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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive April 2010

April 2010

April 2: Escalante's Dream Undelivered// April 9: Three Perspectives on California’s Education Funding Crisis// April 16: Your Tax Dollars At Work: Saving Jobs, Schools and Communities// April 23: Bad Math: Adding and Subtracting in Wrong Places// April 30: A Teachable Moment

Escalante's Dream Undelivered

  • 04-02-2010
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“Jaime’s story became famous. But he represented countless, valiant teachers throughout our country whose great works are known only to the young people whose lives they change.”
--President Barack Obama (California Progress Report)

This week math teacher Jaime Escalante, died. Escalante arguably became the most famous American teacher after inspiring the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. His educational legacy was to demonstrate that all students, regardless of their background, can learn at high levels when they and their teachers bring strong desire and commitment to the classroom.

From 1974 to 1991, Escalante taught math at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Over time he developed an advanced-placement calculus program for his mostly low-income Mexican American students (Fresno Bee). In 1982, he guided a group of 18 students to take and pass the exam. After this stunning success allegations of cheating, surrounded the students; however, Escalante was vindicated when 12 students retook the exam and passed, some with high marks.

Escalante’s success struck at the core of the “deficit model” for understanding why students of color and poor students, generally, have lower school achievement than white and wealthy students. The deficit model theorized that students who were not white and were poor lacked crucial experiences necessary for success, and therefore high academic expectations were not only unrealistic, but damaging to the students’ self-esteem.

By refusing to accept less from his students because they came from working-class families (Fresno Bee), Escalante was able to see many students take—and pass with remarkably high rates—one of the hardest advanced classes. Thus, the “achievement gap” was shown to be a matter that could be addressed in the classroom and not an inevitable consequence of students’ backgrounds. One thing was apparent: For these results, an effective, passionate and skilled teacher was necessary (Eduflak).

At its peak, Garfield students shone on advanced-placement exams. By 1987, only four high schools nationwide had more students taking and passing the AP calculus exam than Garfield. (Los Angeles Times). That same year more than a quarter of all Mexican American students in the nation who passed the exam were Garfield students (Washington Post).

Over the years, mass media along with some overzealous school reformers have focused on Escalante’s passion and skills to the exclusion of critical resources that all teachers and students require. Basing education policy on teachers’ charisma turns out to be no more productive that basing policy on students’ deficits.

The impressive numbers at Garfield have not held up. State and district policies intervened and eroded many gains; for example, a lack of new classrooms has led to more overcrowding. Also, the inadequate supply of well-prepared teachers in California during the late 1990s and early 2000s made it difficult to hire and retain highly qualified math teachers. Escalante recently told a reporter he was saddened to see Garfield’s math program diminished (NPR).

Many schools today lack the resources and support that Escalante was able to muster at Garfield more than 20 years ago. UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access found that high schools with large populations of Latino, African American and American Indian students were more than twice as likely as majority white and Asian schools to have improperly credentialed teachers in college prep math courses. IDEA’s report also found dramatic differences between these two types of schools in the rates of students enrolling in AP math classes (UCLA IDEA).

Escalante proved that though one person can be inspirational and make a powerful difference, more is needed for permanent impact. History has shown that sustained excellence requires an entire system with shared goals and the conditions necessary to meet those goals.

Three Perspectives on California’s Education Funding Crisis

  • 04-09-2010
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Few people would deny that California’s schools are in very serious financial trouble, and this week brought more bad news for education funding. Tuesday’s state Assembly subcommittee hearing on the impact of education budget cuts led the way. Over the last two years, the state has slashed $17 billion from K-14 funding, and Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed reducing Proposition 98 funding for the 2010-11 school year by $1.5 billion.

The news also reveals how different Californians make sense of the crisis and how they act—or don’t act—in order to make a meaningful difference. Three approaches that show up this week include 1) wait out the crisis until the economy improves because macro-economic trends determine whether relief is possible; 2) as school conditions worsen, work to do the least damage to one’s own children and local schools; and 3) try and generate a positive shift in the public’s will to fund schools adequately.

As some students, teachers and parents organize and protest program cuts, layoffs, crowded classrooms and more (Orange County Register, Alameda Times Star, Huffington Post), they keep school conditions in the public eye. They also counter a lack of urgency among certain opinion and political leaders who may believe that nothing much can be done for schools until the economy improves and increased revenues arrive from new sources or higher taxes. The state budget is a “zero-sum game, and the sum has been shrinking as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression hammers the state,” said Dan Walters, a Sacramento Bee columnist (Sacramento Bee).

Working within the limitations of damaging economic trends, some parents and school officials focus on helping their own children and local students make it through their formative years with as little disruption as possible. Theirs is not a struggle for systemic change as much as an attempt to minimize negative impacts while respecting parents and student—and to keep their schools afloat. For example, thousands of parents statewide are trying to get permits (or keep existing permits) for their children to attend higher-performing schools in surrounding districts. Yet, more districts are reigning in these interdistrict permits in order to keep state funds they lose when students leave for other districts (Contra Costa Times). Los Angeles Unified School District had decided to withhold the majority of its 12,000 permits, but has now momentarily, backed off, largely due to the pleas from parents and students. “I’m not knowingly going to harm the education of boys and girls and young people or distress the adults in their lives,” said Superintendent Ramon Cortines at a school board meeting Tuesday when he announced that most students could remain at their current schools at least through next year, while LAUSD officials continue to study the policy and address the reasons families leave (Los Angeles Times).

Finally, some parents, schools, and communities attempt to generate public will for better schools, statewide. Parents at Wonderland Avenue Elementary in the Hollywood Hills pooled their resources and, with a little star power, created a satirical video depicting the effects of the state’s budget cuts on children (Los Angeles Times, SayNotoCuts). The video, starring actors Megan Fox and Wonderland parent Brian Austin Green, premiered Wednesday morning. “Our hope was not to make a video that would fix everything, but to make a video that could help start a movement,” Green said (Los Angeles Daily News).

“We may have more entertainment-savvy parents with some reach, but cuts are cuts and we just have to make sure all kids’ futures are protected,” said John Koch, Wonderland parent who produced video (Los Angeles Daily News).

Many of Wonderland’s parents have the means to send their children to private schools, but they decide to remain at Wonderland and fight for better resources locally, and now, across the state. In fact, there may be more of a “movement” statewide than the Wonderland parents realize. By adding their unique resources and access to like-minded and diverse groups already at work, they could make a powerful movement-building contribution.

Your Tax Dollars At Work: Saving Jobs, Schools and Communities

  • 04-16-2010
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On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced a $23 billion jobs bill that would prevent thousands of teachers and other school staff from being laid off this year. The senator’s measure is an extension of last year’s economic stimulus package, which provided nearly $100 billion to help avoid massive layoffs in schools (Education Week). That funding is running out, yet the need remains.

To close multimillion-dollar budget gaps, some districts have eliminated summer school and arts programs, closed libraries, shortened school years, slashed benefits and laid off staff. Nationwide, up to 300,000 school employee positions could be gone (Washington Post).

Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke plainly to reporters on Capitol Hill this week. “This is a real emergency. What we’re trying to avert is an education catastrophe,” he said (Washington Post).

Harkin spoke with similar urgency, saying the bill needs to be passed immediately as school districts across the country finalize their budgets for the 2010-11 school year. A similar House bill introduced in December stalled in the Senate. Money from the Harkin bill could be used for salary and benefits to help districts keep employees and hire new staff for early-childhood, K-12 or postsecondary services. It could also go toward on-the-job training (Education Week).

“How can you argue that it’s OK for a kid to borrow to go to college but it’s not OK to borrow so that there’s a college for the kid to go to?” Harkin said. “If there’s one legitimate area where we can borrow from the future, it’s education, because what sort of jobs will we have for my grandkids and great grandkids in the future if we don’t have a well-educated group of young people today?” (Business Week).

Nationally, the economy is showing signs of recovery, but school districts are still reeling. Because most states fund classrooms through some combination of taxes on income, sales and property, high unemployment has crippled those revenues (Miami Herald).

California’s 12.6 percent unemployment rate is higher than the national rate. Statewide, districts issued more than 22,000 pink slips to teachers last month. With 72,000 employees, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the county’s second largest employer and must grapple with a $640 million deficit this year and a projected shortfall of $263 million next school year. Last year, about 2,000 teachers were laid off and this year looks only slightly better, but only because the district and teacher’s union agreed to shorten the school year, a move that saved about 1,400 jobs (Los Angeles Daily News).

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines, testifying before Harkin’s subcommittee this week, said: “You name it. Teachers, administrators, counselors, school nurses, cafeteria workers, support personnel are part of an exodus forced by financial realities” (Huffington Post).

Through federal Title I and stimulus funds, LAUSD was able to save about 7,000 jobs. But Cortines said the school finance would be healthier had Sacramento not siphoned off funds meant for schools to close its budget gap (Huffington Post). Harkin’s bill could provide LAUSD with more than $250 million, almost 40 percent of its current budget deficit (Business Week).

The consequences of cutting summer school, shortening the school year or laying off teachers don’t remain on campus and affect only the students. Aside from being a teacher, a principal, a janitor or a librarian, these individuals are also LAUSD parents and community members. Laying them off means the district will have to stretch itself further to provide support services for those students and their families. Cutbacks remove revenue from the local economy and negatively affect education quality. Both have consequences that will be felt for generations to come.

Bad Math: Adding and Subtracting in Wrong Places

  • 04-23-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of April 19-23, 2010


As educational expectations continue to rise, students are receiving less, not more attention and instruction in America’s classrooms. Gone are the days when class-size reduction was at the center of many state’s reform agendas. With schools increasingly feeling the effects of the economic crisis, class sizes are on the rise. According to a recently released report by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), almost two-thirds of districts surveyed nationally are increasing the size of their classrooms. Across the country, districts are planning to add four, five and even 10 students to each classroom. (Christian Science Monitor) In many northern California districts, 30 students in each elementary classroom will be the standard next year (Sacramento Bee). “Right now education is in survivor mode,” said Ken Whittemore, assistant superintendent at a Sacramento-area district.

Class size increases in California run counter to long-standing reform efforts aimed at providing students in early elementary school with reasonably sized classrooms. Since 1996, the state incentivized smaller classes by offering districts $1,000 per student per year if the districts capped K-3 classrooms at no more than 20 students. These incentives meant that California’s K-3 classrooms served the same number of students as the national average—a striking contrast to California’s middle and high school classrooms which pack in more students than any other state.

Budgetary pressures have also led many districts across the country to shorten the school calendar. The AASA survey of 453 superintendents found that 13 percent of districts are considering shifting to a four-day school week, up from 2 percent the last two years. Los Angeles Unified School District is cutting a week out of this school year, bringing the number of instructional days down to 175 (Los Angeles Times).

Next year, when federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) dry up, the situation will worsen, officials said. “The cessation of ARRA dollars, paired with the continued budget strains at the state and local levels,… represents a one-two punch to education funding that will further insulate schools from economic recovery,” the AASA survey reported (Education Week).

While increasing class sizes and shortening school years are aimed at cutting costs, their effect is to undercut meaningful education reform. Students vying for teacher attention in overcrowded classrooms go unnoticed and fall further behind. And the shortened school year means teachers must cram lesson plans into fewer days or forego them altogether. Districts are moving in the opposite direction from national reform initiatives calling for longer instructional days to help students who have fallen behind or are learning English (Center for American Progress). Even before these recent reductions, American students, on average, attended school 13 fewer days each year than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. As state and federal lawmakers debate whether we can afford to invest more in our public schools, a better question would be, how can we not?


A Teachable Moment

  • 04-30-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of April 26-30, 2010

With her signing last week of SB 1070, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer sparked a fierce national discussion by people on all sides of the country’s immigration policy. Many have expressed concern that the bill relies on racial profiling and would harass U.S. citizens and permanent residents as much as it would likely identify undocumented immigrants. Others have used it as a launching pad to discuss broader immigration reform (New America Media).

The controversy surrounding SB 1070 could provide a unique opportunity for educators to engage with students and their parents about democracy and civic participation. In classrooms and public meetings, SB 1070 could promote discussion of the constitutional, social, and moral issues that the bill raises. Age-appropriate lessons could be designed to help students explore the rights and protections that a good society should afford to its most vulnerable members and place the Arizona law in the context of similarly controversial laws.

For example, California’s controversial Prop 187 denied undocumented immigrants access to medical, educational and other social services. The ballot initiative was passed by voters in 1994 but later deemed unconstitutional.

Arizona’s “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” encourages police officers to determine whether people are in the country legally. It makes it a misdemeanor to be without proper immigration paperwork and allows police to seek information if they have a “reasonable suspicion” someone is here illegally. Yesterday, the ACLU, MALDEF and the National Immigration Labor Center announced they would challenge the law before it takes effect within 90 days (PR Newswire). The groups said the new law promotes racial profiling and violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause by interfering in the federal government’s role.

Students could follow the course of these constitutional challenges. In addition to understanding their rights, students could learn how these rights are grounded in law across jurisdictions and history. When Phoenix Union High School District officials recently met with community members to inform them about SB 1070 (San Francisco Examiner), parents were reassured that under federal law no K-12 school official can ask about a child’s immigration status nor can they share that information with outside agencies.

The Arizona School Boards Association said it feared SB 1070 would create “a chilling effect that will make some parents hesitant to send their children to school, even if those children are eligible to attend Arizona public schools, thus inhibiting such opportunities for success (KVOA Tucson).”

Lastly, Arizona’s SB 1070 gives students a glimpse of how knowledge, organizing, participation and a passion for social justice can come together in appropriate civic engagement. Even before the governor’s signing, many student groups held protests and rallies. Last week, thousands of Phoenix area high school students organized walkouts via social networking sites Facebook and Twitter (KPHO Phoenix). Protests in numerous cities across the country have been organized for May 1, National Workers Day (Washington Post).

Phoenix Superintendent Kent Scribner reminded students to be responsible in exercising their First Amendment rights and registering to vote. “Next year, or four years from now, when you are 18, you can show the world that the protestors of yesterday are the voters of tomorrow” (San Francisco Examiner).

Teachers need to feel supported and be protected in the classrooms so they can engage in frank discussions with their students. They too are the target of anti-immigrant sentiments after Arizona school officials said teachers who speak with heavy accents should no longer teach English-language learners (Wall Street Journal). In these difficult times, teachers and administrators need to be courageous and communities need to stand behind them to ensure that students have an opportunity to candidly discuss today’s issues and grow into informed citizens.

Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.