I just can’t resist wading into Facebook discussion with parents who completely bastardize Common Core and meaningful accountability measures as they try to bully other parents into joining the opt-out movement.

But today, I completely fell off the wagon. As I watch a contingent within our local community savage our schools superintendent, going after him for anything and everything. A few months ago, he was attacked because one of our high schools didn’t have enough toilet paper. Last week, it was because nine teachers (in a school district of 10,000 students) have announced they won’t be returning for the 2016-17 academic year. And then last night, the superintendent was gutted for issuing a thorough and responsive report on lead testing in all of our schools.

Following the issues in Flint, MI (and then in Newark, NJ), our local schools acted. Last night, the superintendent reported back to the community. You can see his message here. As a parent, I felt at ease and as a citizen I felt we had the right folks at the helm of this school district.

Then the hatred started coming, with the typical accusations being thrown out without having any meaning rooted in truth. The lead report was further proof the district was being run like a business. That we have 30 central office staff (in a district with 10k kids). That we constructed a new central office (so that must be wasteful, no?). That it is clearly the end of the world as we know it, and we shouldn’t feel fine about it.

So against my better judgment (and against the wishes of the edu-wife), I again strapped on the local edu-politics helmet, and waded into the social media morass. Following is my first post:

So you want better quality toilet paper for school bathrooms, and now you want to replace all the piping in our schools (even though most kids bring their own water bottles to class). Please let me know when we are going to focus on teaching and learning in our community. That’s what I care about. 

And BTW, schools are businesses, albeit non-profit ones. They have to balance their budgets, and need to do so when nearly 90 percent of their total budgets go to people costs (salaries, healthcare, retirement, etc.). As a former school board chairman, I can tell you it is easy to attack school spending when you don’t understand it. But try to address 30% increases in health insurance as you give all teachers a step increase to keep them from leaving from other districts, while ensuring no cuts affect the classroom.

These attacks on TP and lead are downright silly. We have great schools, exemplary teachers, and our kids get one of the best public educations around. Let’s not lose sight of what is most important – our kids and the teaching they receive and the learning they accumulate.

And then I needed to follow up with:

 I’m not sure what you ask when you ask would I allow. I think our supe should be praised for how he handled the lead issue, yes. He proactively (as there were no specific issues found in our schools) conducted a comprehensive investigation, then reported it back so we all know which faucets, by room number, may have had an off result. And we saw that there was no issue for concern.

If I were on the board, would I have supported a new central office? Yes to that too. For prospective educators in our district, that is the first building they see in our community. It should reflect our commitment to teaching and learning. And for a district offering a world-class education to all kids, we should have facilities for ALL employees that reflect that. In the long run, amortized over the years, that building will be a strong investment. Otherwise, we’d be making regular, ongoing repairs to old buildings that will never be up to snuff.

Investments in physical plant are always hard. You are spending taxpayer dollars to do so. Those decisions are made very carefully, and should never be made at the expense of the classroom. And I don’t believe they have.

I speak from experience. Serving on a school board is a tough, thankless job. Those who do it well do it for the right reasons. Constructive criticism is valuable, but misguided and unfounded attacks just aren’t. We have a great district, excellent teachers, and one of the top superintendents in the country. We need a board – and a community – that supports them all.

The edu-wife cringes. I’ve now wasted two hours of my life I’m not getting back. But hopefully, based on some of the responses, it is showing the silent majority of parents they are not alone in their thinking.

 

 

The New PDK Survey Is Here, The New PDK Survey Is Here

In the immortal words of Steve Martin from the movie, The Jerk, “The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!” Only instead of talking the latest white and yellow pages, where the inclusion of our name shows we are somebody, we are talking about this year’s PDK/Gallup Poll, which validates all we’ve been thinking, hearing, and saying these past 12 months on the shifts in public education.

What do this year’s results tell us? A quick sampling:

  • Overall, only slightly more than a quarter surveyed (27%) give President Obama a grade of “A” or “B” for his performance in support of public schools. That’s down nearly 15 points from three years ago.
  • We have more fait in our local school systems. Half gave their local schools an “A” or a “B.” But when asked about our nation’s schools as a whole, only 17% give similar grades to ‘Merica.
  • As we hear more about the “federal role” in education, the public is starting to absorb it. More than half (56%) said their local school board should have the greatest influence on what is being taught (a big surprise to this former school board chairman who found that the vast majority wanted the school board out of such decisions, and to just focus on the basics like funding). Only 15% though the federal government should have the most influence (and we would ask who actually thinks the feds have much influence at all, let alone the most, on what happens in our local schools.)
  • More than half (54%) do not think standardized tests are helpful to teachers (though I am guessing they are talking about high-stakes, summative tests, and not the formative or interim assessments that even teachers say they want).
  • On the controversial issue of Common Core State Standards, 81% of those surveyed have heard of CCSS, up from about two-thirds last year. And six in 10 say they oppose CCSS. The biggest reason? Standards limit the flexibility of teachers ot teach what they think is best (not the testing issue we hear so much about).
  • And in those further depressing stats, only 30% were familiar with PISA. Only half believe that American students perform below the level of other students around the globe.

What do we take away from all of this? To be kind, we don’t know what we don’t know. Public school performance and President Obama’s education positions have been relatively unchanged in recent years, yet we see huge swings in what we think of both of those today. At a time when most school board meetings go unattended and few can even name who sits on their local board of ed, we now place the greatest trust (and presumed power) in the hands of those unsung officials. We lack an understanding of assessment literacy, and are now equating everything we’ve heard about “high-stakes testing” to anything that bears the name “test.”

And let’s not forget that, while we may have these positions, they still aren’t strong enough for us to act on them. Education policy remains one of those issues that we are all concerned with, until it is time to head into the voting places. We may believe our nation’s schools are headed into the crapper, but we still elect the same federal, state, and local policymakers to oversee those schools. And while we may be concerned about teachers not being able to teach what they think is best under CCSS, other surveys show we are enthusiastic in taking away their tenure and job protections, the very things that may allow them the power to actually do what they think is best in the classroom.

Yet the PDK poll is an important measure for understanding the populace’s temperature on these issues. While we are unlikely to act on them, we are seeing a steady shift that shows we are more cynical when it comes to public education in the United States. We are lest trusting. We remain fairly uninformed. And we seem content in carrying on as is.

Sigh …

 

Where Are the Parents in Education Nation?

With day one of the 2013 Education Nation Summit in the books, and day two offering up a terrific array of speakers, one has to be impressed.  Throughout yesterday’s program, participants heard from many of the nation’s leading education voices — superintendents, national organization heads, entrepreneurs, innovators, and all-around visionaries.

Spotlights were placed on new initiatives designed to spark new thinking.  There was even a constant reminder of an ongoing student competition, seeking to signal the best of the best in young education innovation.
Today promises tales from the celebrity sector of education, as names such as Tony Bennett (the I Left My Heart in San Francisco singer, not the I Left My Post in Florida state supe) and Goldie Hawn slated to address the audience.
In watching the 1 percent of the education community, if you will, though, Eduflack was left with a lingering question.  Where were the parents?  Where were the voices of those caregivers left to decide which school provides the greatest opportunity for their kids?  Where were the mothers worried about school safety or the fathers concerned about their son dropping out without employment opportunities?  Where were the parents in the academical village?
As a lead up to the two-day summit, NBC now offers two town halls to address some of these stakeholder issues.  Education Nation first offered up a summit with students, which is always an eye-opening and interesting development.  It also provided a town hall for teachers, letting educators discuss many of struggles and concerns they are facing each day in the classroom.
One can argue that these two voices also needed to be front and center during the two-summit itself.  No, I’m not talking the celebrity teacher who is trying to make a name for himself with his latest crusade.  Nor am I talking about the student who is on the cusp of curing cancer before being named homecoming queen and student body president.  I’m talking about those very real voices who can speak to the struggles and the victories that we see in classrooms across the nation.
Those are the voices that should be in there at the New York Public Library.  As those in the know are discussing the impacts and intents of Common Core State Standards, we should also be hearing from parents concerned with the amount of testing their children receive and whether any of those assessments measure if their child is ready for the rigors of college or not.
As the leaders in the field are discussing blended learning, its merits, and how it presents itself, we should also be hearing from parents who wonder how they provide it to their child when they don’t have internet access at home or can’t afford the latest tablet that everyone is gushing about.
Yes, Education Nation plays a valuable role in these ongoing discussions that drive our community.  It is important for the movers and shakers to get together and hear these discussions and understand many of the policy and instructional issues facing our schools.
But it is just as important for voices from the rest of the nation to be heard.  It isn’t enough to say that parents and local school boards and other such actors can watch Education Nation on the Internet.  We need engagement, not just information.  We need a give and take of ideas, not just the consumption of data.
Eduflack doesn’t mean to pick on Education Nation. The same could be said about virtually any education conference or summit these days.  At least Education Nation makes the effort at convening students and educators beforehand as part of the kick-off town halls.
In reality, Education Nation is made up of millions of parents and caregivers and volunteers and educators and other stakeholders who are unable to get into the room.  How do we ensure that their voice is heard during the process?  It is a challenge NBC and its partners are up to, and it is a puzzle that the entire education community should be committed to solving.

Covering School Board Elections

There is no question about it.  One of Eduflack’s greatest professional honors was representing the families of Falls Church, VA on its school board.  As chairman and vice chair of the board during my tenure, I am enormously proud of what we were able to, particularly in navigating difficult budgetary times by doing our best to keep cuts from impacting the classroom.

We were also able to lead a major effort to expand our facilities, securing a federal bond to expand our upper elementary school.  And we were able to focus in a smart way on teacher evaluation and the other policy changes that were affecting our small school district.
But anyone who has served on a local school board knows it is a relatively thankless job.  It is a lot of work, and a lot of hours.  One does it because of service to the community and belief in the public schools. If that isn’t your motivation, you have no business serving on a school board.
So I was a little tickled to see the latest from Ballotpedia.  The site now offers a new portal that is watching school board elections in the largest 1,000 school districts across the country.
Every now and then, we hear about school board races (think to the recent Los Angeles campaigns).  But such efforts are often overlooked, as these municipal elections are so far down the ballot that most don’t pay attention to them.
Readers of Eduflack don’t need me telling them how important local decisionmakers are, particularly as we are focusing on CCSS, CCSS assessments, NCLB waivers, NCLB waiver waivers, t-val, and all of the other policy issues hitting our school districts.  So Ballotpedia’s initiative is a welcome addition to the discussion, hopefully offering some additional insight into these races and the issues and individuals at the center of them.
Happy doorknocking and neighborhood coffees to those included in the portal  Ah, the good ol’ days ….

Eduflack Yack – Vallas and Licensure

As we head into August, Eduflack is launching a new feature — a new Podcast called “Eduflack Yack.”  A couple of times a week, I’ll opine on the education issues of the day.  Sometimes it’ll be on a topic written about on the site; sometimes it will just be a topic that deserving a little rant. But every time we will try go against the grain and take a different look at the issue.
Give it a listen.