WSJ: Inside the Nation’s Biggest Experiment in School Choice

September 30, 2013 by

The Wall Street Journal has run a pretty extensive article about the education revolution taking place in Louisiana, specifically in New Orleans. It’s well worth reading. (If you have WSJ access, it’s well worth looking at the web version of the story for the graphics included in the print edition of the story).

By Stephanie Banchero

NEW ORLEANS—Kenisha Nelson tried to walk her son Kaleb into his new elementary school, Akili Academy, but the third-grader slipped from her hand and bolted to the front door. “I got this, mom,” he said.

Kenisha Nelson reviewed homework with her son Kaleb, who started at Akili Academy this year for third grade. His previous school, Benjamin E.Mays, was closed for failing to meet state testing goals. Ms. Nelson started working in February to choose a new school for Kaleb.

The first day of school turned out to be the easiest leg of Ms. Nelson’s journey through the nation’s largest experiment in school choice. She had searched since winter for the best campus with open spots for her 8-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter.

In the end, she said, “it was a great outcome and worth missing those days at work and running around to schools to find good ones.”

There is broad acknowledgment that local schools are performing better since Hurricane Katrina washed away New Orleans’ failing public education system and state authorities took control of many campuses here.Graduation rates went to 78% last year from 52% before Katrina—surpassing Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., cities also struggling to boost achievement among lower-income students. The share of New Orleans students proficient in math, reading, science and social studies increased to 58% in 2012 from 35% before the 2005 storm, state data shows.

School officials now want to ramp up improvements, saying the city’s education marketplace still needs work. The enrollment system is complicated. There are far fewer available seats at good schools than at poor ones, leaving many families to choose between bad and worse. And few students can get into top-rated schools because of limited seats and strict admissions policies.

Kenisha Nelson stands with her son Kyler, right, after putting Kaleb on the bus in New Orleans at the beginning of the school year.

Boosters, including Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, say New Orleans points to the future of public education. Giving parents a choice of schools, they say, fosters competition that weeds out badly run campuses. Academically, New Orleans is improving faster than any school district in Louisiana.

“I think the devastation of Katrina brought a lot of eyes to New Orleans and it brought in a lot of new people who want to make changes and do the right thing for our kids,” said Leslie Hunter, whose son and daughter attend high school here. “It might not be perfect, but at least people are finally trying to do something to make it better.”

Many parents say it takes extra effort to find an acceptable campus. “If parents want a good school for their kids,” said Ms. Nelson, a 36-year-old single mother, “they have to take a stand and do all the work themselves.”

Leslie Jacobs, a businesswoman who served on the state board of education and helped guide the schools overhaul, said New Orleans has built a foundation for better schools since the hurricane. “Now we are entering into phase two, where we need to build a more sophisticated model,” she said. “The next few years will be the bigger push up the hill.”

Ava Howard, 28, right, rested with her four children at the annual Schools Expo held in the Superdome in February, where parents can learn about enrollment options.

State Schools Superintendent John White, who arrived in Louisiana two years ago, supports the idea of public education as a marketplace but said the New Orleans system had lacked order. “Government needs to be here for equity of resources, equity of access and equity of outcomes,” said the 37-year-old former executive of Teach for America and former deputy chancellor of New York City Schools.

Most of the city’s schools were failing long before Katrina destroyed dozens of campuses. The storm killed at least 1,800 people and displaced about 65,000 students, mostly low-income African Americans.

The Orleans Parish School Board fired its teachers after the storm, and the state board of education took control of all but the 13 best schools, which remain under the local board.

The state converted most of the campuses into charter schools, which hired their own nonunion teachers. Today, more than a quarter of the instructors are from Teach for America, a national teacher training program that recruits college graduates from around the U.S.

Since Katrina, the average teacher salary in New Orleans has risen slower than the state average but in 2011 was 20% higher than before the storm: $47,878 compared with the statewide average of $49,246, state data shows.

New Orleans, which previously spent about the same as other Louisiana districts, tallied about $13,000 per pupil in 2011, compared with the state spending average of $11,000 that year, according to state data. The city spent $8,000 per pupil before Katrina, records show.

Denver, Chicago and Cleveland have embraced school choice on a smaller scale, but none give as much freedom—to parents and campuses—as New Orleans does: About 84% of its 42,000 public school students attend charters, the largest share of any district in the U.S.

Charter schools are largely free to manage their own budgets and hiring, set curriculum and schedules, and select textbooks. The lowest performing schools are eventually closed by state officials or replaced with new operators.

For the school year that started in August, parents picked among 78 charter schools, as well as eight traditional campuses, one independent school with a board appointed by the governor and 38 private schools that are paid with state-issued tuition vouchers. To help guide the selection, public schools are issued grades of A to F, based on academic performance.

Despite the city’s rapidly improving student test scores, most schools are still far from earning top ratings, limiting parent choices.

Of the nearly 12,300 slots available in the citywide lottery for this school year, 20% were in schools rated F in 2012, 29% in D schools, 11% in C schools, 14% in B schools and none in A schools, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. Among the open seats were ungraded schools that previously had D and F ratings but recently changed operators.

Complicating results in the education marketplace, some families haven’t used their choices as expected: Nearly 35% of the approximately 6,700 students applying to transfer or enroll at a public school for the fall semester selected either D- or F-graded schools as their first pick, the Journal found.

For New Orleans parents, the school-choice system adds a level of involvement well beyond getting children dressed, fed and out the door in time. In applying for a new school, many families take into account such factors as the distance from home and work, where siblings are enrolled, the availability of after-school care and campus safety, in addition to academic ratings.

Jennifer Nin’s 8-year-old son has already attended three schools, looking for the best educational fit. He now attends Akili Academy of New Orleans, where, Ms. Nin said, he is “thriving and loving it” after two years at less-than-desirable schools.

“I like knowing that I have the freedom to decide where my son goes to school,” Ms. Nin said. “It gives me the power to pick something better for him.”

Parents are empowered to vote with their feet, though it can be a slow and rocky path, with thousands of children spending a year or more at F schools.

Nika Burns this spring decided to keep her two sons at a school that carried an F grade last school year, even though there were higher-rated schools closer to home. Her children objected to a move, she said, because “they feel loved and nurtured and cared for” at William J. Fischer Accelerated Academy. She also worried about the boys keeping up academically at another campus.

Ms. Burns’ daughter, on the other hand, was accepted at a B-graded high school. “It’s not just about pulling kids out of F schools and moving them around,” she said. “You have to think about what’s best for the child.”

The application process is made more complicated because parents don’t know the number of open seats expected at schools each year. Parents earlier this year made selections not knowing, for example, that only three 3rd-grade seats were open at B-rated schools in the lottery for fall.

Luck also plays a role in the schools marketplace. Student applications are randomly assigned a number that helps determine admissions in rank order.

None of New Orleans’ eight A-rated schools—all charter schools under the control of the local school board—participated in the citywide lottery. The board voted last year to force the charters into participating when their licenses come up for renewal, which for some is as long as a decade away.

Aesha Rasheed, a community activist who created a popular school guide explaining admission requirements, said that after Katrina, parents were “put in charge of their children’s education and sent out to navigate a complex system where not all schools played fair.”

For Ms. Nelson, the quest began in February, at the annual Schools Expo held in the Superdome. Ms. Nelson, who lost her husband four years ago in a homicide, needed to find schools for two of her three children. “It’s so overwhelming,” she said, moving through the crowd past display tables.

Authorities were closing the school where her son Kaleb attended—the F-rated Benjamin E. Mays—for repeatedly failing to meet state testing goals. Ms. Nelson also needed a high school for her daughter, Kaylan, who was entering ninth grade. Her youngest son was in preschool.

The pressure triggered nightmares, Ms. Nelson said, of her daughter landing at a violent school and her son stuck in the principal’s office for hyperactivity. Ms. Nelson moved Kaleb to the Mays charter school three years ago, she said, because his kinetic nature didn’t mesh with his previous charter school’s strict discipline.

Kaleb, who earned A’s in second grade at Mays, said teachers there let him take short “brain breaks,” to play basketball or help in the principal’s office, when he got antsy.

Ms. Nelson applied to five schools for Kaleb and three for Kaylan. The citywide application allows for as many as eight schools per student. New Orleans parents apply to three, on average. Ms. Nelson said she selected only the schools she wanted.

Of the 21 public high schools in the lottery, just six were rated above D. Kaylan Nelson applied to one B-rated high school and one C-rated, competing with more than 1,400 eighth-graders for 150 open 9th-grade seats at the two campuses.

For Kaleb, Ms. Nelson selected Benjamin Franklin Elementary Math and Science, a B-rated school. But the choice was doomed from the start. Though Ms. Nelson didn’t know it, Franklin had no openings for 3rd-grade. Her other four choices were a C-rated charter and three private schools.

In May, Kaleb was assigned to his second choice, Upperroom Bible Church Academy, a private school. Ms. Nelson said she liked the school when her daughter had briefly attended before Katrina. But just 21% of voucher students passed state exams last school year at Upperroom.

Later in May, Ms. Nelson was notified that Upperroom was barred from accepting new voucher students because of the school’s poor exam results. In July, Kaleb was in the next round of the lottery and Ms. Nelson selected Akili Academy, a C-rated charter school that officials said had openings in third grade.

Ms. Nelson learned in July, a month before school started, that her son was admitted. After his first day, Kaleb’s teacher phoned Ms. Nelson to say the boy was smart and attentive. “I nearly cried with relief,” she said.

Initially, Ms. Nelson’s daughter didn’t get into either school she had selected in the lottery. In spring, Ms. Nelson made several visits to McDonogh 35 High School, a storied campus that was the first public high school in Louisiana for African Americans, pushing school officials to enroll her daughter. It holds a C grade. In July, she learned a slot opened for her daughter.

State officials say they are working to bring better order to the marketplace, opening “family resource centers” to help parents navigate the choice system, for example. Mr. White initiated the citywide lottery system two years ago.

This year, for the first time, the lottery incorporated private schools that accept state vouchers. A few high-rated public schools run by the local board also participated for the first time but dropped out after the first round, returning to a selection process controlled by individual principals. School board officials said those schools would return to the lottery next year.

Kathy Riedlinger, chief executive of the Lusher Charter School—which is under local board authority—said the campus doesn’t participate in the lottery because the centralized admissions system usurps school autonomy. Lusher, located a few blocks from Tulane and Loyola universities on the east bank of the Mississippi River, has the highest ranked K-12 program in the state.

On a school day last semester, a class of third-graders stroked violins and cellos as their music teacher led them on a baby grand piano. They were in a new $2 million arts wing, named for the Bill Goldring family, whose foundation donated $500,000 to help build the center. Mr. Goldring is chairman of the Sazerac Co., one of the largest distilling companies in the U.S.

School officials say its success comes from an active parents group, a veteran teaching staff and a rich curriculum. Its demographics are also unique: Citywide, 88% of students are African-American and 83% are low-income; a third of Lusher’s students are black, and a fifth are low-income.

Lusher gives admissions priority to children who live in the neighborhood, have siblings at the school or have a parent who works at Tulane.

Other students, including those from outside the neighborhood, must take an admissions exam and enter a campus lottery for the remaining seats. This year, 1,336 of these students applied for 152 open seats, officials said.

Many parents have complained they have little chance to enroll their children in Lusher or other A-rated schools. They say the schools erect barriers in what is supposed to be an open marketplace.

Ms. Riedlinger said her school’s selection process was fair and that it was “a major distraction to keep fighting over who gets into Lusher. The question should be: Why can’t we create more like Lusher.”

Write to Stephanie Banchero at stephanie.banchero@wsj.com

Education Failure in Philadelphia

September 26, 2013 by

Only 40% of students can read to standard. Union says so what?

  • The Wall Street Journal
  • REVIEW & OUTLOOK
  • September 24, 2013, 7:22 p.m. ET

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has extended a lifeline to Philadelphia’s hemorrhaging schools attached to a requirement for modest education and fiscal reforms. No thanks, says the teachers union. Herewith a parable of education decline.

Philadelphia’s schools are a textbook case of chronic, systemic failure. Woeful finances and academics compelled the state in 2001 to install a five-member School Reform Commission. Test scores have improved but are still pitiful. Last year only about 40% of students scored proficient or above in reading on the state standardized test, but 99.5% of teachers are rated satisfactory.

The commission’s greatest contribution has been to provide an escape valve for students. Enrollment at charters has grown to about 56,000 from 12,000 in 2000. The number of students attending traditional schools has shrunk by 25%, but those schools haven’t downsized as they’ve lost students.

Charters are paid roughly three-quarters as much on a per pupil basis as traditional schools. Yet savings from the charter expansion haven’t offset the increasing overhead and labor costs at traditional schools where the average teacher earns $110,000 in pay and benefits.

Teachers also don’t pay a cent for health benefits and can retire with a pension equal to 80% of their final salary after 30 years. As a bonus, the district pays the union $4,353 per member each year to administer dental, vision and retiree benefits. Its health and welfare fund had a $71 million surplus, according to its latest available tax filing in 2011.

The district last year had to borrow $300 million, and this summer two dozen schools were closed and 3,000 employees laid off (including about 600 teachers) to bridge another $300 million deficit. While the union blames state budget cuts, pay and benefit increases resulting from its last collective-bargaining agreement accounted for half the budget hole.

Mr. Corbett is offering the district a one-time $45 million grant and $120 million in recurring funds from a one-percentage-point city sales tax increase on the condition that teachers accept lower pay and benefits as well as “work rule” changes. The district wants to cut base salaries by 5% to 13% to offset the rising cost of pensions and for teachers to contribute to their health benefits. Yet the major sticking points are Mr. Corbett’s school reforms that would eliminate teacher seniority rights and base future pay increases on more rigorous evaluations that include student learning.

Teachers have little reason to budge since their previous contract remains in effect and they continue to earn raises based on longevity. Thus the union will likely drag out the negotiations until after next fall’s election when they hope to elect a Democratic Governor and renegotiate a bailout without Mr. Corbett’s preconditions.

Meantime, union leaders will whipsaw the GOP Governor for increasing corporate tax credits for private school scholarships that benefit low-income students in failing schools and then for not caring about Philadelphia’s poor, black kids. The tragedy is that Mr. Corbett’s ideas will help those kids while the union is dooming most of them to lives of underachievement and poverty. Where are Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama when they really could help?

A version of this article appeared September 25, 2013, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Failure in Philadelphia.

Justice Department vs. Louisiana Voucher Kids

September 25, 2013 by
  • OPINION The Wall Street Journal
  • September 23, 2013, 7:09 p.m. ET

Eric Holder hauls out a 40-year-old civil rights case to attack minority school choice.

By CLINT BOLICK

School-choice programs have faced no shortage of legal challenges en route to their adoption in 18 states and the District of Columbia. But none of the challenges is so perverse or perplexing as the Justice Department’s motion last month to wield desegregation decrees to halt Louisiana’s voucher program.

As part of its efforts to boost educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, last year Louisiana enacted the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program. The statewide program provides tuition vouchers to children from families with incomes below 250% of the poverty line whose children otherwise would attend public schools that the state has graded C, D or F. This year, roughly 8,000 children are using vouchers to attend private schools. Among those, 91% are minority and 86% would have attended public schools with D or F grades.

Attorney General Eric Holder argues the program runs afoul of desegregation orders, which operate in 34 Louisiana school districts. By potentially altering the racial composition of those schools by taking minority children out of failing public schools, the Justice Department asserts the program “frustrates and impedes the desegregation process.” It has asked a federal court to forbid future scholarships in those districts until the state requests and receives approval in each of the 22 or more cases that might be affected.

If successful, the Justice Department’s motion could thwart school choice—not just vouchers, but charter schools—in hundreds of districts across the country that are still subject to desegregation decrees. And it would deprive thousands of Louisiana schoolchildren, nearly all of them black, of the only high-quality educational opportunities they have ever had.

Such a result would turn the desegregation decrees on their head, for it would inflict grave harm on the very children who are the decrees’ intended beneficiaries. Properly understood, desegregation and school choice share a common aim: educational opportunity.

In its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court made that paramount goal clear, recognizing “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

After facing massive resistance to Brown, the Supreme Court approved the limited use of racial ratios for student assignments not to achieve enduring racial balance, but as a starting point in desegregating schools. Since then, the court repeatedly has struck down rigid adherence to racial ratios and has insisted that control of schools must be returned to local authorities as soon as vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated.

But the Justice Department has been slow to cede control even in school districts that have become heavily minority, and districts are reluctant to relinquish federal funds that accompany desegregation decrees. Hence decrees remain in place many decades after the civil-rights abuses that gave rise to them.

Curiously, the Justice Department did not file its motion in any of the ongoing Louisiana desegregation cases. Instead, it seeks an injunction in Brumfield v. Dodd , a case filed nearly 40 years ago challenging a program that provided state funding for textbooks and transportation for private “segregation academies,” to which white students were fleeing to avoid integration. Since 1975, private schools have had to demonstrate that they do not discriminate in order to participate in that program.

The Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program restricts participation to private schools that meet the Brumfield nondiscrimination requirements. The program further requires private schools to admit students on a random basis. Thus the program clearly complies with Brumfield. And the Brumfieldcourt has no jurisdiction over the desegregation decrees to which the Justice Department seeks to subject the voucher program.

Nor can any court properly force the state to seek advance approval from the Justice Department for a clearly nondiscriminatory program that advances the education of black children. As the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, when it struck down the “pre-clearance” formula of the 1965 Voting Rights Act regarding federal approval for electoral changes, states cannot be forced to submit their decisions to federal oversight “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

The Justice Department’s motion has tremendous human implications, personified by Mary Edler, whose grandsons are using vouchers to attend kindergarten and second grade in a Louisiana private school. All of the public schools in their district are graded C, D or F. Thanks to the scholarship program, Mrs. Edler says, “My grandsons are flourishing at Ascension of Our Lord in all aspects. They have small classes and an outstanding principal and staff.” She calls the tuition vouchers a “true blessing”—one that will be lost if the Justice Department prevails.

In its zeal, the Justice Department has transformed a bipartisan education reform program into a partisan opportunity. On Sept. 17, House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders wrote an open letter to Attorney General Holder, calling Justice’s motion “extremely troubling and paradoxical in nature,” given that it hurts the “very children you profess to be protecting.”

On Sept. 18, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was joined by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to denounce the Justice Department’s action. Mr. Jindal challenged administration officials “to come to Louisiana to meet face to face with these moms and dads and their kids and explain to them why [they] don’t think that these children deserve a great education.”

It won’t happen. Because for this Justice Department, desegregation long ago ceased to be about children or educational opportunities. It is about numbers and racial balance. If Justice succeeds in destroying Louisiana’s voucher program, the dreams and opportunities of countless children will perish with it.

Mr. Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute and represents families and the Louisiana chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options defending the state’s voucher program.

A version of this article appeared September 24, 2013, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Justice Department vs. Louisiana Voucher Kids.

GOP leader demands that Holder withdraw school voucher lawsuit

September 24, 2013 by

By Russell Berman – 09/23/13 10:00 AM 

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) demanded Monday that Attorney General Eric Holder withdraw a federal lawsuit against the state of Louisiana over school vouchers and vowed the House would act if Holder refuses.

The Justice Department is suing to restrict the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for low-income parents to send their children to private schools. The Justice Department says the program is impeding civil rights-era orders to desegregate the schools.

Cantor assailed the move Monday during an education speech in Philadelphia, calling the lawsuit “absurd” and hailing the Louisiana voucher program as “a civil rights solution,” not a “violation.”

“If the attorney general does not withdraw this suit, then the United States House will act,” Cantor said in prepared remarks. “We will leave no stone unturned in holding him accountable for this decision. The attorney general will have to explain to the American people why he believes poor minority children in Louisiana should be held back, and why these children shouldn’t have the same opportunity that the children from wealthier and more connected families.”

A battle over the lawsuit would be the latest confrontation between the Republican House majority and Holder, who has served as attorney general for President Obama’s entire tenure in the White House. In 2012, the House voted to find Holder in contempt over his refusal to turn over certain documents related to the Fast and Furious gunrunning sting.

The Louisiana voucher program has been championed by the state’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. In the House, Cantor has sought to elevate education reform as part of his “Making Life Work” agenda to expand the GOP’s national appeal.

While many Democrats back expanding access to public charter schools, they, along with teachers unions, have long opposed private school vouchers as undermining support for public education. In his speech Monday, Cantor linked charter schools and voucher programs as serving the same goal of boosting education for low-income children.

“Just like the charter school program in this state and in this city, scholarship programs like the one in Louisiana are aimed at furthering equality for all kids — rich or poor, black or white,” he said. “The civil rights laws of this country were enacted to ensure equal access to education and opportunity, exactly what the Louisiana Scholarship Program is doing. The program is the very opposite of a civil rights violation. It is a civil rights solution.”

“The scholarship program in Louisiana challenges the status quo and provides hope to kids and their parents, but the government in Washington is trying to stand in the way,” Cantor said.

He added later in the speech, “Let me be clear: School choice is not an attack or an indictment on teachers or public schools.”

Speaking from a charter school, Cantor linked the school choice movement to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the desegregation movement of the 1950s and ’60s. He touted the conservative Student Success Act that the House passed in July, along with an amendment he sponsored to allow parents to take federal money to send their children to public charter schools.

“The next time Congress considers a major education reauthorization, I believe we will adopt full school choice,” Cantor said.

Read more: http://thehill.com/homenews/house/323883-gop-leader-demands-that-holder-withdraw-school-voucher-lawsuit#ixzz2fk78ncCs
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Book Reviews: ‘Reign of Error’ by Diane Ravitch & ‘The School Revolution’ by Ron Paul

September 23, 2013 by

In the debates over reforming public schools and promoting privatization, there’s precious little middle ground.

    • By Trevor Butterworth

We are, by now, familiar with the sense of a crisis in American education. Where America’s public schools once helped to power the economy, they now drag the country down: groves of apathy, stripped of rigor, suffocated by local and federal bureaucracy and self-serving unions. To Diane Ravitch, perhaps America’s best-known educational historian, the rot was there from the beginning: In books such as 2000’s “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms,” Ms. Ravitch portrayed public schools as playgrounds of progressive-education theorists, frenemies of promise, who loosened children from the grip of knowledge and lowered educational expectations. She became one the most passionate critics of American education, a mixture of W.B. Yeats and a Marine Corps drill sergeant, and an inspiration for supporters of school reform, school choice and rigorous testing—ideals enshrined in No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush administration’s signature educational initiative, which was built with committed bipartisan support.

And then, having diagnosed a crisis and marched the country up the hill of school reform, Ms. Ravitch had second thoughts: None of this is working, she said; NCLB has turned out to be a mess; accountability, whether of teachers or children, was implemented with all the finesse of a Viking raid on a monastery; and charter schools don’t deliver children into the promised land of innovation and effectiveness. Let’s all march back down again.

Reign of Error

By Diane Ravitch
Knopf, 396 pages, $27.95

Flash Quiz A Washington, D.C., student is drilled on multiplication as part of the Singapore Math curriculum, based on that of the Southeast Asian city-state.

“Reign of Error” ostensibly takes up the question that her previous book—2010’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”—failed to address: What should we be doing about American education and what should we avoid doing? Yet much time is expended on restating the same themes, without the humility that accompanied having to originally explain why she had soured on a movement she had done so much to push forward. Ms. Ravitch is no longer writing to explain herself. She is writing for victory, which means crushing a phalanx of enemies, real and imagined.

If there is a crisis in American education, Ms. Ravitch writes, it is only “because of persistent, orchestrated attacks” on teachers and principals. “These attacks,” she writes, “create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.” In Ms. Ravitch’s telling, these interests represent not reform but a new status quo in education, one created by a vast bipartisan alliance encompassing everyone from the American Legislative Exchange Council to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood. At the top of the pyramid sit Bill and Melinda Gates, who make the Koch brothers look like amateurs at advocacy funding. Because there is no crisis in American education, in Ms. Ravitch’s view, all these people are destroying the public-school system over an illusion.

The School Revolution

By Ron Paul
Grand Central, 224 pages, $23

It’s certainly provocative to say that there is no crisis in American education. But the crisis/no crisis frame is unhelpful, particularly when it comes to understanding the debate regarding student achievement. Consider American students’ performance in math. In introducing “The Facts About the International Test Scores,” Ms. Ravitch argues that these data are used by critics “to generate a crisis mentality, not to improve public schools but to undermine public confidence in them.” Of the 2011 results from TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which is seen as the gold standard for international math comparisons, Ms. Ravitch says that the American media presented the results “in a negative light, reflecting the reformers’ gloomy narrative. . . . But the media were wrong. American students performed surprisingly well in mathematics and science, well above the international average in grades 4 and 8.”

Yes, the U.S. performance on grade four wasn’t bad—84% of test takers were able, for example, to do basic addition, as opposed to an international average of 73%. But look more closely at the eighth-grade data and a chasm opens: 49% of Taiwanese students taking the test reached an advanced benchmark and 73% reached a high benchmark; for the U.S., these figures were 7% and 30%, respectively. The U.S. isn’t in the top group of math countries, and we are closer to the bottom scorers. Perhaps this isn’t a crisis, but is it not concerning?

Ms. Ravitch, it should be noted, chooses to characterize the TIMSS data rather than provide the reader with the actual numbers, despite the presence of numerous graphs in the appendix. She also quotes Yong Zhao, a Chinese-born American academic, at length, warning that the Chinese have perfected the art of test-taking and that if America strives to emulate or beat China or any of the nations that do better than us at math, we may “sacrifice the qualities of individualism and creativity that have been the source of our nation’s economic, social, and technological success.”

Really? The TIMSS advanced-math benchmark reflects mathematical reasoning, not rote-learning, skills. Does Ms. Ravitch want us to believe that the better kids are able to reason with numbers, the less creative they will be and the worse our economy will do? The labor market has increasingly paid a premium for analytic and quantitative skills, and, as Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz argued in “The Race Between Education and Technology” (2008), American schools haven’t been able to meet the demand.

When Ms. Ravitch comes to charter schools, she writes that advocates “claim they produce better academic results than traditional public schools and cost less because of lower overhead. Neither of these promises has been fulfilled.” Except, she adds, some charter schools do get consistently high scores, without gaming out weaker students, while providing a refuge for teachers from “overscripted, hyper-regulated, and over-tested public schools.” Before you think that might be a good thing, she warns that these successful charters “seem determined to reinvent the schoolhouse of a century ago” with their “no excuses” discipline. But what’s wrong with that? The evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Knowledge Is Power Program is impressive—and there is some evidence that these successes can be replicated in the public system. When nine underperforming schools in Houston adopted a no-excuses model, they saw similar gains in achievement (although they did ax half the teaching staff before beginning the experiment).

It is vital to hold the charter movement accountable. The most recent report from the Center for Research and Education Outcomes (Credo) at Stanford University has noted that, while the sector is improving, it needs to raise standards further and close down more underperforming schools. All of which sounds reasonable. But success can’t really win with Ms. Ravitch. You are at best tolerable if you are a nonprofit charter, but you are still contributing to the destruction of “an essential element in our democracy”—that is, the public-school system.

Ms. Ravitch’s mixture of stridency, selectivity and spin is unfortunate because she has many important things to say: Any reform movement that trades with for-profit education puts public money on the line and needs to be scrutinized; a constellation of well-intentioned philanthropies shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves; and the rhetoric of crisis—a default tone for advocates of all stripes—risks burying a complex issue in simplistic thinking. But so does defending public schools at all costs.

Unlike “Reign of Error,” there isn’t much data to untangle in Ron Paul‘s “The School Revolution.” There is, instead, a first principle from which we can deduce the best way to educate our youth: freedom. Freedom teaches personal responsibility; but, warns Mr. Paul, “if the curriculum teaches Keynesian economics, if it reinforces welfare state politics, if it teaches the principle of the autonomous sovereignty of the state, then it undermines” parents who believe in freedom. Ergo, they must home-school—at least until children are able to teach themselves through the Internet.

This view will seem quixotic to many: Given the staggering amount of time and resources expended on remedial education in college, surely we should be more concerned about basic literacy and numeracy than whether America’s children are uncritically respectful of John Maynard Keynes. But Mr. Paul seems uninterested in the hard work of shaping minds. Instead, he is dazzled by the prospect of the Internet providing an end-run around the failed public-school system, something largely intuited from looking at the way kids appear adept at using technology compared with adults and from the spread of e-learning and cyber charter schools. This is painfully naïve, as Ms. Ravitch shows with brutal but reliable data on virtual schooling. A four-year Credo analysis of cyber charters in Pennsylvania, for example, found 100% of attendees performing significantly worse in math and reading than students in public schools.

But why would Mr. Paul read Ms. Ravitch? Why would anyone read these books who didn’t already agree with them? There once seemed to be middle ground in the education policy—indeed, No Child Left Behind was originally co-sponsored by none other than Edward Kennedy. Today the participants in the debate are at war over first principles, about which there can be no compromise. For the reader, this is the political, the ideological, the Manichaean problem with the education debate that education itself can’t seem to fix.

—Mr. Butterworth is a contributor to Newsweek and editor at large for STATS.org.

A version of this article appeared September 21, 2013, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Trying to Teach From First Principles.

As Education Declines, So Does Civic Culture

September 18, 2013 by
  • September 16, 2013, 7:14 p.m. ET

A generation of college graduates unable to write or reason bodes ill for liberal democracy.

    By  JONATHAN JACOBS

Even as the cost of higher education skyrockets, its benefits are increasingly being called into doubt. We’re familiar with laments from graduates who emerge from college burdened with student loans and wondering if their studies have prepared them for jobs and careers. A less familiar but even more troubling problem is that their education did not prepare them for responsible civic life. The decline in education means a decline in the ability of individuals—and ultimately the nation as a whole—to address political, social and moral matters in effective, considered ways.

The trouble begins before college. Large numbers of high-school students have faced so few challenges and demands that they are badly underprepared for college courses. Many who go on to four-year colleges seem to need two years of college even to begin to understand what it is to study, read carefully and take oneself seriously as a student. For many students, high-school-level preparation for college is a matter of having high self-esteem and high expectations but little else.Brain wsj

Even after three or four years of undergraduate education, many students still cannot recognize reasoning when they encounter it. They have little grasp of the difference between merely “saying something” and constructing an explanation or formulating an argument. This is often reinforced by college instructors who urge students to regard all theories, intellectual perspectives and views as ideology—without acknowledging the differences between theories, beliefs,
hypotheses, interpretations and other categories of thought.
This impedes students from acquiring habits of intellectual responsibility. Far too often, teachers and texts insist upon a “verdictive” approach, a politicized view of issues. Whatever your stance regarding the “culture wars” and the politics of higher education, it is undeniable that a great many graduating students have little idea of what genuine intellectual exploration involves. Too often, learning to think is replaced by ideological scorekeeping, and the use of adjectives replaces the use of arguments.

Such blinkered thinking has serious implications for civic culture and political discourse. It discourages finding out what the facts are, revising one’s beliefs on the basis of those facts and being willing to engage with people who don’t already agree with you. What does that leave us with? A brittle, litmus-test version of politics. It is one thing if people move too quickly from argumentation to name-calling; it is another to be unable to tell the difference.

There has been so much grade inflation in high school and college, so much pressure to move students along regardless of their academic accomplishment, that it is unsurprising to find large numbers of graduates lacking the skills required for available jobs. They may also lack the patience and discipline to learn those skills: If you haven’t been required to meet demands in order to receive good grades, then patience and discipline are less likely to be among your habits. For graduates who do find work, the reality of employers’ expectations may come as a shock.

Many employers can attest, as college instructors will too if they’re being frank, that many college graduates can barely construct a coherent paragraph and many have precious little knowledge of the world—the natural world, the social world, the historical world, or the cultural world. That is a tragedy for the graduates, but also for society: Civic life suffers when people have severely limited knowledge of the world to bring to political or moral discussions.

To see the effect of these trends, simply ask a few 15-year-olds, 19-year-olds or 22-year-olds some basic, non-tricky questions from non-esoteric knowledge categories (history, biology, current events, literature, geography, mathematics, grammar). See what the responses are. Ask these young people to describe the basic institutions of American government, or how a case makes its way to the Supreme Court or what “habeas corpus” means. The point isn’t to embarrass them, but to wake up the rest of us to how little students have been expected to know even about the political and legal order in which they live.

The primary concern shouldn’t be how American students rank in international science and math scores (though that is certainly relevant). It is whether the United States can be a prosperous, pluralistic democracy if higher education fails to require students to think, inquire and explain. A liberal democracy requires a certain kind of civic culture, one in which citizens understand its distinctive principles and strive to preserve them by addressing issues and one another in a responsible manner. That is essential to the mutual respect at the core of liberal democracy.

The U.S. faces serious challenges; education should be serious and challenging. The cost to America of failing to reverse the trend toward trivializing education will be more than just economic. It will be reflected in social friction, coarsened politics, failed and foolish policies, and a steady decline in the concern to do anything to reverse the rot.

Mr. Jacobs is director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics and chairman of the Department of Philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

A version of this article appeared September 17, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: As Education Declines, So Does Civic Culture.

Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The Vital Link of Education and Prosperity

September 13, 2013 by
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • September 11, 2013, 7:20 p.m. ET

Data from 50 countries over half a century reveal how even a small education gain can mean a big economic payoff.

  • By PAUL E. PETERSON
  • AND ERIC A. HANUSHEK

Americans are aware of public education’s many failures—the elevated high-school dropout rates, the need for remedial work among entering college students. One metric in particular stands out: Only 32% of U.S. high-school students are proficient in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. When the NAEP results are put on the scale of the Program on International Student Assessment (PISA), the world’s best source of information on student achievement, the comparable proficiency rates in math are 45% in Germany, 49% in Canada, and 63% in Singapore, the highest performing independent nation.

The subpar performance of U.S. students has wide ramifications—and not just for individuals. On an individual level, of course, the connection between education and income is obvious. Those with a college degree can expect to earn over 60% more in the course of their lifetime than those with a high-school diploma, according to U.S. Census data. But there is a nexus between educational achievement and national prosperity as well.

According to our calculations, raising student test scores in this country up to the level in Canada would dramatically increase economic growth. We estimate that the additional growth dividend has a present value of $77 trillion over the next 80 years. This is equivalent to adding an average 20% to the paycheck of every worker for every year of work over this time period.

Where do such astronomical numbers come from? Students of human capital have long known that a country’s growth rate is connected to the skills of the workers. And it has recently become apparent from our analysis of differences in growth rates among countries between 1960 and 2009 that the skills that count are reliably measured by standardized tests of math and science such as PISA and NAEP.

We have analyzed all the well-vetted international tests given to students since the 1960s in 50 countries for which test-score information is available. Adjusting for a country’s initial GDP (since it is easier to grow fast when you start at a low level), the differences in long-run growth rates are mainly accounted for by differences in cognitive skills as measured by these international tests.

Between 1960 and 2009, the extra-rapid growth of some countries at the top of the achievement distribution—such as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong—can be readily explained by their students’ very high test scores. Their growth was almost 2% per year higher than would be expected if they had only average achievement. Countries at the bottom of the achievement distribution—such as South Africa, Argentina, the Philippines and Peru—have suffered from the weak growth that their failing education systems predict. Their growth was almost 2% less per year than would be expected had their student test scores put them at the world average.

The U.S. economy grew two-thirds of a percent faster per year for this period than would be predicted by its students’ mediocre test scores. This performance reflects a number of historic advantages. The U.S. economy is built on open markets, secure property rights and generally favorable tax rates; a higher-education system at the top of the world; and favorable immigration policies that permitted highly skilled people to enter. But these relative advantages are declining as other countries emulate our institutions and practices.

In the future, U.S. growth will depend on the skills of its citizens, and currently those skills are not competitive with other countries. This nation can no longer expect to grow by retaining talent attracted to colleges and universities from abroad, as other nations are offering foreign students much broader opportunities and U.S. immigration policies are becoming more uncertain.

Assuming that historic trends in all 50 countries in our analysis apply equally to the United States, its GDP growth rate would be boosted by about three-fourths of 1% a year if student test scores in math rose by 40 points higher on international tests, to the level attained by Canadian students. Three-quarters of a percent a year seems small, but it generates an amount five times our current GDP of $16 trillion.

To get a sense of the magnitude of these numbers, consider that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that $4 trillion of potential GDP was lost between 2008 and 2012 as a result of the recent recession. That’s a big-time number but only a hint of the long-term price of nearly $80 trillion the country pays for a low-performing educational system.

How can U.S. student achievement be boosted? Notably, the average number of years students are in school has little impact on economic growth, once student test-score performance is taken into account. If you aren’t learning anything at your desk, it doesn’t matter how long you sit there.

Nor is more money the answer. The U.S. spends on average $12,000 per pupil in grades K-12, one of the highest amounts in the world. Among U. S. states, increments in spending per pupil between 1990 and 2010 show no correlation with changes in student performance.

In Wyoming and New York, spending levels per pupil climbed at one of the fastest rates without getting any extra gains in student achievement over this time period. Florida was among the most rapidly improving states, even though inflation-adjusted state expenditures per pupil hardly changed. It matters more how the money is spent than how much is spent. Expensive but ineffective policies such as class size reduction, while valued by current school personnel, have not raised achievement. Better accountability, more school choice, market-based teacher compensation and retention policies can on the other hand boost achievement without adding materially to school costs.

Nationwide, the biggest economic gains will come many years after school improvement takes place, a fact that probably helps to explain the reluctance of the political class to commit itself to genuine school reform. Confronting the power of teacher unions and other vested interests is politically costly. But the failure to improve the education system is more costly still.

Mr. Peterson is a professor of government at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, where Mr. Hanushek is a senior fellow. They are the authors, with Ludger Woessmann, of “Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School” (Brookings, 2013).

A version of this article appeared September 11, 2013, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Vital Link of Education and Prosperity.

Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Obama administration’s anti-voucher lawsuit is unfair and unjust

September 10, 2013 by

baltimoresun.com

Before the Justice Department denies opportunities for poor kids, it should hear their stories

By Cal Thomas

6:00 AM EDT, September 7, 2013

Before Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department move forward with a lawsuit to block vouchers for thousands of low-income students trapped in failing Louisiana public schools, he ought to speak to parents whose children benefit from the statewide voucher measured called the Louisiana Scholarship Program.

One of those parents is Lakisha Fuselier. Ms. Fuselier is a single mother of four. Her 8-year-old son, Albert, is a part of the voucher program. A spokeswoman in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office emailed me her story, which first appeared in The Daily Advertiser last December. “Lakisha Fuselier wanted to do something to help her son, Albert. He was struggling in public school classes,” the Daily Advertiser writes. “His academic problems were compounded by a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. … She knew he needed individual attention, something he was not getting in public school.”

In response to my request, Ms. Fuselier provided the following statement to the governor’s office: “When I heard about this program, I jumped on the chance to try something new for my son. I see the difference it has made in him from an academic standpoint and as an individual. He loves school now and is more outgoing. I hope to be able to get my other kids in the program because I know that it works.”

Attorney General Holder’s stated reason for suing to eliminate the voucher program in Louisiana is that it “impedes the desegregation process.” The government argues that allowing parents to transfer their children out of failing Louisiana schools would upset the racial balance of schools in districts still under federal desegregation orders. “There’s no denying the state’s racist history of school segregation or its ugly efforts … to undermine desegregation orders…,” writes the Washington Post. “…But the situation today bears no resemblance to those terrible days. Since most of the students using vouchers are black, it is, as State Education Superintendent John White pointed out … ‘a little ridiculous’ to argue that the departure of mostly black students to voucher schools would make their home school systems less white.”

In a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” Governor Jindal said, “There are too many kids in this country today trapped in poor neighborhoods with poor, failing schools. In Louisiana, we’re doing something about it.” Is Mr. Holder really saying he’d rather they didn’t?

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama can provide private schooling for their daughters. The president’s attorney general wants to deny the same to Louisianians whose only hope out of poverty is a decent education. Is that fair? Is it just?

The Washington Post editorialized against the administration’s lawsuit, calling it “bewildering, if not downright perverse … to use the banner of civil rights to bring a misguided suit that would block these disadvantaged students from getting the better educational opportunities they are due.”

Next to a right to life, the most important right is a good education. Without it, low-income children are denied the American Dream. It is the ultimate civil rights issue.

The racial makeup of a school that fails to provide quality education shouldn’t matter. What difference does it make if a child fails in an all-black school or an integrated one? An “F’ is an “F.”

According to The Weekly Standard, more people have applied for vouchers in Louisiana than are available: 10,000 in 2012, with only 5,000 receiving them, and 12,000 this year, with 8,000 awarded by lottery. The magazine also notes that the voucher movement is spreading: “According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 23 states and the District of Columbia have a total of 48 voucher and tax-credit programs designed to help poor kids in bad schools get out…”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to end the school choice program in D.C., but reversed himself in the face of a public outcry. Minority parents should amplify that outcry in Louisiana and across the country.

If Republicans are smart, they will make school choice their issue and reclaim their history of being for civil rights before the Democrats commandeered it. In a cruel reversal of what happened in the 1960s, Democrats now appear to stand in the schoolhouse door, trying to keep poor children out.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at tcaeditors@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun

Duncan Votes Present

September 9, 2013 by

The Wall Street Journal

September 6, 2013, 6:56 p.m. ET

The Education Secretary pleads ignorance about an anti-voucher lawsuit.

Asked in a radio interview this week about the Justice Department’s recent lawsuit to block Louisiana’s school voucher program, Education Secretary Arne Duncan pleaded ignorance. “I’m not familiar with that lawsuit,” said the man whose department scrutinizes state education reforms in great detail as part of the Race to the Top competition. “That’s between the Department of Justice and the state of Louisiana.”

C’mon, Arne. You can do better than that. As President Obama’s cabinet secretaries go, Mr. Duncan has been one of the better ones. At least he has been willing to challenge a couple of the shibboleths of the union status quo. But if he really did first hear about the Louisiana lawsuit from a reporter, then maybe it’s time he returned to Chicago. He’s clearly not interested in his job anymore.

To recap for Mr. Duncan and his staff: Two weeks ago the Justice Department asked a federal court to enjoin 34 school districts in Louisiana from issuing vouchers under the statewide reform that passed in 2012. Only students from families with incomes below 250% of the poverty line and who attend schools graded C or lower are eligible. Ninety percent of recipients are black.

According to the lawsuit, vouchers “appeared to impede the desegregation process” by “increasing the racial identifiability” of certain schools. Incredibly, the suit objected that in some cases the departing black kids left their former schools with a student body with more white students. Meanwhile, studies from Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. have found that voucher recipients increase integration by letting minority children escape geographic school boundaries.

Governor Bobby Jindal this week asked the court for more time to respond to Justice’s suit because much of the data the state needs to make its case isn’t yet available. He also got to the heart of the matter by noting that the real motive for this lawsuit is union politics. The teachers unions have been trying to block the voucher plan by any means possible, but so far they’ve failed. Bringing in the feds for a desegregation gambit is merely the latest attempt.

The Advocate daily newspaper in Baton Rouge reports that former Justice Department Civil Rights chief Thomas Perez, who is now Labor Secretary, was nosing around the state earlier this year. On Thursday we reported that Mr. Perez had threatened California with a loss of federal cash if it didn’t exempt Teamster and Amalgamated Transit Union transit workers from pension reforms. If Mr. Perez is now also running education policy, it really is time for Mr. Duncan to leave.

A version of this article appeared September 7, 2013, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Duncan Votes Present.

Justice Department bids to trap poor, black children in ineffective schools

September 8, 2013 by

Washington Post

By Editorial Board, , Published: September 1

NINE OF 10 Louisiana children who receive vouchers to attend private schools are black. All are poor and, if not for the state assistance, would be consigned to low-performing or failing schools with little chance of learning the skills they will need to succeed as adults. So it’s bewildering, if not downright perverse, for the Obama administration to use the banner of civil rights to bring a misguided suit that would block these disadvantaged students from getting the better educational opportunities they are due.

The Justice Department has petitioned a U.S. District Court to bar Louisiana from awarding vouchers for the 2014-15 school year to students in public school systems that are under federal desegregation orders, unless the vouchers are first approved by a federal judge. The government argues that allowing students to leave their public schools for vouchered private schools threatens to disrupt the desegregation of school systems. A hearing is tentatively set for Sept. 19.

There’s no denying the state’s racist history of school segregation or its ugly efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to undermine desegregation orders by helping white children to evade racially integrated schools. These efforts included funneling public money to all-white private schools. But the situation today bears no resemblance to those terrible days. Since most of the students using vouchers are black, it is, as State Education Superintendent John White pointed out to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “a little ridiculous” to argue that the departure of mostly black students to voucher schools would make their home school systems less white. Every private school participating in the voucher program must comply with the color-blind policies of the federal desegregation court orders.

The government’s argument that “the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward integration” becomes even more absurd upon examination of the cases it cited in its petition. Consider the analysis from University of Arkansas professor of education reform Jay P. Greene of a school that lost five white students through vouchers and saw a shift in racial composition from 29.6 percent white to 28.9 percent white. Another school that lost six black students and saw a change in racial composition from 30.1 percent black to 29.2 percent black. “Though the students . . . almost certainly would not have noticed a difference, the racial bean counters at the DOJ see worsening segregation,” Mr. Greene wrote on his blog.

The number that should matter to federal officials is this: Roughly 86 percent of students in the voucher program came from schools that were rated D or F. Mr. White called ironic using rules to fight racism to keep students in failing schools; we think it appalling.

Unfortunately, though, it is not a surprise from an administration that, despite its generally progressive views on school reform, has proven to be hostile — as witnessed by its petty machinations against D.C.’s voucher program — to the school choice afforded by private-school vouchers. Mr. White told us that from Day One, the five-year-old voucher program has been subject to unrelenting scrutiny and questions from federal officials. Louisiana parents are clamoring for the choice afforded by this program; the state is insisting on accountability; poor students are benefiting. The federal government should get out of the way.


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