Two Visions

Education historian Diane Ravitch, writing about the Chicago teachers strike, but has lots of relevance across the board

The Chicago Teachers Union has a different vision: it wants smaller classes, more social workers, air-conditioning in the sweltering buildings where summer school is conducted, and a full curriculum, with teachers of arts and foreign languages in every school. Some schools in Chicago have more than forty students in a class, even in kindergarten. There are 160 schools without libraries; more than 40 percent have no teachers of the arts.

What do the teachers want? The main sticking point is the seemingly arcane issue of teacher evaluations. The mayor wants student test scores to count heavily in determining whether a teacher is good (and gets a bonus) or bad (and is fired). The union points to research showing that test-based evaluation is inaccurate and unfair. Chicago is a city of intensely segregated public schools and high levels of youth violence. Teachers know that test scores are influenced not only by their instruction but by what happens outside the classroom.

The strike has national significance because it concerns policies endorsed by the current administration; it also raises issues found all over the country. Not only in Chicago but in other cities, teachers insist that their students need smaller classes and a balanced curriculum. Reformers want more privately-managed charter schools, even though they typically get the same results as public schools. Charter schools are a favorite of the right because almost 90 percent of them are non-union. Teachers want job protection so that they will not be fired for capricious reasons and have academic freedom to teach controversial issues and books. Reformers want to strip teachers of any job protections.

Encounrage you to read the whole piece, here.

Politicians Ignore Research, Say Smaller Class Size Makes No Difference

Class size matters.

In examining both Project STAR and SAGE, experts found that students in the smaller classes performed better than those in larger classes. Minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students made the most gains, according to the Center for Public Education (CPE).

Haimson said those disadvantaged students, who may not receive as much academic support outside of the classroom as white, middle-class students do, will only improve if placed in small classes in which a teacher can give students the specific attention and support they need.

“We will never successfully narrow the achievement gap without smaller class sizes,” she said.

Furthermore, despite previous research that suggests small class sizes only make a difference in students’ education in Kindergarten through the third grade, CPE reported that students placed in smaller classes have higher scores through the beginning of high school than do their peers consistently placed in larger classes.

And because reducing class size produces such academic benefits, Haimson said keeping classes small is ultimately the more cost-effective option.

“Many studies have shown that class size reduction will pay for itself many times over with better healthcare, increased earning potential and lower crime rates,” Haimson said. “With education spending, the point is not to be as cheap as possible, it’s to be as smart as possible.”

Charter teachers receive "psychic salary"

Ohio's largest professional teachers organization, OEA, at their recent spring representative assembly, overwhelmingly voted to allow for the organization of charter school teachers in Ohio. Unthinkable mere years ago, but after a long hard battle over collective bargaining rights, the teachers and education support professionals enshrined rhetoric into core belief and action. A belief that all employees have the right to representation and bargaining, even those who work in charter schools that OEA has long opposed.

The reaction from the charter school apologists has been predictable, but Bill Sims, president and CEO of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools had the best response

"Of course this is something that has always been possible, but I would say that it's easier said than done," he said in an interview. "Charter schools are smaller entities, they're more personalized, and teachers tend to feel more positively connected to management with defined grievance procedures and participation in the mission and strategic plan of the school.

"There tends to be more resistance or less interest in charter schools for this sort of thing. Charter school teachers often are making less than district teachers but because they tend to be smaller schools, with smaller classrooms, less bureaucracy, they officer[sic] a pay in 'psychic salary' that more often than not makes up the difference."

Psychic pay! Why would charter school teachers want to give up their low salaries and psychic pay for better working conditions, smaller class sizes, better benefits and equitable pay? Let's take a look at this so called "more personalized environment, where teachers tend to feel more positively connected to management", with this first person recount of working for White Hat management

With buildings being shut down and teachers being canned in droves across the state, White Hat seemed to be the only place hiring. I was brought on board as an academic adviser. It seemed like a pretty cool gig at the time; I would be helping students graduate, via phone and e-mail, from a cubicle farm in downtown Akron.

On my first day at OHDELA, I was shown to my cube, given a large gray binder, and ordered to copy my own training manual. One week later, promptly at 8 a.m., a huge pile of messy files and the educational fates of 150 students were handed down to me by four overworked and mentally scattered advisers. It was the beginning of the school year. Enrollment was picking up rapidly. The little online high school was approaching an enrollment of 1,500 kids -- with a staff of only 30 to 40 teachers and advisers to steer their education.
My job at Mr. Brennan's gerbil cage was contacting students and parents every two weeks, telemarketer-style, and attempting to hold kids accountable for their progress. More often than not, there was no progress at all for a variety of excuses -- valid and not -- concocted by students who seemed less interested in their educational well-being than I was. Faced with choosing between the importance of their education and the irresistible allure of the Xbox, the odds weren't good.

So every day at 8 a.m., I strapped into my headset and launched into my 30-plus Cheerleader/Bad Guy phone calls, for 11 bucks an hour with zero benefits.

Nothing says "personalized environment" like a 6 by 6 cubicle. But what of having "less bureaucracy" to make the day go faster and the work more rewarding? Back to our story

White Hat, meanwhile, seemed more preoccupied with charting spreadsheets, calculating endless employee performance measures, appeasing streams of irate mothers, and raking in cold, hard state cash.

Organizationally speaking, it was a nightmare on steroids. The place was built on a lopsided pyramid of spreadsheets, spreadsheets, and more spreadsheets. I was given the daily task of updating huge Excel workbooks with student data and test scores. Copies would circulate throughout the office, so that no two staff members had the same information about one student.

Every morning I arrived to stare eight more hours of drudgery in the face. It was one of those jobs that are traumatic to any creative, intelligent mind. I had to admit to myself that it really was nothing but a poorly run credit factory with killer marketing.

I've never witnessed lower morale at a workplace. Rumors circulated, cliques gossiped, managers took sides, and everyone had a cynical attitude toward the company. Many of the young, inexperienced teachers were hired straight out of college or after long bouts of trying to find "real teaching jobs." They became resigned to their roles as cubicle slaves, with no control over the material they "taught."

It does make you wonder if Bill Sims, president and CEO of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, has ever stepped foot in a charter school, or talked to someone who has worked there. But Mr. Simms wasn't the only apologist painting charter schools with the rosy brush. Fordham had an opinion piece titled "Why unionized charters would be a setback for Ohio’s school improvement efforts" that set up their argument against organizing charter schools by first erecting a straw-man

But, would unionized charter schools be good for students?

Successful charters work because they are flexible and constantly seek improvements to how they do things. They deploy funds, teachers, time, materials, and technology in different ways to impact student achievement. High-performing charter schools almost always display strong cultures, astute and driven leaders, dedicated teachers, coherent curricula, shared responsibility, and a sense of common purpose. Successful schools know their students and address their needs. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for charter schools is that they are expected to be different. Collective bargaining agreements put constraints on all these factors that lead to success and impede not only innovation but seek conformity across schools.

Successful charters are a rare breed in Ohio. The bottom 113 ranked schools in Ohio are all charters. Fordham themselves, in a preceding post titled "Accountability and perspective needed for drop-out recovery charters" acknowledge that charter quality is often very low and in desperate need of improvement and accountability.

No one is arguing that a charter school contract has to be identical, or as comprehensive as a traditional school's - in fact they are often quite different and more limited in nature. Opponents and proponents alike ought to read the entire Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) study on this matter.

Price examined nine charter schools unionized either by management design or by teacher vote. For comparison, he examined traditional district contracts and analyzed data from non-unionized charter schools as well. He found that the new contracts can be crafted in ways that respect the unique missions and priorities of charter schools, provide teachers with basic protections, and maintain organizational flexibility. However, while these new contracts innovate in many ways, they could go much further given the opportunity to create contracts from scratch.

That sure sounds a lot better than mystical "psychic pay", doesn't it?

Parents want small class sizes

StateImpactOhio has an article on voucher expansion in Ohio, and they talked to a few parents of children with special needs using vouchers. But it was why these parents were choosing vouchers that caught our eye.

Corinn starts high school next year, and hopes that a small Catholic school like Villa Angela Saint Joseph on Cleveland’s East side will help her continue her progress.

“I picked the school because it was a smaller class size and they would have the extra help that I would need there,” she explains.
Youngstown Christian is not a big school by any means. There are just 475 students in grades K-12, and Pecchia says parents are drawn to the school’s small size.

Parents want small class sizes for their children, whether they have special needs or not. Vouchers are setting up a vicious economic cycle. Parents want smaller class sizes, so some choose to use vouchers to enroll their children into smaller schools, which subtracts money from the struggling public schools reducing their ability to maintain smaller classes, which in turn causes more parents to seek schools with smaller classes via vouchers.

If that seems unfair, it's not even the beginning as State Impact reports

That’s because public school districts have to write yearly special individual education programs, known as IEP’s, for special needs students even if they attend a private school. And it’s the public school, not the private school the child attends, that has to monitor the progress of the student and update the plan each year.

“My first thought is frustration because it puts some responsibility on the school for kids that they won’t really know,” says Dennis.

The private schools and parents are supposed to communicate regularly with the student’s home district through progress reports.

The public school district still has responsibilities for the student even after they have taken a voucher and left. Private and charter schools like to dubiously boast about how efficient they are, but rarely if ever acknowledge that that is because the public schools are picking up the hard work for them.

The Gates Foundation Exposed. Part I

If you are reading this article, it's likely you have heard of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, maker of the Windows operating system for PCs. He's a multi-billionaire entrepreneur, turned philanthropist.

His charitable Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent millions of dollars on various causes including malaria and AIDS research, human rights, the environment, and also education. It's his efforts to apply corporate education reforms to US public education that we want to focus on in this series.

At a time when education budgets are being slashed, the Gates Foundation is wielding hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the education reform debate. In 2009 alone the Foundation spent $373 million on its education agenda, of which $78 million was devoted to corporate reform advocacy. This money was spread far and wide, to non-profits, PR firms, governments and education departments throughout the country.

Some might argue that this money could lead to improved schools, but many of the goals of the Foundation are based not on sound science, but ideology and gut instinct. Take for example an early initiative the Foundation pursued, to the tune of $2 billion - the Small Schools Initiative.

Based upon nothing more than a belief that breaking up low performing schools into much smaller student blocks would produce wildly improved student achievement, Gates set upon spending his money to convince schools to break up. But after billions of dollars and years of experimentation on students, Gates himself admits the endeavor has not produced the desired benefits

Now, Bill Gates has acknowledged that the results have been "disappointing" too. Gates shared the information. Here's what he said in his speech:

"In the first four years of our work with new, small schools, most of the schools had achievement scores below district averages on reading and math assessments. In one set of schools we supported, graduation rates were no better than the statewide average, and reading and math scores were consistently below the average. The percentage of students attending college the year after graduating high school was up only 2.5 percentage points after five years. Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for."

The evidence is clear that smaller impersonal schools are no more effective than larger impersonal schools.

One can easily see that one man, with strong convictions and deep pockets, can have major impacts on public policy. Even when exercising the best of intentions, a little caution and humility should be assumed; else serious damage could be wrought.

In part II of our series, we'll look at some of the reforms Gates and his Foundation are now pursuing, which could have far more damaging consequences to schools, students and their teachers.

Part two can be read here.
Part three can be read here.

Does Class Size Really Matter?

If you’re a good teacher, the number of students in your class shouldn’t be a factor – at least according to a growing chorus of self-styled education reformers. In a recent speech to the National Governor’s Association, Bill Gates said the nation could improve education – even in an era of extreme budget cuts – by lifting caps on class sizes, by identifying a school’s top teachers, asking them to take on more students, and then paying them more to do so.

But more than 30 years of research shows that smaller class sizes are better – including a study that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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