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

July 2010

July 2: Charter School Lessons// July 9: School Decline as a Spectator Sport// July 16: Urgent Financing for Schools or “Throwing More Money” at Them?// July 23: Same Old “New Standards”// July 30: Civil Rights: A Principled Education

Charter School Lessons

  • 07-02-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of June 28 to July 2, 2010

Charter schools have emerged as a great education hope for the 21st century. It’s easy to be outraged by low performance in traditional schools and imagine how charters can solve many serious problems.

Charters emerged as laboratory sites where educators could carefully test innovative learning and teaching strategies that might then be useful in the more general public school environment. To accomplish this mission, charters were relieved of many of the regulations and benchmarks that applied to the non-chartered schools in the system.

However, this original mission is being expanded into a model for transforming the ways public schools are organized. As this transformed purpose of charters takes hold, and as more children and more of the “system” are affected, the stakes of copying charter models become higher and deserve closer scrutiny.

As more charters gain more years of experience, it’s time to distinguish the real, core promise behind the successes of some charter schools from the unproven, wishful thinking that guides some in the onrushing charter-school “movement.” 

Further, when charter successes are identified, they must be attributed accurately. If test scores in one charter model improve, then some elements of that charter might be worth replicating, but not necessarily all. On the other hand, schools seeking to replicate successful charter models “on the cheap,” by skimping on resources or well-qualified teachers, will have poor prospects.

As new data on charters are collected, keys to charter successes are revealed; but so are overly-ambitious claims. Given this mix of data, reformers need to be advocates for the proven elements of charters, and they need to be skeptical about schools that don’t account for the full and complex enterprise of providing excellent education for all students.

For example, California legislators recently debated legislation proposed by Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica (Educated Guess). Assembly Bill 1950 would have imposed more financial and academic oversight to charters, including auditing requirements and stricter achievement goals prior to renewing the schools’ charters. The proposed bill arose out of the realization that many charters are not rigorous in their accounting—neither with their finances nor their academic programs.

Brownley withdrew the bill when it became clear there wasn’t enough support for the accountability sought within it (Educated Guess). Two national surveys were released this week that looked at both the academic and financial sides of charter schools (Washington Post). We note some key findings here as examples of issues that charter proponents and skeptics need to address to discover charters’ proper roles in educating the nation’s youth.

A federally commissioned study of 36 middle school charters by the Mathematica Policy Research found that students randomly chosen to attend charter schools performed no better in reading and math than those who didn’t. Starker differences were noted for charters serving lower-income neighborhoods where students did outperform their public school counterparts (Education Week).

The study does not settle any debate on charters, but does point to a more nuanced approach. Jeffrey R. Henig, education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College said, “This study adds weight to the side that is suggesting that simply talking about charters versus noncharters is a distraction” (Education Week).

The second study, released by the Education and Public Interest Center (EPIC) and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU), found that charters receive less money than traditional public schools, but also have fewer obligations. Charter schools receive $9,883 per pupil compared to $12,863 for traditional public schools, the study showed (EPIC Policy). These numbers may be misleading because traditional public schools generally take on more services, like costly special education, transportation, and food services.

 Almost 4,000 of the nation’s 90,000 public schools are charters (National Center for Education Statistics). That’s a small percentage now, but there is a strong push to create many more charters very rapidly. For example, for a state to be considered for a share of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top funds, it needed to commit to charters.

This momentum must be guided by tough questions, standards, transparency, and accountability.  We have much to learn from how exemplary charters use high-quality resources and equitable, excellent strategies.

School Decline as a Spectator Sport

  • 07-09-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of July 6-9, 2010

After a month-long slog, the finale of the world’s biggest sporting event—the FIFA World Cup—will take place Sunday. From a field of 32 teams, two have powered through increasingly difficult matchups to represent their nations in the final contest—Spain, arguably the best team coming into the tournament, and the Netherlands, who won every match leading to Sunday’s final contest. Who can resist?


At our best, we spectators admire these winners for their sterling performance on the field, and we feel the pain of their worthy but losing opponents.  For sports fans, it’s a delicious mix of life’s most consequential moments and complete frivolity.


Let us change the channel now and see what’s of interest on the education network. Hardly a spec alongside the mountain of attention heaped on the World Cup is another contest—consequential, not frivolous, and very sad. We are watching the battle between those favoring a bill by Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., that would skim about $500 million from the president’s Race to the Top education program in order to save some teaching positions  (Washington Post), and those who want to preserve all the money for Race to the Top’s competitive grants (National Journal, American Progress, Education Week).     


As Californians, it’s hard to know who to root for.  Obey’s bill may have an edge in our affections because California schools will be able to retain some teaching positions for its students—how many is not clear.  Supporters say that the bill will help schools “weather the draconian teacher layoffs, class consolidations and decline in teacher quality that will likely occur in their absence (American Progress).  However, Obey’s bill is a one-year stopgap infusion and a modest one at that. It only would offset a portion of planned cuts in California.


Full funding of Race to the Top has substantial appeal—who can argue with incentives for innovation? But it will take years for “winning” states to fully realize their reforms. And change will not necessarily mean better or more equitable outcomes.


In the meantime, students living in states that are not chosen for the program will not benefit from federal support, however uncertain it is. California and some other states don’t stand much of a chance in this game. We will admire the victors, and feel the pain of the losers who will be, once again, children.  


Even before the recession, California was essentially “playing a man down.” It lagged behind much of the nation in student achievement, while having some of the most crowded classrooms in the country (Educational Opportunity Report).  With increasing budget cuts and no remedy coming from the state, California can’t compete and future prospects don’t look good (Eduflack, Education Week). 


It is important for policymakers, communities, and all those who have a stake in schools to debate whether it’s better to spend money on “motivating” states toward reform or helping schools in greatest need adequately staff their faculties. It’s not a choice that welcomes fans or produces winners.


Urgent Financing for Schools or “Throwing More Money” at Them?

  • 07-16-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of July 12-16, 2010

California has been hit by a second lawsuit alleging that the state fails to adequately fund the public education system. The new suit, Campaign for Quality Education v. California, was filed Monday in Alameda County, the same place as the previous Robles-Wong v. California.

Plaintiffs and attorneys of the new case say there are similarities between the two, but that theirs focuses on low-income and minority students and on expanding preschool (Educated Guess, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle). According to the suit, “By failing to provide sufficient access to effective pre-school opportunities for low-income students…(the state fails) to ensure that such students arrive at public school reasonably prepared to take equal advantage of the State’s K-12 educational opportunities.”

Joining Campaign for Quality Education  are the grassroots and community-organizing groups Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Californians for Justice  and San Francisco Organizing Project  and about 20 students. The main plaintiffs in Robles-Wong are the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators, state PTA, nine school districts and about 60 students. The California Teachers Association also supports the effort.

One thing that is clear from both of these suits is that everyone—school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, students and community groups—agrees that California’s public education is in a dire situation. There is insufficient funding and inequality in how money is rationed among schools. The new complaint’s legal argument stands on California’s constitutional requirement of prioritizing education funding. “We’re filing this suit to force the State to live up to its founding promise to invest in our most valuable asset—the human potential of Californians,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates, who are representing the plaintiffs.

Defendants in the suits and those who agree with them don’t argue about schools providing an adequate or just education. Instead, some claim more funds for keeping a lid on class sizes, limiting teacher layoffs, and more equitably distributing resources, just wouldn’t help. “Throwing more money into our broken education system will not benefit students unless it is accompanied by extensive and systemic reform,” said Andrea McCarthy, spokeswoman for Gov. Schwarzenegger, a defendant in the case (San Francisco Chronicle).

Of course, “throwing more money” is not what the lawsuit intends. The suit’s supporters are also eager for extensive education reform in the state. That’s why the suit calls for the courts to compel lawmakers to seek coherent funding reforms instead of yearly stopgaps.

Jeremy Lahoud, executive director of Californians for Justice, said Monday at a rally outside Long Beach Superior Court that the suit was not the first choice for compelling reform. “We’ve met with legislators, we’ve supported school finance reform legislation, and we’ve taken thousands of students and parents to Sacramento to no avail,” Lahoud said. “We can’t wait any longer, we’re losing a whole generation of students…" (KPCC

Same Old “New Standards”

  • 07-23-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of July 19-23, 2010

Last week the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released “Common Core Standards.”  These academic standards are of critical interest to the nation’s schools, and their adoption can shape public education for years to come.

Academic standards are specific goals that say what students should be able to know and teachers teach at any given time. The pressures are great for states to adopt the new standards by Aug. 2. Under President Obama’s Race to the Top program, adopting states will have an edge to garner some of the $3 billion to be awarded in September.

The competition for funds has spurred more than half of the nation’s states to sign on, and others have shown interest in doing so within the next few days (New York Times).  Perhaps the federal standards will lessen the differences among individual states that are now all over the place when it comes to standards. Some are lax and minimal, while others set the bar very high, like California, which has some of the highest in the country. According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s evaluation of each state’s standards, California’s exceed the national standards in both math and English.

Déjà vu: 1990s.

If it’s not too late, policymakers would do well to remember the standards debates of the 1990s and the errors made then. Many analysts and educators pushed for reform that included three dimensions: curriculum standards that set learning goals, performance standards that specified the levels of student achievement, and opportunity to learn standards. This last category, Opportunity to Learn, would set and measure standards for the resources students need to reach their academic standards.

The logic for including Opportunity to Learn was simple:  you can’t understand how to help children learn if you don’t know whether they have appropriate textbooks and other learning materials, whether their teachers are knowledgeable in their subjects, whether their classes are overcrowded, whether there is a nurse, counselor, or librarian available, and lots of other opportunities that can be key to learning.

But these standards were dumped from education policy. Many leaders worried that exposing and fixing the dramatically insufficient conditions in schools would be too expensive or would shift resources from rich schools to poor schools. Others believed that inadequately resourced schools wouldn’t get their fair share under any circumstances, and in the meantime, the “opportunity gap” would become an excuse for giving up on holding poor children to high standards. Still others said, and say today, that resources mostly don’t matter.

So what remained then, and is on the table today, is curriculum standards plus assessments with the hope that sanctions, rewards, and choice, mixed with outcome testing, are sufficient. But the proof is in the California pudding.

Even with high standards, California ranks near the bottom in student achievement, and it’s no coincidence that California is also near the bottom in opportunities to learn. With high academic and performance standards coupled with low opportunity standards, California schools are set up for high rates of failure compared to other states where opportunities are higher and standards are lower.

So even as states now focus on the “race to adopt" national curriculum standards (San Francisco Chronicle), policy makers would be well advised to reclaim a vision of reform that ensures conditions are in place for students to learn what is deemed important.

Civil Rights: A Principled Education

  • 07-30-2010
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By UCLA IDEA staff

Themes in the News for the week of July 26-30, 2010

The promise of American public education is to teach, enable, and inspire generations of youth to participate fully and equally in all spheres of civic life—social, economic, and political.

Educational access and opportunity are so tightly linked to the other rights Americans cherish that education itself stands as a civil right. As President Obama leads much-needed education reform, civil rights groups and advocates are looking carefully at the civil rights implications of the reform proposals. Their views are varied, but their hopes and concerns appear to coalesce around three fundamental principles or indicators of education as a civil right.

The first is universality. Does a high-quality education reach every student in every community? On Monday, a group of eight civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, issued a framework for reform that was mindful of this principle (Washington Post). The groups are concerned that Race to the Top, will pit states, schools and others against each other leaving low-income and minority students further behind. Though they laud some aspects of the president’s education agenda, they stressed, “…It is our responsibility to seek to close and ultimately eliminate the opportunity and achievement gaps experienced by communities of color."

Broadly speaking, the Obama administration seems committed to universality, but it is not clear to everyone how incentive-based, competitive programs can overcome gaps among groups and schools (The Atlantic, Bloomberg). Speaking to the National Urban League Wednesday, Secretary Arne Duncan said, “In so many ways, our reform agenda is all about equity… Competition isn’t about winners and losers. It’s about getting better” (U.S. Dept of Education, Education Week). The administration will have to work hard to be sure that betterment prevails over winners and losers.

Informed participation is another principle of education as a civil right. Do students, parents and local communities have the information and resources to make sound decisions and course corrections?  The reform framework created by the Civil Rights coalition highlights the importance for schools to report on learning opportunities and to ensure student and parent participation in meaningful decision making.

Similarly, Communities for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) considers the administration’s four reform models to lack community engagement and research. Instead, CEPS favors a participatory model proposed by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (Washington Post). CEPS says the four models put forth — turnaround, restart, school closure, and transformation — will not work since they lack community input, a focus on educational change and consideration of local issues.

A third principle of civil rights is fairness.  Do school policies and practices provide students with due process?  Do educators treat all students with dignity and respect? The Office of Civil Rights, under the direction of Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali, is launching investigations of discipline practices that lead to extremely high rates of suspension and expulsion for African American males. The broader rights community shares Ali’s concern with racially disparate discipline policies and worries more generally about the overuse and misapplication of discipline practices that effectively exclude students from the educational process.

It is fitting that in a week when advocates and policy makers in Washington, D.C. talked about universality, informed participation, and fairness, tens of thousands in Arizona and across the nation exercised their rights to speak, assemble, and petition the government to redress their grievances.

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.