Top Stories 12 / 3—10 / 2013

A Big Week…. Farm to school grants… The best civics test since Animal Farm… What we can agree to teach…. Chancellor Watch:  Randi Weingarten?…. Doubts about universal pre-K…. Support for de Blasio tax plan…. PISA continues to roil…. Zero tolerance doesn’t work…. NEA’s $131 million spending spree….  Sleep-deprived kids…. Stressed-out kids…


Start the Countdown: Top Stories of 2013

What were the most important education stories of 2013? Send your nominees to Elizabeth Janice at


Top Stories

This just in…. Chancellor Watch: Carmen Who?  The momentum for Farina seems to be building….  For Homeless Girl, “School is Everything.”  Big story in the New York Times. 



Hunger Games: The Best Civics Text Since Animal Farm?

Mike Goldstein, founder of the Match Charter School in Boston, is a big fan of Robert Pondiscio. “It was Robert’s tireless efforts for years that started to move the needle on ‘reform types’ understanding of E.D. Hirsch,” Goldstein writes in his blog. He also draws attention to Pondiscio’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal on the success of The Hunger Games. Parents and teachers may have a love-hate relationship with novelist Suzanne Collins’s science fiction trilogy, writes Pondiscio. “Yet like the Harry Potter books, The Hunger Games is one of those rare series that motivates even the most reluctant young readers. In the case of Ms. Collins’s novels, they also provide an opportunity to educate kids about the relationship between the individual and the state, personal rights and responsibilities, and the civic duties expected of citizens…. These ideas drive the Hunger Games plot, even if the average 13-year-old might not realize it at first. Intentionally or not, the trilogy amounts to the best civics textbook since George Orwell’s Animal Farm.” Read the entire WSJ article here. 


NEA’s $131 Million “Spending Spree”

Rishawn Biddle of Dropout Nation  released a breakdown of the National Education Association’s 2012-2013 financial disclosure filings. The nation’s largest teachers’ union spent $131 million on lobbying efforts, a four percent increase over last year. Interestingly, some of those contributions were to education reform-minded organizations like the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, one of the leading civil rights-based players in the school reform movement, and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. 

The Payments That Unite Us

Mike Antonucci and Joy Resmovits write about the money behind the AFT’s “national day of action.”


More NYC Chancellor Watch

Speculation abounds as Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio continues to remain coy about his top picks for New York City schools chancellor—one of the most prized posts in public education. “We’re not going to have a beauty contest,” de Blasio told reporters last week. “We’re not going to put the different finalists on display.” Names topping the list include Kathleen Cashin, a member of the New York State Board of Regents; Carmen Farina, a former deputy chancellor; Joshua P. Starr, a Montgomery County, Maryland, school district chancellor; and Kaya Henderson, chancellor of DC public schools.  

Rick Hess Asks:  Why Not Randi?

This is a fun thought experiment. 


Advice about Teachers for the New Mayor (and his Chancellor)

The New York Times‘ editorial board has sketched a straightforward education plan for teacher reform for Mayor-elect de Blasio: Less seniority and a move to get rid of inactive teachers, and more flexibility on class time, like charter schools have. Says the Times, “The union must also let go of the unspoken presumption that every teacher is entitled to a job for life.” 


New Yorkers Back De Blasio Tax Plan 2-1

A new poll conducted by Quinnipiac University finds that a majority of New York state voters support Mayor-elect de Blasio’s plan to increase income taxes on New York City households making more than $500,000 and using the money to pay for improvements in education. Sixty-three percent of voters statewide support a tax increase—this includes 68 percent of voters in New York City, 55 percent in the suburbs and 64 percent who live in upstate New York. Popular support statewide is critical for the city measure because Gov. Cuomo and state lawmakers would have to approve the tax on wealthy city residents in an election year, when Cuomo and Senate Republicans are promising tax cuts.


Doubts about Pre-K for All

A bill seeking to make good on President Barack Obama’s promise to create federally funded universal pre-K for four-year-olds was introduced in Congress last month. However, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy, says that evidence for universal pre-K is decidedly mixed. Studies demonstrating the negative impacts of pre-K—including a newly released report of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK)—have largely been ignored or explained away by supporters of the bill. Whitehurst, a developmental psychologist by training, called TN-VPK “devastating” for advocates of state pre-K expansion. “If you’re an advocate of strengthening early childhood programs, as I am, you also need to pay careful attention to the evidence—all of it,” he said. “Poor children deserve effective programs, not just programs that are well-intentioned.”


Majority of Eligible Preschoolers Are Not Enrolled in Head Start to areport released last month by the DC-based Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the New York-based National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), only 42 percent of eligible children participate in Head Start. And just four percent of those eligible are served by Early Head Start. While funding for Head Start and Early Head Start went up by $1.2 billion between 2006 and 2012, the main barrier to participation is still money, according to a spokesperson for the National Head Start Association: “Head Start programs have thousands of children across the country on their waiting lists that they would gladly serve.” 


What Can We Agree to Teach?

Robert Pondiscio, in his guest blog on Bridging Differences, makes an interesting proposition: To use the U.S. Citizenship Test, which tests basic civic literacy, as an exit exam for K-12 education. In 2010, 97.5 percent of naturalized citizens passed the exam vs. about 65 percent of native-born citizens who were asked the same questions in a telephone interview. “This is a national embarrassment,” writes Pondiscio, executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem, and a former fifth grade teacher. “If we expect new American citizens to know these things, surely we should expect those born here to know as much.”


Are Adjuncts Better Teachers than Tenured Professors?

A study from Northwestern University concludes that university students perform worse when taught introductory classes by tenured professors rather than adjunct instructors. The differences were present across a wide variety of subject areas, the authors said, and were especially pronounced for average and less-qualified students.  


USDA Announces “Farm to School” Grants

“Farm to School” programs, which connect schools with local farms, are popping up all over the country. Last week, the USDA announced awards for 71 projects, spanning 42 states and the District of Columbia, that support the USDA’s efforts to bring local, healthy foods into schools. Schools can define “local” however they choose, and definitions vary depending on the geography and climate of the area. Local offerings can include everything from fresh fruit and vegetable servings to the wheat in the pizza crust, beans in the chili, rice in the stir fry, turkey in the sandwiches and cheese in the quesadillas.  For a full list grant recipients, click here. 


Feds Set Rules for Charter School Grants

In an effort to give more uniformity to charter school applications, according to Katie Ash, Education Week staff reporter, the U.S. Department of Education is proposing specific priorities for this year’s applicants, reports Education Week. The five proposed priorities, which were spelled out in the Federal Register last week, are: (1) Improving efficiency through economies of scale, (2) improving accountability, (3) serving students with disabilities, (4) serving English learners and (5) personalized technology-enabled learning.  


ED Announces Finalists for RTTT-District Competition

In more U.S. Department of Education news, the Department has announced the 31 finalists for the second Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) competition, Education Week reports. The 2013 RTTT-D program will provide nearly $120 million to support locally developed plans to personalize and improve student learning, directly increase student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps and prepare students for success in college and careers. The 31 finalists represent 80 school districts across 21 states and were selected from over 200 applications. The department expects to name up to 10 winners by the end of the calendar year; awards will range from $4 million to $30 million. For a complete list of finalists, click here. 


Houston is Tops in “Portable Student Funding”

The Houston Independent School District got an A+, outperforming all other districts in Reason Foundation’s just-published “Weighted Student Formula Yearbook 2013.” The yearbook looked at 14 different school districts that use “portable student funding,” also known as “backpack funding,” to ensure that dollars are distributed fairly and transparently. Each district was graded and ranked in 10 categories, including test scores, achievement gaps, graduation rates and transparency. Hartford, Cincinnati and Oakland earned A grades, while Minneapolis, San Francisco, Boston and Poudre (Colo.) received B grades. “One of our very promising findings suggests that the larger the share of a district’s budget that goes directly to the schools on a per-student basis, the better the performance,” says Katie Furtick, co-author of the report and a policy analyst at Reason Foundation. For an in-depth look at the report, including case studies from each of the districts, click here. 


Bloomberg Keeps Scoring

Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that more New York City public high school students than ever are prepared for college-level work: A record number passed Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and SAT scores for city high school students rose, while scores nationwide declined or remained flat. The mayor also touted his administration’s success at raising the city’s graduation rate—by one percentage point since last year. In all, 61% of the city’s Class of 2013 students graduated. “In the last twelve years we have turned a once failing school system around, and today’s announcement is the latest example of the progress our students are making,” said Bloomberg, who leaves office in less than three weeks. 


Education Trust’s Ed Watch is Worth Watching

More and more, actual change for students is happening at the state level, and the Education Trust has the data showing how each state—from Alabama to Wyoming—is doing for students of color and meager means. “In every state, our education system is doing far worse for low-income students and students of color than for their white or more affluent peers,” reports Ed Watch. Its state guides—available here—provide hard data on challenges and opportunities facing the equity agenda where you live.


And So is the Center for Education Reform

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Center for Education Reform (CER). For the past two decades, CER has been helping to “bridge the gap between policy and practice and restore excellence to education.” CER also works to “separate fact from fiction in the media.” Check out this op-ed in the New York Times, where CER President Jeanne Allen “set the record straight about charter school funding.”  


Where the Money Goes in New York State

The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) released an analysis last week showing that the wealthiest 10 percent of the state’s school districts spend 80 percent more on teaching students than do the poorest 10 percent, “a funding inequity that is aggravated by the state’s property tax cap and widens the unacceptable achievement gap.” The wealthiest school districts spent an average of $35,690 per student vs. $19,823 for the poorest districts. NYSUT is challenging the tax cap in New York State Supreme Court; the case is set to be heard on December 12. Read the NYSUT press release here. 


No Improvement on International Tests

The new PISA scores continue to generate discussion. Some say the results are not that important; others are sounding alarms—warning that our country’s economic security, and the American dream, are at risk. “In today’s hyperconnected world without walls—when more Indians, Chinese, computers, robots and software can perform more average blue-collar and white-collar jobs—the only high-wage jobs are increasingly high-skill jobs,” writes Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times. “We’re going through a huge technological transformation in the middle of a recession. It requires a systemic response.” Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and Paul Peterson, professor of Government at Harvard University, concur: “Ourresearch shows a close to perfect correlation between education and long run economic growth. If America could bring its students up to German standards, history indicates that the economic growth it would generate would increase the average American worker’s income by 12 percent every year for the next 80 years. Reaching Canada’s performance level would increase our workers’ incomes by an average of 20 percent.” To view the full PISA report, click here. Also, here are more viewpoints from The Washington Post, Ed Week,Brookings, NPR,the Wall Street Journaland The Atlantic.


Zero Tolerance Discipline Not Working

Faced with mounting evidence that “zero tolerance” policies in schools are backfiring, especially among minority students, districts around the country—including Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago and Denver and Broward County, Florida—are rethinking their approach to minor offenses, the New York Times reports. Instead of pushing lawbreaking students out of school, they are now choosing to keep them in the classroom, away from trouble on the streets, and offering them counseling and other assistance.  


More Hispanics Needed to Lead the Classroom

Growing up in San Luis, Arizona, a town located near the Mexican border, Jorge Ontiveros dreamed of going into law or business, but to his own surprise, he became a middle school teacher. For the past decade, Hispanic students have made up the largest minority group in our schools—one of every four students in the nation’s K-12 schools. Yet across the country, just seven percent of teachers are Hispanic, and only two percent are males. “With the Hispanic population projected to represent 60 percent of the population growth by 2050, the importance of recruiting teachers that reflect the diverse student body of our country is not only necessary but critical,” writes Alejandra Ceja, executive director for the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics, on the U.S. Department of Education blog. “At a time when the high school graduation rate for Latino males is 60 percent and the college enrollment rate is 34 percent, having a teacher that reflects his or her student body may lead to better attendance, fewer suspensions and higher test scores.”


Closing the Fear Gap

Montserrat Garibay came to the U.S. as a child, undocumented and not speaking any English, according to a report by Michael Brick of the New York Times. Garibay’s path from undocumented child immigrant to permanent resident to visa holder to citizen took two decades. Now, with President Obama’s pledge to let certain undocumented minors remain in the country, the Texas teacher has become an advocate to immigrant families and children, helping them to allay their fears, succeed in school and navigate the country’s immigration laws.


Later Starting Time for Sleep-Deprived Teens

There’s a growing nationwide movement advocating for later high school start times, according to National Public Radio’s Allison Aubrey. A national petition to promote legislation that would prevent public schools from starting before 8 a.m., started by the group Start School Later, has thousands of signatures from all 50 states. Teenagers typically need eight to nine hours of sleep, experts say, and waking up at 6 a.m. can lead to a pattern of sleep deprivation. And that puts teens at higher risk of a whole range of potential problems, from depression to automobile accidents and even suicide, according Start School Later. At least one study found that pushing back school start times by one hour cut the risk of car crashes by 16.5 percent.


Kids Stressed Out

Almost 40 percent of parents of high-school students say their child is experiencing a lot of school-related stress, according to a new NPR poll conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Homework was a leading cause of stress, with 24 percent of parents reporting that it’s an issue. (See the full results here.) Students report that they’re stressed out, too. A 2009 survey by the American Psychological Association found that children are even more worried about school pressures than their parents realize. Some high schoolers, with encouragement from their parents, are now taking the bold move of “dialing down” on academics—dropping advanced courses for a more balanced and manageable workload.  The question is, What about the other 60 percent of parents?  If their children are  feeling little or no stress, could that mean expectations are too low?


SIG’s Downfall: Judge, and Be Judged, By Proficiency Rates

A couple of weeks ago, we reported on an analysis by the U.S. Department of Education that showed mixed results for School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools. Since 2009, the Obama administration has handed out $5 billion to states to improve academic performance at some  1,500 poorly performing schools—the largest federal investment ever targeted at failing schools—and Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, isn’t happy about it. “Let’s stop using proficiency rates to identify SIG schools, and let’s stop using proficiency rates to judge the success of the SIG program,” he writes in the Flypaper blog. “And lest you say, ‘Hey, it’s only money,’ pause a moment on that. Five billion dollars. Enough to control Malaria. Enough to implement Core Knowledge in every single elementary school in the country. Enough to keep 2,000 Catholic schools alive.”  


Do Fourth Graders and Kindles Mix?

What happened when 49 fourth graders at Match charter school in Boston were given Kindles? According to Mike Goldstein, founder of the Match Charter School in Boston, the Kindles were part of a larger effort to get kids to read more. Despite some hassles like a few broken devices and lost passwords, both the teachers and students found that the Kindles injected life into the school’s reading program. Since September, the school has built a Kindle library of about 200 books. Some students, who used to jump from book to book without ever finishing one, were only allowed to put one book on the device at a time. For these students, the kindle experiment has gotten them to actually read through a whole book. 


KPM Testimony to the DC Council

Kathleen Porter-Magee, a Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (and the College Board’s new senior advisor for policy and instruction), testified before the D.C. Board of Education on November 20, She urged the board to not shift gears but stick with D.C.’s existing K–12 science standards. “In 2012, [TBFI] released our most recent evaluation of state K–12 science standards, and we found that D.C. had the best science standards in the nation. In fact, the District of Columbia was one of only two states to earn a perfect score, earning top points for both content and rigor and clarity and specificity,” she stated. “More specifically, our team of experts found the D.C. science expectations to be ‘clear and rigorous, with content that progresses appropriately through the grades.’” 


Charter Schools Survive a Biting ‘Rain of Terror’

Back in 1990, when Minnesota passed the first charter law, “the innovation seemed precious, quaint, delicate and certain to break,” writes Paul E. Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, in Education Next. But by 2011, there were nearly 6,000 charters, serving two million students, or about four percent of the U.S. public-school population. “Despite the drenching anti-reform downpour, charter schools are gaining in respect, numbers and political adherents, mainly because they are digging deep roots in local communities,” Peterson adds. “While other reforms have lost ground in the public eye, support for charters continues unabated. Unless Common Core fulfills its promise or digital learning makes a breakthrough, charters stand today as the reformers’ one best—perhaps their last best—hope.” 


Presumed ‘Averageness’ and Its Misapplication in Education

Should a student choose College A or College B based on differences in college graduation rates? Should a principal hire Teacher C or Teacher D based on a difference in value-added scores? In a budget crisis, should a principal retain Teacher E or Teacher F based on differences in their past evaluation scores? In cases like these, decision makers should avoid making a choice based on the usual “average until proven below average” formulation, according to Thomas Kane, professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research. Instead, they “would do well to choose the option with the better odds of success, even when those differences are not ‘statistically significant.’”   



The End of the ‘College For All’ Debate?

College Summit, which partners with high schools across the country to increase the college enrollment rates of youth from low-income communities, has a new video that argues that we stop debating how many kids should go to college. Instead, we should be helping students pick a college that fits their goals, obtain financing that makes sense and choose a course of study that will put them on a path for a career.


Smarick’s News Digest: Nashville Schools, Why the Poor Made Bad Decisions, John White… and More

In a roundup of news items from Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute we get an analysis of metro Nashville public schools; an article in the Atlantic on how the hopelessness of persistent poverty distorts one’s time horizon and the role this plays in high-school graduation rates; a profile of John White, Louisiana’s fresh-faced, 38-year-old State Superintendent; and an interesting paper comparing accountability under NCLB and ESEA waivers.   


From the Archives

John Merrow: on Reading

Has the “30 million word gap” between rich and poor children been exaggerated? Perhaps, said John Merrow, a veteran education reporter and author of The Influence of Teachers. But while the number of words estimated may be inflated, the difference is still important and needs to be addressed. “It’s not about numbers, although the vocabulary gap is real. Reading is the foundation, but what matters most is content knowledge,” he wrote in his blog, Taking Note, back in 2011. “You have to read about something, whether it’s baseball or Patrick Henry or space travel or a pet dog. And it’s important that all children have common reading experiences—shared content.” 


Jonah Goldberg: Public Unions Have Been a 50-Year Mistake

A crucial distinction—the difference between public and private unions—was lost in the debate over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 proposal to bust his state’s teachers’ union. “Government unions are not the same thing as private sector unions,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg. “Private sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests and, as we’ve seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government.”


The Black-White Test Score Gap

Closing the black-white test score gap would do more to promote racial equality in the United States than any other strategy now under serious discussion, according to Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips in a Brookings Review article. “The gap appears before children enter kindergarten and it persists into adulthood. It has narrowed since 1970, but the typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on almost every standardized test,” the authors wrote. “This statistic does not imply, of course, that all blacks score below all whites. There is a lot of overlap between the two groups. Nonetheless, the test score gap is large enough to have significant social and economic consequences.”  The date of this report?  1998.  Some things don’t seem to change, as this Educational Testing Service report, from 2010, seems to suggest.


––Elizabeth Janice is an East Coast-based freelance writer who has written for national magazines, including Family Circle , Woman’s Day, All You and Essence. She earned her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her M.A. from New York University.


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