Monthly Archives: June 2011

About that Cato Institute Charter School/Philanthropy Report…

Yesterday I tweeted about a Cato Institute study purporting to show that philanthropists are ignoring the California charter school networks that get the best academic results. 

I often take a critical view of private philanthropists' role in education reform. But when I took a closer look at this particular study's methodology and results, I found that there are good reasons why big donors might avoid the top three charters here, despite their good performance on 2010 Advanced Placement exams and state standardized tests, the only measures used by Cato to assess quality.

The American Indian Public Charter Schools (#1 in Cato study, 21st for funding) were founded by Ben Chavis. (CORRECTION: A DIFFERENT BEN CHAVIS, FORMERLY BEN CHAVIS MUMAHAMMAD, WAS FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE NAACP.) I've written before about "No Excuses" charters, but AIM is somewhat infamous for taking the ideology to a whole 'nother level, so to speak. When Chavis was principal of the schools, he was known for berating employees and directing racial epithets toward students, supposedly to motivate them to overcome negative stereotypes. 

Even though Chavis is no longer principal, the AIM schools continue to embrace controversial discipline practices, such as sending misbehaving students to sit on the floor of older childrens' classrooms. There are few music, art, or sports programs. What's more, the school's website is filled with unusual references to the importance of "free-market capitalism." Children and teachers are given cash rewards for academic success. 

Plenty of folks celebrate Chavis and his schools. Others might be uncomfortable funding them, and I can't say I blame then. 

As for the Oakland Charter Academies (#2 in Cato study, 27th for funding), they came under new management are were renamed the Amethod Schools in 2004, as a means of addressing a history of organizational turmoil. Since then, achievement results have been good, but until the schools garner a longer, more stable track record, it's unlikely they'll attract much foundation support. 

The number three school in the Cato report is Wilder's Prepatory Academy Charter School (#3 in Cato study, 39th for funding(, a combined elementery and middle school in Ingleside, CA. Its website is not up-to-date and contains little information on the school's approach to curriculum, instruction, or anything else. Nor did I find any media mentions of the school. Other than test score data, there's not much here to convince a philanthropist to make a large investment. 

Anyhow, I'd say this Cato report serves as a reminder that we always need to probe deeper than test score data when we assess any school. Philanthropists rightly look for other evidence of success, including competent management, the political viability of the school's model, and a coherent approach to learning. 

A Glut of New Reports Raise Doubts About Obama’s Teacher Agenda

Although much of the Obama administration's education reform agenda promotes test score-based teacher evaluation and pay, the tide seems to be significantly turning against such policies, at least among wonks and academics. 

Last week the National Academies of Science published a synthesis of 10 years worth of research on 15 American test-based incentive programs, finding they demonstrated few good results and a lot of negative unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, the National Center on Education and the Economy reported that high-achieving nations have focused on reforming their teacher education and professional development pipelines, not on efforts to measure student "growth" and tie such numbers to individual teachers.

Today, a paper coauthored by the Asia Society and the Department of Education itself calls Singapore a model for teacher evaluation. That nation's teachers are assessed on four "holistic" qualities, including the "character development of their students" and "their relationship to community organizations and to parents." There is no attempt to create a mathematical formula to tie student test scores to teacher evaluation or pay.

Lastly, even the free-market American Enterprise Institute has a new paper, by Fairfax County, Virginia Superintendent Jack Dale, arguing that the path forward should be differentiated pay based on teams of teachers taking on additional mentoring, curriculum development, and planning responsibilities. Test-based merit pay plans "miss a crucial point: teaching must be a collaborative team effort, and incentivizing individual teachers will not accomplish our ambitious goal," Dale writes.

Yes, there's a lot there to digest. The good news is, there are also some exciting policy alternatives.

After The American Prospect published, "The Test Generation," my feature story about different models for teacher evaluation in Colorado, a number of readers challenged my suggestion that policy makers have more to learn from Denver's Math and Science Leadership Academy, which practices teacher peer-review, than from Harrison District 2 in Colorado Springs, which runs a merit pay program tied to student test scores. 

MSLA, they said, is a small school in which it's easy to build trust among peers. It can practice extreme disretion in hiring, so it's less likely there will be bad teachers to weed out later on. 

All that is true in the case of MSLA, although we also know peer-review has also worked in some large American school districts, most notably Columbus and Toledo Ohio, both of which weeded out a significant number of poor-performing teachers using such systems. Now the New York Times' Michael Winerip profiles PAR, the teacher peer-review plan in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has fired 200 poor-performing teachers and encouraged another 300 to quit since its inception 11 years ago.

Unfortunately, federal dollars from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program are not going where Dr. Weast and the PAR program need to go. Montgomery County schools were entitled to $12 million from Race to the Top, but Dr. Weast said he would not take the money because the grant required districts to include students’ state test results as a measure of teacher quality. “We don’t believe the tests are reliable,” he said. “You don’t want to turn your system into a test factory.”

Weast, Montgomery's superintendent, is a visionary guy who speaks frequently about the need to build relationships of trust between communities, school administrators, and teachers–and actually follows up on the rhetoric with great policy-making. I'll give him the last word, from an April interview with the Washington Post:

You have close relations with labor.

I have close relations with people who work in the school business. They happen to be unionized, and I find that good, because it’s easier to actually visit with them because they have an organized structure. We have 22,000 employees. It’s just hard to have a sit-down conversation with all 22,000 of them.

Is there a downside to working with unions?


Jill Abramson, Feminist Journalist

All too often, women trailblazers are either outright opponents of feminism, like Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher, or hesitant to fully claim the feminist mantle until far too late in the game, like Hillary Clinton and Katie Couric.

Not so for Jill Abramson, the veteran journalist who Thursday was named the first female editor of The New York Times. In an interview with Huffington Post media reporter Mike Calderone, Abramson immediately reflected on the historic nature of her appointment. “I stand on different shoulders,” she said, paying tribute to Times CEO Janet Robinson, Maureen Dowd, former columnist Anna Quindlen and deceased journalists Robin Toner and Nan Robertson. “I just kind of called out their names.”

Abramson is perhaps best known in media circles for her maneuverings, as the Times Washington bureau chief, against former executive editor Howell Raines, whom she believed had a poor feel for political news. Raines retaliated by attempting to move Abramson to the Book Review, which would have taken her out of the daily news cycle and likely out of contention for the top job she finally won. Abramson, of course, ended up looking prescient when Raines was later forced to resign in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.

What’s less often acknowledged is that feminism has always been an explicit part of Abramson’s career. After graduating from Harvard in 1976, the native Manhattanite covered that year’s presidential campaign for TimeReflecting on the experience this past March, she said, “I remember being in the bar of the Sheraton Wayfarer the night of the New Hampshire primary, so proud of the press credential dangling from my neck. I gazed at all the famous ‘boys on the bus,’ including Jack Germond and Hunter Thompson. But as a very young woman, I didn’t dare belly up to the bar. Those days are over.”

Abramson then worked for two trade publications, American Lawyer and Legal Times, where she developed an expertise on women lawyers. In 1986, she and Barbara Franklin co-authored a book on the women of the Harvard Law class of 1974, the first to be more than 10 percent female. Two years later, Abramson wrote her first major Times feature, a Sunday magazine article about Peggy Kerr and Nancy Lieberman, two of the first women to become partners at the New York law firm Skadden Arps. Abramson found that women were finally being accepted into the partnership ranks just as the total number of partners was drastically expanding, with more and more associates being invited to join up. Were firms accepting female partners only because the distinction itself had been devalued?

It was a theme she would return to in 2006, when Katie Couric became anchor of the CBS Evening News. “It seemed a pretty giant step for womankind, but maybe I was stuck in a retro mindset,” Abramson mused in a Week in Review essay. “With the fragmentation of television audiences and the advent of cable and on-demand services…the prestige of being an anchor is not what it was in the days of Walter Cronkite.”

Abramson’s second book—again co-authored with a female colleague, Jane Mayer—was 1994’s Strange Justice, about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill scandal. A finalist for the National Book Award, the book not only contained explosive interviews with former Thomas friends and colleagues who attested to his history as a serial sexual harasser but dug deep into the organizing, fundraising and media ties between conservative black ministers, the white Christian right and Republican senators. This network cooperated to cast Thomas’s ascension to the Supreme Court as inevitable. Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden played the sucker. He and other white, male Democrats were terrified of being painted as racist and completely confused and embarrassed by the explicit nature of Hill’s allegations against the nominee. Strange Justice brought this narrative clearly to light, altering how the Thomas-Hill episode would be remembered by history.

Abramson went on to cover the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton’s impeachment, writing a graceful August 1998 piece about Hillary Clinton’s painful role, behind the scenes, in helping to craft her husband’s televised admission of a sexual relationship with the young intern. In 2002 Abramson wrote about the various women in the Enron case, some of whom had been whistle-blowers, others plain-old bad guys. “The change does reflect the rising status of women in the legal and corporate world,” she noted. “They are now high enough on the ladder to drive the action.”

What kind of Times editor will Jill Abramson be? One can only be encouraged by the fact that Abramson volunteered last year to spend six months working on the digital side, so as to better understand that aspect of the Times’s business. Appearing on CNN last night, Abramson even praised the Huffington Post, which, since its merger with AOL, has poached an impressive cadre of Times talent. “I think the Huffington Post has been inventive and presents what it aggregates well,” Abramson said. “I’ve known Arianna Huffington since the early nineties in Washington, she’s an inventive person, and I certainly don’t want to be in a war with her.”

After yesterday’s announcement, Jen Preston, a Times staff writer and the paper’s former social media editor,tweeted, “For all of you wondering about Jill Abramson and the Web? Jill gets it. And she's fearless. We're lucky."


Last August I left my full-time job as an associate editor at The Daily Beast to accept a Spencer Fellowship in education journalism at Columbia University. Through the Spencer program, I was able to pursue a series of long-form on-the-ground reporting projects, culminating in my book proposal on the political history of teaching in America, which I'm currently finishing up. I was also able to enroll in Sam Freedman's absolutely transformational book-writing seminar

As this academic year draws to a close, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sam, the Spencer Foundation, and all the great folks who mentored me at Columbia, especially LynNell Hancock and Nick Lemann. Each one helped me grow as a reporter, writer, and analyst of education issues. I also learned so much from my Spencer Fellow colleagues, veteran journalists Greg Toppo and Sarah Carr, both of whom are working on fascinating book projects of their own.

My big news is that for the coming year, I have two new institutional relationships I'm really excited about. The Nation Institute has awarded me a Puffin Foundation writing fellowship and even lured me out of my tiny studio apartment/office in Prospect Heights with an actual desk in their Union Square headquarters. I'm sitting there right now! I'll be doing a weekly web piece for The Nation magazine; my first effort was published this morning, an appreciation of incoming Times executive editor Jill Abramson's long commitment to feminist issues. 

Beginning in September, I'll also be a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. I've been a huge admirer of New America since 2006, when I first moved to D.C. and immediately noticed that all the most fascinating events, policy papers, and writers were affiliated with this relatively new little think tank. I'm really thrilled that New America will now be helping to support my book research and writing. I'll be spending a few days per month working out of their Washington office.

In addition, I'll continue to freelance for The Daily Beast/Newsweek and, on occassion, other publications. Big thanks to Ezra, by the way, for hosting me at his Washington Post blog this past week. I'm always blown away by how smart and engaged his readers and commenters are.

That's all for now! Much love to all my amazing readers, Twitter followers, and correspondents. I love hearing from you, and love how you keep me honest.

Integration and the “No Excuses” Charter School Movement

cross-posted at the Washington Post

Gettin' their wiggles out, 8 am, Blackstone Valley Prep 

“Morning Meeting” at Blackstone Valley Prep charter school in Rhode Island, where one-third of students are middle-class or affluent, and about 45 percent are white.

In Sunday’s Daily News, attorney Eric Grannis, a charter school board member and the husband of New York City charter school missionary Eva Moskowitz, wrote an op-ed lamenting the racial and socioeconomic homogeneity of most charters. Grannis called for new laws to allow charter operators to design expanded admissions zones with the goal of achieving more diverse schools.

I’ve written extensively about the underappreciated social and academic benefits of integrated student bodies, so I’m thrilled to see influential charter school advocates embracing the cause. That said, there are some troubling questions about whether the most politically popular charter school model—the “No Excuses” model popularized by KIPP and embraced by Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network—is palatable to middle-class and affluent parents. 

Consider the experience of Rhode Island, whose state legislature, in 2008, passed a law allowing mayors of neighboring towns and cities to form partnerships to issue school charters. The resulting schools must be regional, accepting students by lottery from both urban and suburban districts. The explicit goal of the legislation is to create racially and socioeconomically diverse schools.

In March I visited Blackstone Valley Prep in Cumberland, the first of these “Mayoral Academies.” I was impressed. Not only is Blackstone Valley one of the most diverse schools of any type I have ever seen, but the children seemed joyful and energetic despite the strict routines, which include uniforms, silence in the hallways, chanting multiplication tables, and regimented bathroom breaks.

I wanted to get a fuller picture of how middle class families were experiencing an integrated No Excuses charter, so I reached out to parents whose children have attended the school. Kerryn Azavedo, a graphic designer in Lincoln, Rhode Island, pulled her son out of Blackstone Valley after his kindergarten year, dismayed by what she calls the school’s overly strict discipline policies and lack of after-school activities.  She complained that Blackstone Valley’s extended school day, from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., left her son exhausted and with little opportunity to participate in organized extracurriculars. (Extended learning days were originally intended to provide enrichment for poor children whose parents are unable to provide after-school supervision or activities.)

When Azavedo brought her concerns to the Blackstone Valley administration, “I never felt welcome,” she said in a phone interview. “They say, ‘This may not really be for you, somebody else might really need your spot, you’d be okay wherever you went.’” Azavedo didn’t like the fact that the school lacks an independent parent-teacher organization; instead, administrators organize parental involvement. And she was surprised to learn her son had sat for standardized tests five times during the school year, and unhappy that the school did not notify parents of each individual testing date.

Though initially attracted to the idea of an integrated charter school, Azavedo is now actively organizing against the opening of new Rhode Island Mayoral Academies throughout the state. “If it’s not good enough for mine, dammit, it’s not good enough for yours,” she said. “I can do something about it because I’m an in-tune parent. I bought it for a year, but I caught on.”

According to Blackstone Valley, five middle-class and affluent families pulled their children out of the school after the 2009-2010 academic year, an attrition rate similar to that of less-advantaged families. The school also noted that there are a number of extra-curricular activities available for Blackstone Valley's older students, including basketball, Guitar Club, Shakespeare Club, and Step Club.

Patricia Cunningham is a middle-class parent who is very happy with the school, not least because she is pleased her son is meeting children from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Her first-grader has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and anxiety, but has thrived in Blackstone Valley’s structured environment.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more for him,” Cunningham said. “I know that parents are hearing some things about the charter school, like about the long day. They wonder, ‘When are the kids going to be kids?’” But my son comes out of there like a rocket. They work so hard during the day to keep these kids on task, but they do it in this amazing manner—whipping them into this wonderful pep rally kind of thing and then using that energy. He never vocalizes, ‘I don’t like school, I don’t want to go to school.’”

What seems clear is that the “No Excuses” model is not for everyone, and presents particular challenges to parents who are accustomed to the schedules and social routines of high-quality neighborhood public schools. It’s important to note, however, that although other charter school models are less trendy, they do exist. In Grannis’ op-ed, he mentions Community Roots, a diverse Brooklyn charter based on more traditional philosophies of educational progressivism and activity-based learning. The school is overwhelmingly popular with both middle-class and poor families in its neighborhood.

I think ideally, we’d see more progressive charter schools like Community Roots, alongside more efforts, like the one in Rhode Island, to diversify student populations within both neighborhood schools and choice schools, by drawing zoning boundaries with integration in mind.

How to Make “Intern Nation” Work for Low-Income Kids

cross-posted at the Washington Post

I recently picked up Ross Perlin's "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." The book is a scathing critique of intern culture, which Perlin indicts as "unethical" and "illegal" for all the expected reasons: low and middle-income students don't have equal access to the best internships; many internships don't provide real learning opportunities; and internships have replaced good, paid, entry-level jobs at many companies and non-profit organizations.

Where I take issue with Perlin is in his solution to these problems: He proposes an "Intern Bill of Rights" that would require employers to pay almost all interns at least minimum wage. This would most certainly result in fewer internships, when what we really need to equalize opportunity are more internships organized through the school system. Every high school, community college, and university student in America should be required to complete several internships for credit, and should be given time during the school day and year to intern.

There are loads of problems with the majority of current internship-for-credit schemes. First, they are largely confined to four-year colleges and universities, and so exclude the neediest young Americans, those who don’t proceed beyond high school or community college. Second, colleges often require classroom hours in addition to on-the-job time in order for a student to earn credit for an internship, which makes it difficult for the student to work a paying job simultaneously, further limiting access for less-affluent kids. Third, too often schools and professors fail to adequately supervise for-credit internships. The students end up fetching coffee and making copies, and come out of the internship with some helpful office social skills and connections, but few higher-level resume-builders. 

What I have in mind would be quite different. In an upcoming Nation magazine feature, I report on two groundbreaking public high school programs that show how internships can change the life trajectories of low-income and working class kids. One is a partnership between JetBlue and Aviation High School in Queens, which leads directly to a unionized, $60,000 per year airplane mechanic job. The other is based at an innovative new school in Albany called Tech Valley High, where every student in grades 9 through 12 spends the month of January in a highly-supervised professional internship, in fields ranging from train conducting to video game design to the culinary arts.

Linked Learning in California and the MET schools in Rhode Island offer other nationally-recognized high school internship programs.

These are some of the most transformative education reforms in the country, because they introduce low-income kids to a professional world usually off-limits to them, demonstrating that academic success can lead directly to interesting and remunerative work. Surveys of drop outs find that many don't believe a degree would help them find a job better than their current after-school gig; high-quality, school-based internship programs directly refute that argument.

Yet unfortunately, there has been no federal effort to scale up successful internship programs linking school and work. The few federal funding streams that do exist for young adult career training were cut by hundreds of millions of dollars in the White House/GOP budget deal—exactly the wrong policy move in the midst of a recession with high unemployment. And perhaps because of the ubiquitous political rhetoric around “college for all” and “high academic standards,” vocational opportunities were largely left out of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation school reform grant competitions, even though we know that effective school-work partnerships actually support the goal of college completion, by making school more relevant to kids’ future lives as workers as earners.