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Posted at 3:30 PM ET, 07/ 7/2010

A tradeoff worth making for schools

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the non-profit Center for American Progress. This piece ran on the center’s website.

By Scott Lilly
I am sure that Jonathan Alter’s recent column in Newsweek, “How Congress Keeps Screwing Up Education—President Obama’s school-reform programs are falling victim to the teachers’ unions,” is as funny to the lobbyists of teachers unions as it is to me. The column is in fact not about Congress, but rather about Rep. David Obey (D-Wisconsin), who Alter claims “is in danger of (leaving office) as a water carrier for the teachers’ unions—the man who gutted President Barack Obama’s signature program on education, Race to the Top.”

As someone who worked for Rep. Obey on education issues for many of his 41 years in Congress and was present on more than one occasion when education union lobbyists were unceremoniously thrown out of his office, I can guarantee you that whatever differences he may have with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, they are not about “carrying water” for teacher unions.” Anyone who has followed the politics of federal education funding over the last two decades must worry that Alter must be woefully short of arguments to even consider such an allegation.

Alter’s argument that Rep. Obey is “gutting” President Obama’s “signature” education program is equally dubious. Race to the Top was given $4.3 billion in funds in the 2009 stimulus package, of which $3.6 billion is still available. In addition $1.3 billion is requested for the coming year. Rep. Obey’s so-called gutting would leave 90 percent of the funds available for the program over the next year in place.

Further, this modest reduction in a new and untested program would leverage $10 billion for U.S. school districts to weather the draconian teacher layoffs, class consolidations and decline in teaching quality that will occur in their absence.

My colleagues at the Center for American Progress who work on education policy strongly disagree, but I think that was clearly a tradeoff worth making.

Cutting the funds for Race to the Top was not Rep. Obey’s first choice. It was demanded by conservative Democrats and a unified phalanx of Republicans—including the four senators that Alter now thinks will have a change of heart, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)—all of whom are willing to borrow virtually any amount of money for foreign military adventures but insist that every dime we spend to protect teacher’s jobs be offset.

This political coalition in Congress is not going away, and any effort to reduce teacher layoffs this fall will involve painful cuts. Race to the Top will not be the only victim, nor in all probability will the proposed 10 percent reduction in its spending be the most damaging to the nation’s future.

What is disturbing to me is how those who are parading under the banner of school and teacher accountability are so unwilling to be subjected to accountability standards themselves.

What reformers now argue is that the central problem facing learning today is the teaching force and the entrenched unions protecting that force. As popular as that criticism may be in many quarters, Congress has an obligation to find out what evidence backs up those claims.

Are schools with weak unions or no unions producing better results? Do charter schools give more value to the taxpayer and the student than noncharter schools? Will Education Secretary Duncan’s plan result in schools attracting better teachers than the ones they succeed in firing?

The evidence available for those questions is not one-sided. The person who many might describe as the “mother” of the current education accountability movement, Diane Ravitch, now believes that the preponderance of evidence argues against such reforms.

Ravitch, now a professor of education history at New York University, fostered the move toward pupil testing as a means of establishing greater teacher accountability when she served as a senior Education Department appointee in the first Bush administration. She not only questions the effectiveness of many of the in vogue attempts at establishing teacher accountability and charter schools, but she also recently wrote a column in favor of the Obey amendment. In it she says:

"Obey is trying to save the jobs of tens of thousands of public school teachers who have received pink slips. ....there can be no school reform of any meaning if tens of thousands of teachers lose their jobs. Class sizes will soar, especially in hard-pressed urban districts, and education will suffer a serious setback for our nation’s most vulnerable children."

Ravitch further argues:

Research and national scores have repeatedly demonstrated that charter schools in aggregate do not perform better than regular public schools. Merit pay has been tried and has failed repeatedly since the 1920s. Why should these dubious ideas, with little or no evidence to support them, take precedence over the continued employment of teachers?

Whatever one might say about the merits of the cutting $500 million or 10 percent of the Race to the Top money in order to give local schools $10 billion to avoid layoffs, it is clear that Secretary Duncan has failed to develop a consensus within his party or within Congress around the proposal.

Following the White House’s threat to veto legislation containing $37 billion it claims is urgently needed to fight the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in order to protect the half-billion dollars it claims is essential for Race to the Top, Secretary Duncan spent most of the day calling members of Congress urging them to vote against the Obey amendment. The net result was that 236 House Democrats voted for the amendment while 15 opposed.

Of the 15 voting “no” only a few were supporters of Race to the Top, the majority were Blue Dogs who opposed using the reduced funding for preventing teacher layoffs. Only one Democrat of the 30 on the House Education and Labor Committee—the panel that will be responsible for rewriting the federal elementary and secondary education law [known as No Child LEft Behind] later this year—voted as the secretary asked them to.

Progressives need to build a solid coalition in support of both financing and reform of our schools. We shouldn’t label people as someone’s “water carrier” if they ask tough questions about what the financing will accomplish or where the reforms will lead.

We can’t afford a continuing string of dead ends in education policy. And we can not achieve unity unless we respect each other's opinion and have the evidence to support our individual notions of what constitutes reform.

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 7, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  cutting race to the top, legislation on teachers jobs, no child left behind, obey and teachers, obey and teachers bill, race to the top, saving teachers jobs, scott lilly  
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Comments

Progressives need to build a solid coalition in support of both financing and reform of our schools. We shouldn’t label people as someone’s “water carrier” if they ask tough questions about what the financing will accomplish or where the reforms will lead.
.....................................
No.

Educators have to explore the problem and discover what are the differences in Title 1 public schools and affluent and middle class schools that explain the great difficulty that exists in educating children in Title 1 public schools.

Education in affluent and middle class schools are not failing while education in Title 1 public schools have been a failing problem for years.

So far no educator has studied the problem sufficiently enough to offer solutions.

Instead we have insanity for our national policies regarding education such as No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, "test them until they drop", "teach to the test", bash the teachers, and plow under the unions.

All of these policies are crowd pleasers of beer drinkers but do not work for Title 1 public schools and are harmful for the majority of public schools in this country that in the past have provided a good education.

Is there any sense in bashing union for public schools in affluent and middle classes areas that are sending large majorities to universities and that have teachers that belong to a union.

At this point educators have to recognize that the same model of affluent and middle class public schools that works, will not work for Title 1 public schools.

Here is a new model for primary Title 1 public schools that would work.

Test every child when they enter the public school system and place them in classes based upon their current abilities and skills so teachers can teach to the level of the class.

There are already tests for testing children prior to entering kindergarten.

Divide primary education in half with schools of K to 2nd grade and schools of 3rd to 5th grade. This allows you to use existing schools and staff without major expensive changes. On this basis each grade will have 4 different levels to match the current skills and abilities of children.

Now you are maximizing education for children in each class room. This method also allows you to spend more money for children that need more help since children are in classes based upon their current skills and abilities. More teacher aids can be assigned to lower level classes to assist in raising the skills and capabilities of these children. This allows schools to pin point resources where they are most needed.

Yearly tests would be used to indicate the level children are prepared to go into for the next school year. Knowing the current abilities and skills in their class will allow teachers to use the teaching method best suited to the class.

Do this for three years and you will dramatically increase the achievement in primary Title 1 public schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 7, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack,

I've always thought the big problem in the title 1 schools were the emotional and behavioral problems children brought with them into the classroom.

I do agree with you that teaching children on their level, which we both know isn't happening in a lot of schools.

But what would you do about the emotional baggage children in title 1 schools bring with them into the classroom?

Posted by: aby1 | July 7, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

As always, Valerie - thanks for the great article!

Posted by: aby1 | July 7, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack,

I've always thought the big problem in the title 1 schools were the emotional and behavioral problems children brought with them into the classroom.

I do agree with you that teaching children on their level, which we both know isn't happening in a lot of schools.

But what would you do about the emotional baggage children in title 1 schools bring with them into the classroom?

Posted by: aby1
................................
Perhaps we have to stop using the word poverty. In my day we used the term lower class. Poverty was reserved to families that could not support themselves without public welfare of some sort. Many children from lower class families are not emotional baggage children and are well behaved when they enter primary school.

The real difference of Title 1 primary public schools and affluent and middle class primary public schools is that everyone in affluent and middle class primary public schools are almost like peas in a pod. Being alike you can arbitrarily throw them into a class and have a teacher teach on one level.

This is not true for Title 1 primary schools where there is a great deal of diversity of the current skills and abilities of children, and children can not be placed in class arbitrarily without a teacher encountering the difficulty of having to teach to different levels of current skills, behavior, and abilities.

I assume "emotional baggage children" are the children who are totally unprepared for school. If so they go to the lowest level where a teacher will have to spend time on their basic skills and also their behavior. Have all these children in one class means that this class can make the most of a teacher's aide. There is no advantage in placing "emotional baggage children" arbitrarily in different classes since this forces teachers to divert there time on one or two children without skills.

I am referring to normal cases of children in not being prepared for school and not children that are so emotionally scared that they can not be placed in a normal school.

We send children to the nurse when they need a bandaid. We do not send children to the nurse if they are bleeding profusely. Emotionally scarred children require at kindergarten to be placed in special classes to deal with their problems.

The large majority of children that enter Title 1 primary public schools are not emotionally scarred and these children should deserve better than being placed in the same class with emotionally scarred children.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 7, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

The idea that anyone finds Arne Duncan (whose only degree is a B.A. in sociology) credible as US Secretary Education is like a late April Fool's joke. Maybe he learned about running schools while he played basketball overseas for eight years. He wasn't even qualified to play in the NBA!

Seems as if Obama is carrying water for Duncan to the detriment of America's public schools. Obama should fire Duncan and make Diane Ravitch Education Secretary.

Posted by: lacy4 | July 7, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

"Emotionally scarred children require at kindergarten to be placed in special classes to deal with their problems."

I have pushed into a lot of general education classes with emotionally scarred children. It seems like there are so many more of these children in the title 1 schools, and they are not getting the special education resources they need.

Posted by: aby1 | July 7, 2010 8:34 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack,

I've had a chance to observe at many schools, and I will tell you that many emotionally scarred children are being put back into the general education classroom under "Least Restrictive Environment". This is causing a great deal of disruption in classrooms, and making it harder for general education teachers to teach.

Posted by: aby1 | July 7, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack,

I've had a chance to observe at many schools, and I will tell you that many emotionally scarred children are being put back into the general education classroom under "Least Restrictive Environment". This is causing a great deal of disruption in classrooms, and making it harder for general education teachers to teach.

Posted by: aby1
...........................
Surprised that Title 1 public schools are doing this since urban areas have large enough populations to set up classes for these children.

This is part of the one size fits all that simply will not work in Title 1 public schools.

Everyone is always demanding from teachers while no one is willing to set up policies that make teachers more productive.

Having 2 levels of abilities in a class will lessen the ability of children to learn since while you are teaching the one level that does not know the material you are not teaching the other level that already knows the material.

Consider that you now have children that do not belong in a normal class and you have even more time not spent on the majority of children in the class while the teacher spends time on children that should be in a special class.

It is always wonderful how the head of a school system of Title 1 public school states that teachers have to be more efficient in teaching children and then they set up policies that automatically make teachers less efficient.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 7, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Bsallamack,

Unfortunately the state I live in makes a big deal of LRE, and has pressured the schools to put emotionally scarred children who still need special ed services into general ed instead.

It's a disaster for the general education teachers who are trying to teach. But it does keep the special ed bill down.

Posted by: aby1 | July 7, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Bsallamack,

Unfortunately the state I live in makes a big deal of LRE, and has pressured the schools to put emotionally scarred children who still need special ed services into general ed instead.

It's a disaster for the general education teachers who are trying to teach. But it does keep the special ed bill down.

Posted by: aby1
.......................
It is a bigger disaster for the children who can learn and are being denied the chance to learn. These children will have to pay the costs of this policy. In Title 1 public schools this will only increase in time the number of children that are emotionally scarred since this simply creates an even larger number of adults that will be so lacking in education that there is a high probability that they will emotionally scar their children.

There are solutions to problems but perhaps our country has reached the point where there is no longer the willingness to find solutions and/or implement solutions.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 7, 2010 11:37 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack,

I think the problem is - is that politicians and parts of the press are more interested in raising test scores than in dealing with actual learning in the classroom.

One professor told me that schools were beginning to put resources into emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children until NCLB came along. Then the resources were diverted from the children to testing.

Posted by: aby1 | July 8, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

"Are schools with weak unions or no unions producing better results?"

Biased question. The correct question actually is, do schools with no unions produce the SAME or better results PER DOLLAR SPENT?

Unions exist only to protect mediocrity, stifle innovation, perpetuate waste, and thwart competition. There is no other reason.

Education reform is simply too urgent to tolerate unions. They must go — and will.

Posted by: thebump | July 9, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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