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Showing posts with label Education Reform. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Education Reform. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Obama's Speech to Children is a Seriously Flawed Civics Lesson



Whether done by Democrats or Republicans, it is inappropriate for the President of the United States to use the nation's schoolchildren as political props or junior lobbyists.

It is not surprising that millions of Americans are suspicious of the President's intent in the address he will deliver today from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. Americans resent this intrusion into their children's education because the teaching materials prepared by the U. S. Department of Education, withdrawn or not, reveal the President's intent. Those materials do not ask students how they might improve their grades, they ask how each student might help Obama. That this administration has undertaken one of the largest, unconstitutional power-grabs in U.S. history, only adds to the suspicion.

Certainly, government has an interest in a well-formed, educated citizenry. Government has an interest in a safe, high quality, and secure food supply also; but they don't (at least not yet) propose to collectivize the farms. The ultimate authorities over schooling in the United States are known as "chief state school officers," and those are state officials. But even that degree of government involvement in education is a recent phenomenon. The Cato Institute describes how schooling in the United States has evolved from a responsibility of families, churches, and local communities:
"Many people do not realize that for most of American history— from the early Colonial period through the end of the Civil War— not only was there no federal involvement in education, there was comparatively little state or local government involvement, either.

One sign of centralization is the migration of school financing from the local to the state and federal levels. In 1930 only 0.4 percent of funding for education came from the federal government, 17 percent from state governments, and 83 percent from local sources. By 1997 the federal government provided 7 percent of all funding, state governments’ contributions had ballooned to 48 percent, and the local government share had shrunk to 45 percent. Also by 1997, schools in 35 states received less than half of their revenues from local taxes.

In 1930 there were 262,000 government schools in America— one for every 470 people. Today those schools have been reduced to only 90,000 for a population more than twice as large— roughly one school for every 3,055 people. With the closing of small schools came the opening of large school districts. In 1932 there were 127,531 school districts nationwide. By 1994 only 14,881 school districts remained.

But long before the federal government got heavily involved in education, young America had waged a successful revolution against a titanic empire and founded a unique republic based on individual rights and responsibility. Alexis de Tocqueville would describe the ordinary citizens as the best educated in history."
As government's role has increased in education, schools and districts have become fewer and larger, and government regulation has made them more uniform, less personal, "one-size-fits-all " institutions. They have become less accountable to families for success, and more accountable to government for compliance, and everywhere throughout the nation, in rich districts and poor, the literacy and student achievement that awed de Tocqueville, has seriously declined. Today, government schools are mediocre at best. In many cities and states, including South Carolina, more than half of all students entering high school fail to graduate.

Americans would rightly resist government ownership of the nation's news media. We would not want politicians to control our access to information and be able to influence what Americans think. And yet we allow government to form the nation's children during the twelve most important years of their lives.

Socialized education has not worked any better than socialized health care will work. The President's address to the nation's schoolchildren starts the academic year with a seriously wrong civics lesson -- that the federal government, much less the President of the United States, has a role in education. America does not need more government involvement in education; it needs far less.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Maintaining the Status Quo in Education

By David Kirkpatrick

Potential sources of reforming public education are the institutions of higher education. After all, virtually all of the professionals in the K-12 system are products of higher education, from at least four years for a bachelor's degree to qualify as a teacher to years more for advanced degrees and for the innumerable specialty degrees.

Yet higher education has not only not helped improve basic education, it has been a major roadblock.

More than a generation ago Martin Haberman in an article entitled "Twenty-Three Reasons Universities Can't Educate Teachers" wrote, "(T)here isn't a single example of school change university faculty have researched and advocated that is now accepted practice...Any status survey will reveal that the proverbial-third grade in Peoria grinds on pretty much as it did in 1910."

True then. True now. And it is probably safe to predict that it will be true tomorrow.

This has had at least the acquiescence of teacher unions, if not their outright approval, or they would try to change it.

Proof that unions are a major obstacle to reform, if proof is needed, came in Colorado when a series of reforms were introduced in the state legislature. These included alternative teacher certification, a pilot voucher program, privatization, special contracts and merit pay.

It would be unrealistic to expect a teacher union to endorse such a wide-ranging program. And the state education association did not do so. As might have been anticipated, it termed them "so-called" reforms and announced that it would oppose every one of them.

In Florida the teacher union opposed both master teacher and merit plans, showing its unanimity with other teacher unions across the nation to this day.

In California, teachers were pressured to not sign charter school petitions and to harass those who might circulate or try to sign such petitions. School districts willing to grant charters even faced lawsuits.

In New Jersey, home of one of the strongest state education associations in the nation, that union not only opposed any steps toward privatization but warned its members to look out for such dangerous moves as site-based management, allowing two teachers to work together in the same classroom, and even proposals to provide teachers with computers or telephones.

John I. Goodlad has written that "both the NEA and AFT...support the strange notion that children need two adults at home but can stand only one at a time in a school."

It would be difficult to act much dumber than that. Teachers in their self-contaminated classrooms are the only professionals who consistently work in such isolation. Increasingly, here and there, some teachers have come to recognize that this is not necessarily "the way it's spozed to be,'as demonstrated by the fact that such classroom technology has not only gradually been introduced here and there since then but has often occurred not only with teacher acceptance but following their active encouragement.

Ironically, the more pressure is exerted on the system to change, and the more the unions are criticized, the more teachers take such criticism personally - a tendency the unions are happy to exploit."

As long as 35 years ago, In What's Best For the Children, Mario Fantini observed:

"(R)ank-and-file teachers, afraid of the external forces that are converging on them, turn increasingly to their professional organizations for protection. In return for this protection, the teachers give up their individually and their authority. This is delegated to a small group who will wage the protective war. All the rank and file need to do is to cooperate, to follow faithfully the suggestions of the central leadership group."

That is still true today, except fewer people speak of teacher groups as "professional organizations."

It can also be argued that the constant attacks on unions have actually strengthened them by frightening the teachers. The answer is to make unions unnecessary by implementing teacher independence and choice, which is why most charter schools and private schools are not organized, and why the unions oppose such teacher freedom...

Although, sadly, most schools of choice are not overly innovative either.


David W. Kirkpatrick is a champion of the school choice movement who also served as a senior officer of the National Education Assn (NEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the American Assn of University Professors (AAUP). He is a life member of the NEA, NEA-Retired, the PA State Education Assn (PSEA), PSEA-Retired, and the PA Assn of School Retirees (PASR). Co-founder, 1997, and first National Chairman, 1997-98, of Parents in Control (P-I-C), his current memberships include the Assn of Educators in Private Practice (AEPP), The American Assn of Educators (AAE), and the National Retired Teachers Assn Division of the American Assn of Retired Persons (NRTA-AARP).

A retired public educator, Kirkpatrick was an Easton (PA) Area School District high school history teacher and district social studies department chairman; and president of the Easton Area and Pennsylvania State Education Associations. He was a Distinguished Fellow with the Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education, Marquette University, Milwaukee, from 1995 until the Center closed at the end of July 1999 and a Senior Fellow with the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, Pittsburgh, 1998-2000.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Futility of American Educational Reform



The most powerful impetus to raising my own educational achievement was when my parents sent me to a private, boarding school for the 7th and 8th grades. With each of 6 marking periods, students were provided their class rank, and we sat according to that rank. Today's educators are shocked by anything that might embarrass students, but I progressed from 27 out of 29, to 16 out of 29 to 11 out of 29, to never again dropping below the top 4. Every student knew exactly where he stood in relation to every other, and what was required if one was not satisfied with one's class rank. It's a practice that worked for centuries.

When Robert Baden-Powell began the Scouting Movement, he understood that rank and merit badges appealed to a child's competitive spirit and were inducements to excellence. It continues to work in Scouting all over the world.

Some day even America's educators will recognize that human nature has not changed, and that the methods that formed a Shakespeare, Newton, Adams and Jefferson might actually work today.

From American Thinker
By
Robert Weissberg

As anticipated, President Obama recently unveiled his proposed solution to America's educational tribulations, namely greater early childhood intervention, merit pay for teachers, more charters and national standards. Though this smorgasbord differs in details from his predecessor's No Child Left Behind, it is actually a quite similar restaurant-like order from the identical menu. And just as eateries typically have a common theme, e.g., Italian, so does this education
carte du jour: Regardless of what is selected, learning is never the student's responsibility.

Like a patient undergoing brain surgery, today's student lies passively while experts labor to insert knowledge, and to continue this metaphor, surgeons only disagree on how to put it in. For some, knowledge is best inserted by hiring superior teachers; or the route might be holding school administrators accountable; or curriculum experts should concocting exciting new ways to stimulate appetites; or social service professions must be commanded to assist youngsters overcome their personal and home-life crises impeding learning, to mention only a few possibilities to fix the patient's brain.

Regardless of ideology, every contemporary putative solution has this "somebody else will do it" element. While this is predictable for liberals with their "don't blame the victim" flavored solutions, so-called conservatives differ not one iota. "Personal responsibility," the supposed touchstone of conservative thinking is nowhere to be found in these vouchers, charters or accountability mantra; someone, anyone, other than the student is to be responsible for learning.

So, for example, a charter school will be shuttered if it fails to boost achievement but the students themselves, regardless of culpability in their failure, will just painlessly enroll elsewhere where the profit motive will, hopefully, push knowledge into brains a bit harder.

Recall how New York City's Mayor Bloomberg was cheered when he said the he would take personal responsibility for New York public school performance (or how President Bush was personally castigated when his much heralded Reading First program showed lackluster results). Education parents now give way to Education Mayors and Education Presidents. If one needed an example of how liberal don't-blame-the-victim thinking currently dominates education, today's educational tinkering is the perfect illustration.

Why do we refuse to hold students responsible if they fail tests? Why has no one stood up and said, "Test scores will improve when students become diligent, pay attention to teachers, and put as much effort into learning as they put into sports and socializing?" What politician will propose requiring tough high-school exit tests with no second chances as the first step to push today's lazy student off their butts?"

Note well, this personal responsibility message hardly excludes anything on today's menu. You can order it and also ask for a side order of vouchers or multi-culturalism, so its embrace need not anger, let alone economically hurt, any of today's educators. One might even guess that expressing these Apple Pie and Motherhood thoughts would bring cheers from teachers tired of being bashed for not working miracles. Similar applause would come from all those employers exasperated by their hires who think that work is just like a boring class in American history where merely showing up earned a "B."

Multiple explanations exist for this unspeakable truth, but three stand out. First, contemporary American pedagogues are clueless about being a hard ass, and those gray beards who do remember yesterday's sure-fire recipe of humiliation, ridicule, dunce caps and other self-esteem undermining tactics, recognize that they are totally impermissible in today's help-students feel-good-about-themselves environment. Cracking the whip on Mr. Lazybones (in the classroom though not in sports) invites trouble from parents, even litigation. Today's expert-certified motivation approach can best be depicted as "Spare the Rod, Help the Child."

In America's perverse education world, punishing sloth supposedly destroys the inner passion to learn. Yet one more time, the passion to promote unearned self-esteem subverts genuine accomplishment.

Second, little concrete is to be gained politically by pointing the finger at students themselves. Finger-pointing may elicit cheers and hundreds of congratulatory e-mails, but it lacks a ready-made political constituency, and politics is about votes, not scoring rhetorical points. By contrast, criticizing chronic laggards will almost certainly energize quick-to-anger grievance groups whose leaders profit from alleged insults to group members.

Keep in mind that President Obama's educational reform was part of an economic stimulus package, and far, far less a proven recipe for higher academic achievement. Even if it fails, many will gain economically, and this was undoubtedly understood by those who crafted it. Ditto for President Bush's ill-fated NCLB -- hardly surprising, since it brought massive federal spending increases, so even doubters quickly lined up at the public trough for a piece of the action.

President Lyndon Johnson aptly noted that political success requires first identifying a ready-made political constituency, and this is especially true in education, and while kicking butt will win some kudos, mobilizing and organizing fans of butt kicking is impossible, at least in the short run, i.e., the interlude until the next election. Money talks, cost-free solutions sans voters walk.

Lastly, a re-invigorated focus on personal culpability entails a painful look in the mirror. Pogo's wisdom sadly applies to contemporary education: We have met the enemy and he is us. Every item on the reform menu, regardless of ideology, facilitates massive denial, and educators labor to keep it that way. Bush and Obama are enablers on a grand scale. A parent who refuses to prod junior or even discipline him for disrupting classes enjoys a professionally supplied carte d'excuses that surely outshines even the most extensive Greek diner menu: the school is rotten, teachers don't care, textbooks are dull, school boards are skinflints, more schooling options are needed, principals impose too much (or too little) discipline, the curriculum is irrelevant, there is no Internet, and on and on.

When educational reformers cater to our irresponsibility, this insisting that somebody else will fix junior's refusal to buckle down, dependency becomes a drug-like addiction. Within a few years these deus ex machina solutions become the very definition of "educational reform." Policy-making now lurches from one repackaged failed nostrum (e.g., merit pay, Head Start) to more creative panaceas, e.g., close bad schools as if schools themselves fail tests. If there is a glimmer of hope in this, it is the burgeoning popularity of homeschooling. After all, it is embarrassing to round up the usual educational disaster culprits when Mom and Pop run the school.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Charter Schools Can Close the Education Gap


From The Wall Street Journal
By Joel I. Klein and Al Sharpton


It is not acceptable for minority students to be four grade levels behind.

Dear President-elect Barack Obama,

In the afterglow of your election, Americans today run the risk of forgetting that the nation still faces one last great civil-rights battle: closing the insidious achievement gap between minority and white students. Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in America. Yet today the average 12th-grade black or Hispanic student has the reading, writing and math skills of an eighth-grade white student.

That appalling four-year gap is even worse in high-poverty high schools, which often are dropout factories. In Detroit, just 34% of black males manage to graduate. In the nation's capital -- home to one of the worst public-school systems in America -- only 9% of ninth-grade students go on to graduate and finish college within five years. Can this really be the shameful civil-rights legacy that we bequeath to poor black and Hispanic children in today's global economy?

This achievement gap cannot be narrowed by a series of half-steps from the usual suspects. As you observed when naming Chicago superintendent Arne Duncan to be the next secretary of education, "We have talked our education problems to death in Washington." Genuine school reform, you stated during the campaign, "will require leaders in Washington who are willing to learn from students and teachers...about what actually works."

We, too, believe that true education reform can only be brought about by a bipartisan coalition that challenges the entrenched education establishment. And we second your belief that school reformers must demonstrate an unflagging commitment to "what works" to dramatically boost academic achievement -- rather than clinging to reforms that we "wish would work."

Those beliefs led us to form a nonpartisan coalition last year, the Education Equality Project (EEP), which seeks to greatly narrow, if not eliminate, the achievement gap. Mr. Duncan has signed on to the EEP, as have most of the nation's leading big-city school superintendents, such as Paul Vallas in New Orleans, Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., and Colorado's new U.S. senator, former Denver superintendent Michael Bennet. Mayors Richard M. Daley in Chicago, Michael Bloomberg in New York City, Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C., and Cory Booker in Newark, N.J., are on board, too. Several prominent Republicans, including John McCain and Newt Gingrich, have joined our coalition as well.

EEP seeks to ensure that America's schools provide equal educational opportunity, judged by one measuring stick: Does a policy advance student learning? It's an obvious litmus test. Yet the current K-12 school system is designed to serve the interests of adults, not children.

EEP's mission thus turns out to be unexpectedly radical -- and we have run afoul at times of longtime Democratic allies. While we recognize that the No Child Left Behind law has numerous flaws that need correcting, we staunchly support NCLB's core concept that schools should be held accountable for boosting student performance. Dismissing the potential of schools to substantially boost minority achievement, as is now fashionable in some Democratic circles, is ultimately little more than a recipe for defeatism. Like you, we also support expanding parental choice. High-performing urban charter schools such as the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools are showing that minority students can close the achievement gap if given access to high-quality instruction.

Finally, our coalition also promotes the development and placement of effective teachers in underserved schools and supports paying them higher salaries. By contrast, we oppose rigid union-tenure protections, burdensome work rules, and antiquated pay structures that shield a small minority of incompetent teachers from scrutiny yet stop good teachers from earning substantial, performance-based pay raises.

What can you and your administration do to close the achievement gap? Although the funding and oversight of public schools is chiefly a state and local responsibility, you still retain the power of the bully pulpit. Beyond expanding federal support for charter schools, as you have proposed, we would urge you to press forward with two other, far-reaching policy reforms.

First, the federal government, working with the governors, should develop national standards and assessments for student achievement. Our current state-by-state approach has spawned a race to the bottom, with many states dumbing down standards to make it easier for students to pass achievement tests. Even when students manage to graduate from today's inner-city high schools, they all too frequently are still wholly unprepared for college or gainful employment.

Second, the federal government should take most of the more than $30 billion it now spends on K-12 education and reposition the funding to support the recruitment and retention of the best teachers in underserved urban schools. High-poverty urban schools have many teachers who make heroic efforts to educate their students. But there is no reward for excellence in inner-city schools when an outstanding science teacher earns the same salary as a mediocre phys-ed instructor.

Study after study shows that good teachers have, by far, the highest impact on student learning. "The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of [a student's] skin or where they come from," you stated on the campaign trail. "It's not who their parents are or how much money they have -- it's who their teacher is." We couldn't agree more. To close the achievement gap, start with a three-word solution: Teachers, teachers, teachers. The fierce urgency of now cannot be allowed to dissipate into the sleepy status quo of tomorrow.

Mr. Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and Rev. Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, are co-chairmen of the Education Equality Project.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Obama Picks a Moderate on Education



From The Wall Street Journal
By COLLIN LEVY


The president will ultimately decide whether to take on the teachers' unions.

Barack Obama picked Arne Duncan only partly for his skills on the basketball court. As secretary of education, he will be running one of the administration's most important finesse games.

The CEO of the Chicago public schools and the ultimate diplomat, Mr. Duncan rises to the rim at a moment when teachers unions are, for the first time, facing opposition within the Democratic Party from young idealists who favor education reform. They want to recapture what should always have been a natural issue for Democrats: helping underprivileged kids get out of failing public schools.

Considering the reviews from the right and the left, you might be confused about whether Mr. Duncan is a signal that Mr. Obama's administration is lining up behind the reformers or supporting the status quo. Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor (and über reformer) Michelle Rhee endorsed the pick, as did President Bush's Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings.

But Mr. Duncan also has fans among traditional Democrats, whose main interest is keeping the teachers unions happy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the choice, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised that he would enjoy a speedy confirmation.

So what should we make of Mr. Duncan? One promising clue comes from a group called Democrats for Education Reform, part of the growing voice for reform in the party. DFER is known to cheer Democrats brave enough to support charter schools and other methods of extending options to parents. Joe Williams, the group's executive director, predicted that Mr. Duncan will help break the "ideological and political gridlock to promote new, innovative and experimental ideas."

In Chicago, Mr. Duncan is credited with laying out plans to close 100 underperforming public schools. Fans also note that he helped raise the cap on charter schools to 30 from 15.

But his record is short of miraculous. Why have a cap on charter schools at all? And the teachers unions extracted plenty of concessions, including a ban on new charters operating multiple campuses.

Mr. Duncan is certainly no bomb thrower. His role instead will be to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of young idealists in the party, like DFER and the tens of thousands of young people who join Teach For America each year. This group, which continues to attract highly skilled young people, is fast creating the new Democratic elite in the education arena while challenging the education establishment.

At forums during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, several big-city mayors lined up with reform principles against union demands. Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., said that "As Democrats we have been wrong on education, and it's time to get it right." Washington, D.C.'s Adrian Fenty, a strong backer of Ms. Rhee's effort to negotiate tough terms with the unions, remarked that the politics of school reform are changing fast.

At one DFER event last year, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. used the word "monopoly" -- a major affront to teachers unions -- to describe failing schools. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third ranking Democrat in the House, is another important convert to the idea of more parental choice in education.

It's all a bit delicate, which makes Mr. Duncan Mr. Obama's man for a good reason. He's known for a flexibility that allows him to float between the traditional Democratic strongholds and the new wave of reformers in the party. With proper implementation, Mr. Obama could accomplish on education reform what President Bill Clinton did for welfare reform -- taking a previously Republican issue and transforming it from within the left.

But unions aren't about to slink off into the sunset. If they're losing some of their clout at the national level, they maintain their grip locally. In many places, teachers angle to usurp the language of the reformers while pushing their own agenda. Thus "merit pay" has been twisted into a system that bears little resemblance to the original concept of paying teachers for teaching kids successfully. Instead, it has become pay-for-credential, offering salary bumps for continuing education and other qualifications, with no anchor to proven results in the classroom.

Mr. Duncan is a reformer at heart, if one who works collegially within the system. But in the end, much will depend on his boss. Whether Mr. Obama is an artful fence walker or a real agent of change -- on schools or anything else -- is a mystery the coming year may finally clear up.


Ms. Levy, based in Washington, is a senior editorial writer at the Journal.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Chicago School Reform Could Be a U.S. Model


From The Washington Post
By Maria Glod

CHICAGO -- At Cameron Elementary School west of downtown, most kids don't know the alphabet when they start kindergarten, nearly all are poor, and one was jumped by a gang recently, just off campus. But the school this year posted its highest reading and math scores ever -- a feat that earned cash bonuses for teachers, administrators, even janitors.

City schools chief executive Arne Duncan, President-elect Barack Obama's choice for education secretary, pushed that performance-pay plan and a host of other innovations to transform a school system once regarded as one of the country's worst. As Duncan heads to Washington, the lessons of Chicago could provide a model for fixing America's schools.

"Obama chose Arne Duncan for a reason, and part of that reason is the experimentation that Duncan has done in Chicago and his real attention to data and outcomes," said Elliot Weinbaum, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "Duncan's willing to try new things and see if they work, hopefully keep the ones that do and drop the ones that don't. I expect that experimentation to continue on a national scale."

With a 408,000-student system, smaller than only New York's and Los Angeles's public schools, Chicago has become a laboratory for reform in Duncan's seven-year tenure. Officials here court new charter schools, teacher training is being reinvented, and some low-performing schools have been shuttered and reopened with new staff. Officials are also offering some students cash for good grades and seeking proposals for boarding schools. In addition, Duncan backed a plan to start a gay-friendly high school. For the most part, the changes came with little organized opposition, except for some skirmishes with the teachers union.

Duncan, a longtime Obama friend and basketball buddy, helped shape the incoming administration's education platform. As education secretary, he will be Obama's point man for carrying out the No Child Left Behind law and negotiating revisions with Congress. Through regulatory power, federal funding and a pulpit he can bring to classrooms nationwide, Duncan will be able to push for changes in schools.

Duncan, appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2001, has shown unusual longevity for a big-city school leader, cultivating ties with unions, nonprofit groups and other stakeholders. The wide-ranging reforms he has pushed appeal to struggling school systems and highly regarded suburban districts looking to boost performance. Many educators in Chicago say Duncan's efforts have upended school culture, building a record of progress, although the high-poverty system has far to go.

"This is no utopia. It's no Candy Land," Cameron Principal David B. Kovach said one day this month. "But teachers enjoy their job more, because they are learning and getting better at it, and the kids are able to do things that they weren't able to do before."

Across the city, educators point to improvements. At Noble Street College Prep charter school, every senior graduated last school year, and the class logged nearly $2 million in college scholarships. The flexibility given to independently operated charter schools means a longer school day, with a class dedicated to helping seniors complete college applications, navigate financial aid and write résumés.

At the National Teachers Academy, another Chicago school, Erin Koehler Smith did a better job teaching fourth-graders to estimate centimeters and meters with help from a mentor teacher. Next year, the former theater major and other trainees will take on classes of their own in struggling schools.

Little more than half of Chicago students graduate on time. But since 2001, fewer students are dropping out and more are heading to college. The number taking Advanced Placement classes has tripled. Chicago students lag behind the statewide average on Illinois tests, but the gap has narrowed.

Cameron's Kovach said the 1,040 students at the red-brick schoolhouse come from a high-crime, high-poverty area in West Humboldt Park. Teachers, worried about the safety of neighborhood parks, agreed to work an extra 20 minutes each day to ensure that kids can have recess and to maximize class time.

"Our kids come in two steps behind," Kovach said. "We can't control what happens to them on the outside -- drugs, gangs, an incarcerated parent."

Cameron Elementary is using powerful tools to jolt teaching and boost achievement: money, coaching and collaboration. With the overwhelming approval of teachers, the school last year began a performance-pay pilot program now in place at numerous city schools. Much of the money for the program has come from a federal grant and private foundations.

Teachers earn extra cash for taking on additional responsibilities and are judged in a series of evaluations. Entire staffs get bonuses when state test scores rise. Slightly more than 50 percent of students passed the latest state reading exam, but the trend is up. The gains meant about a $1,000 bonus for most teachers, about $250 for janitors and $625 for the principal.

Teacher Erin Montana, 33, fresh out of education school and a three-month student teaching gig, took over a class in chaos two years ago. Students cursed, fought, even threw desks. "Every day I came in thinking I was doing the worst job ever," she said.

One afternoon last week, Montana's fifth-graders huddled quietly, reading a story about a boy who destroys a neighbor's garden in a vegetable-throwing fight. The students then built "story mountains," identifying characters, plot and theme.

"They trash Mr. Bellavista's garden," said Shanygne, 11, a slight girl with a ponytail. She scrawled the sentence on a Post-it note and added it to her "mountain."

Montana, crouching to check the group's progress, pointed to a picture of the glum boy. "What do you think is happening here?" she asked. "Do you think it's important?"

Eleven-year-old Shawnell, nodding at her teacher, began writing that the boy "felt sorry because he looked at the garden and the mess he made."

Montana said the isolation of her first year has disappeared. Her class is well-behaved, thanks partly to her growing experience and partly to advice from colleagues, including the "doing the right things raffle" she started at the suggestion of a mentor teacher.

Teachers meet weekly to discuss the best way to reach kids. Master teachers pinpoint where students fall short, study research and script lessons to target weak spots. They try lessons on a handful of kids, and when they find an approach that works, the school takes it to all kids.

"It's not like pulling something out of a book," Montana said. "We know that it's really thought through specifically for our kids."

Washington area schools have launched experiments similar to Chicago's. Charter schools are multiplying in the District, and D.C. schools are trying cash incentives for students. A Fairfax County initiative bumps salaries for some teachers who work a longer year and take on extra tasks, such as coaching colleagues. Pay for performance is underway in Prince George's County, tying some teacher bonuses to test scores.

What sets Duncan apart, education experts said, is his willingness to embrace a range of reforms and his ability to work with people who hold diverging, often conflicting views on how to fix schools. He has straddled the reform divide: On one side are advocates of dramatic shake-ups and tough accountability, and on the other are teachers unions and some educators who want more flexibility, support and money.

Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart said that the union clashed with Duncan when he closed failing schools and replaced staff but that school and union leaders teamed up on performance pay. "He had my home phone number," Stewart said. "He always returned my calls, and I returned his. You can't not talk when you need something done."

Consensus-building will prove critical as Congress considers an overhaul of the 2002 education law, which spotlighted the failings of schools as well as deep rifts among unions, civil rights groups and education advocates. From his on-the-ground perspective, Duncan has praised the law's "high expectations and accountability" but pushed to give credit to schools that make gains even if they fall short of state academic standards. He also has called on Congress to double federal funding over five years.

The next challenge is reaching agreement on a new blueprint for school reform. Obama has said he wants to add $18 billion in annual federal education funding (equal to nearly a third of the Education Department's $59 billion discretionary budget), reduce high school dropout rates and improve math and science education. He also has vowed to double federal funding for successful charter schools to $400 million a year and promote alternative teacher training.

"There will be disagreements, but Duncan's personality is going to minimize the negativity," said Jack Jennings, president and chief executive of the Center on Education Policy in the District. "You get a feeling of somebody who is willing to listen and be open to ideas."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Proven Education Reform Strategy


The educationists devote so much ink and time to "strategies" and "methodologies" for professional development, technical assistance, "culture change," "sustainable innovation," research, evaluation, hardware and software issues, testing and assessments, and the implementation of fad upon fad, pilot program upon pilot program, in what has been largely a counterproductive effort to reverse the disaster that is American public education. Much of the problem is a labor union mentality that results in the teacher "working to the contract" and nothing more. It is a mentality that has corrupted and debased what had been a noble profession.

This video is a moving reminder that a loving heart, and the dedication that flows from it, is usually the missing ingredient that can move mountains and make all the difference. Tennyson was right; for good or bad,

"Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever ..."