Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. See main page for full contents

August 22, 2009


Nick Anderson, Washington Post - The nation's largest teachers union sharply attacked President Obama's most significant school improvement initiative, saying that it puts too much emphasis on a "narrow agenda" centered on charter schools and echoes the Bush administration's "top-down approach" to reform. . .

The union, which boasts 3.2 million members, charged that Race to the Top contradicted administration pledges to give states more flexibility in how they improve schools. "We find this top-down approach disturbing; we have been down that road before with the failures of No Child Left Behind," the union wrote in its comments, "and we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local government's responsibilities for public education."

It added: "Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears that the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America's public schools -- urban, suburban, exurban and rural -- and all must comply with that silver bullet."


National Education Association - Up to this point, the NEA has been a vocal supporter of the Obama Administration's plans to transform public education by being "tight" on goals, but "looser" in how you achieve them. We were in total agreement with the sentiments expressed by Secretary Duncan in a speech at the National Press Club on May 29, 2009 when he said: "You know, when I was in Chicago, I didn't think all the good ideas came from Washington. Now that I'm in Washington, I know all the good ideas don't come from Washington. The good ideas are always going to come from great educators in local communities. And we want to continue to empower them."

Given the details of the July Race to the Top grant proposal, NEA must now ask: Where did that commitment to local communities go?

The Administration's theory of success now seems to be tight on the goals and tight on the means, with prescriptions that are not well-grounded in knowledge from practice and are unlikely to meet the goals. We find this top-down approach disturbing; we have been down that road before with the failures of No Child Left Behind, and we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local government's responsibilities for public education.

Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears that the Administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America's public schools-urban, suburban, exurban, and rural-and all must comply with that silver bullet, despite the fact that charters have often produced lower achievement gains than district-run public schools. [

If we want better results for students:

We should not continue the unhealthy focus on standardized tests as the primary evidence of student success.

Achievement is much more than a test score, but if test scores are still the primary means of assessing student learning, they will continue to get undue weight. This is especially problematic because the tests widely in use in the United States, since NCLB narrowed the kinds of tests in use, typically focus on lower level skills of recall and recognition measured with multiple-choice items that do not adequately represent higher order thinking skills and performance. These are unlike the assessments that are used in high-achieving nations that feature essays, problem solutions, and open-ended items and more extensive tasks completed in classrooms as part of the assessment system. The rules proposed here are likely to lock in these kinds of measures of lower level skills rather than opening up the possibilities for more productive forms of assessment. Furthermore, achievement must also take into account accomplishments that matter in the world outside of school, such as: Are you prepared for college or trade school? Can you form an opinion about something you read and justify your opinion? Are you creative? Are you inventive? Can you come up with a variety of solutions when you're faced with a problem?

We should not use data inappropriately in the educational system.

It is inappropriate to require that states be able to link data on student achievement to individual teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation. Such evaluations are local school district functions; therefore, requiring statewide linkages does nothing to further the goal of producing a high quality, reliable system of educator evaluation based on student performance and could lead to another unreliable way to hold schools accountable based on a "snapshot" of test score results. Furthermore, by requiring teacher evaluations based on test scores as a condition for receiving RTTT funds, the federal government again attempts to interfere with collective bargaining laws and with contracts, memoranda of understanding, and other agreements already in place in thousands of school districts that provide for negotiation of evaluation procedures.

Significantly, the most prominent research organizations in the United States have confirmed that test-based measures of teacher "effects" are too unstable and too dependent on a range of factors that cannot be adequately disentangled to be used for teacher evaluation, much less for teacher preparation program evaluation. These include the non-random assignment of students with different characteristics, student attendance and parent support, differentials in school and classroom resources, the specific tests used, and the influences of other teachers. The use of these measures can also create disincentives for teachers to work with the neediest students-such as special education students and English language learners-whose learning might not validly be assessed on traditional grade-level tests.

Test scores are affected by many, many factors outside the teacher's control, but good teachers will use all their skills and resources to give kids what they need. Some students will need more support and intervention than others, and some students will need more time to reach their goals. Teachers who work with disadvantaged students should not be "evaluated" as ineffective because their students do not hit a particular test target on a particular timeline. And we certainly should not primarily base additional compensation on whether students meet particular testing targets on a particular day. We need to offer incentives so that our best teachers teach the students most in need of assistance, not necessarily teach the students most likely to score highest on a standardized test.

We should not continue to support initiatives that ignore the skills necessary to be an effective educator.

NEA supports alternative routes to licensure, including high quality alternative certification programs. We know of many programs that do require evidence of excellence in the content area taught and have a carefully designed program of required course work in pedagogy and work with a mentor teacher.

In most alternative certification programs, however, the candidates are not fully certified for two years. And in one particular program, Teach for America, candidates are scheduled to leave teaching just as the two years are completed.

We agree that the Race to the Top programs should be focusing on the most challenging schools. And the research is clear that a highly qualified and stable workforce is necessary for true reforms to take hold. Experience, stability, content knowledge, access to induction and mentoring programs, and preparation for teaching diverse learners (cultural, linguistic and students with unique needs) will be key to the most qualified staff in high priority schools. Plans should be designed to attract and retain the best prepared, fire-tested, career individuals who plan to be there for the duration. Alternative certification candidates should be the last ones assigned to schools targeted for real reforms.

We should not continue to narrowly focus on charter schools as the only model of reform for schools worthy of serious attention.

There are good charter schools and there are very bad charter schools. It all depends on how well they are designed and how they are held accountable. Charter schools were originally started as places where educators, communities, and parents who wanted to try something out of the box-such as scheduling or curriculum or parental involvement or ways to motivate students and could experiment-in the hopes that if we found something that worked well, we could scale it up to other public schools.

Putting a cap on the number of charters in a state makes sense so that states can put good systems in place to approve, monitor, evaluate, and hold these charter schools accountable. Among the states that have had the most egregious examples of corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence in charter schools is Arizona, a state that has very lax rules on design and accountability and, not surprisingly, no limit on the number of charter schools that can be established in that state.

Where charters are working well, they are highly accountable, non-selective public schools where public school employees are given unprecedented freedom to experiment with success models that can be scaled up. Taking the caps off charter schools means less accountability as monitoring agencies would not have the time and resources to ensure that every charter school would be held to high standards.

Furthermore, the RTTT proposal insists on states adopting a charter school law that "does not…effectively inhibit increasing the number of charter schools in the state…" The "effectively inhibit" language is overbroad and vague, providing ample opportunity for federal interference with state authority to determine how and under what standards charters are authorized and monitored.

Additionally, there are 11 states that do not have charter school laws for varying reasons. For example, Washington State's citizens have had votes at least three times, and overwhelming majorities voted charters down. When the people of a state speak in this democratic union, the government should listen. Creating a proposal that focuses its efforts for innovation primarily on charters violates that principle and ignores the other kinds of innovation and creativity happening in the public school system-such as magnet schools, academies and any number of innovative programs from which parents can choose.

In some states, like Montana, the administration's proposal on charter schools is unconstitutional. It isn't just unworkable-it is unconstitutional. Under Montana's standard of accreditation, which was recommended by the State Superintendent and adopted by the Board of Public Education, charter schools are permissible-but none have been chartered. Requiring the opening of charter schools in one of the most rural states in the nation does not make sense.

If education reform is to be done with teachers and their representatives, instead of to us, it is important that the administration understand what is working already. Montana has a strong public education system. It can be improved, and it is committed to improving education, especially for Native American students, but not at the expense of its state constitution, and not at the expense of members' statutory and collective bargaining and rights.

Lastly, we urge the Administration to start highlighting models in addition to charters. For example, magnets promote racial and socioeconomic integration more effectively than charters, while offering the same advanced academics and unique courses that make both models popular among parents, according to a 2008 report from the Civil Rights Project at University of California, Los Angeles. The report found that
magnets embody a key advantage over charter schools, namely, integration: Magnets promote it, while charter schools can exacerbate racial isolation.

Focus on What Works

Instead of continuing with some of the failed policies of the past, we encourage the Administration to base its recommendations on research and on what works.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must transform the system by demanding sweeping changes that changes the dynamic-significantly higher student achievement and significantly higher graduation rates for all groups of students.

Here are some lessons we draw from the past 40-year history of education:

It's time we take parental and community engagement as seriously as we take curriculum, standards, and tests. Through more than 125 initiatives in 21 states, NEA's Public Engagement Project is demonstrating the essential role of school-family-community partnerships in student achievement. Our findings echo those of a six-year-long study of multiple data sources conducted by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University: such partnerships contribute to increased student attendance, improved performance on standardized tests, higher high school graduation rates, and college-going aspirations.

Investments in teachers' and leaders' knowledge and skills are essential to all other reforms, and pay off in higher achievement. Strong preparation, mentoring, and professional development, as well as collaborative learning and planning time in schools, are the building blocks of any successful reform.

Curriculum and assessments must focus on higher order thinking and performance skills, if students are to meet the high standards to which we aspire.

Resources must be adequate and equalized across schools. We cannot expect schools that lack strong and prepared leaders, well-qualified teachers, and high-quality instructional materials to improve by testing alone.


Anonymous robbie said...

Hey NEA, I think a LOT of people are doing a WTF?!?!? in relation to Obama these days.

August 22, 2009 6:14 AM  
Blogger Erich Schneider said...

Very well put. Unfortunately, when we teachers stand against merit pay, it is interpreted as giving up on difficult students when it is quite the contrary! It is the stress on test scores that shifts the focus away from the individual student and onto the test score.

What I want is a system where educators look at each child and ask, "Where could this kid be in ten years, and what do I need to give him now so he'll be there?" We aren't raising a generation of textbook readers or a generation of laborers, but a melting pot of every kind of occupation that we'll need to keep our country strong for the next century. A cookie-cutter educational program will not do that.

September 28, 2009 2:30 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home