Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Closing the Opportunity Gap

A Missouri University study Featured this week in EdNews finds that out of 46 countries studied, the US has the fourth-highest Education Opportunity Gap—defined as the difference between high and low socio-economic status students and their access to qualified teachers.

The study says, and is based on the premise, that students with similar backgrounds, even low-income, achieve significantly higher when taught by highly qualified teachers.

Other findings included:

• 29.7 percent of U.S. eighth grade math teachers did not major in mathematics or mathematics education; the international average is 13.2 percent.
• 60.3 percent of U.S. eighth graders are taught mathematics by teachers with full certification, who were mathematics or mathematics education majors and had at least three years of teaching experience; nearly 40 percent of U.S.

eighth graders do not have access to highly qualified teachers.
• In the United States, 67.6 percent of high-socioeconomic status students are taught by highly qualified teachers, compared with 53.2 percent of low-socioeconomic status students. This opportunity gap of 14.4 percent is significantly larger than the international average of 2.5 percent.

This article made me think of a book report I did Sophomore year of high school on Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, about a man who wakes up from a trance to find the wealth gap virtually closed by socialist practices. I know, I will really create a huge uproar by even mentioning that word, but hear me out!

The book espouses a fix that many agree will not work, and will certainly not work in a government construct, and is a “utopian fiction” genre popular at the time as a vehicle showing the best and purest outcomes of a particular ideology. But the book is poised at the confluence of the 19th and 20th centuries largely to demonstrate that the wealth gap emerging between the two centuries is a drasic problem and inherently wrong. It influenced a climate of change that we know today as a social justice movement (not socialist), and we take from that a great desire to, at every level, alleviate poverty, hunger and homelessness. I also wrote a research paper on why the socialist movement failed in the US after the WPA and the end of the depression.

My point is two-fold. I believe that closing that gap (as ever-present) comes from expanding choices, not by limiting them, and that choice offered in the beginning—that is to say, as a person is beginning the education that influences their future and livelihood—does the most to keep people out of poverty and generational poverty. A good education means a good workforce, a better economy, and quite literally the ability to make choices for their own destinies.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Working together for education

EduDiva (St. Louis blogger) brings up a great point: we have a decent amount of education options in St. Louis. The city has great private schools and many highly respected colleges to encourage students to continue their education. She makes the point that St. Louis likes options, and is pretty intent on supporting that. Perhaps that is because there is a necessity for other options when public schools are letting students down at a blistering rate. But unlike a lot of reporting on the subject that stops after stating the problem and pontificating that there should be a solution, EduDiva brings up some very salient solutions, like offering tuition tax credits as proposed by the Show-Me Institute and an aggressive plan for proliferation of Charter School in the city. She quotes a great series of 5 discussion-starters from Education Sector, all of which encourage opening up choices for St. Louis students in a responsible way.

This series of recommendations hints at one of the central issues I’ve noticed surrounding school choice, to wit: it is not an either/ or conversation but a question of “how much”. School choice opponents are not, in essence and in general, against school choice. Rather they are against possible downsides: how it would affect public schools, how it would burden healthy schools, and misconceptions, buzzwords, tax concerns. It seems to me that rather than both sides standing with their backs turned, an exchange of ideas and yes, even concessions may be in order. It would go something like this:

“What are your concerns?”

“Oh, thanks for asking. Here are a few.”

“Okay. Let’s work together.”

I know, it sounds like a Sesame Street sketch. But forming partnerships that, however unusual, can result in sincere, well-vetted policies. One thought in the study was Transition Aid for Facilities, not as stodgy as it sounds! It offers a trade between public schools and Charters, recognizing that operating costs stay the same even if students leave a public school. For St. Louis that has several empty facilities, aid to supplement a loss of some students would be given for access to space. That’s what I call a win-win, with the benefits for students. And there are many more where that comes from if conversations are about strengthening all educational options on the table for students.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Choice encourages parental involvement

Children benefit from parental involvement greatly. Parents can have a huge impact on how successful their child is. This is not to say that parents who work full-time and have little time to study with their children will create less successful parents. When looking at school choice programs, it takes a little involvement to make it work. The parents must chose to get their child placed in a better school. In an article School Choice Gains Steam in The Post and Courier, Charleston, it is says:

School choice encourages parental involvement, a crucial asset for the long-term mission of improving our state's education system. Parents of 289 students have proven that point anew by choosing to file applications for admission to the new Charleston Charter School for Math & Science. Though space limitations required school officials to admit only 180 of those students, the clear public yearning for more and better educational options re-confirms that school choice is an idea whose time has come.

Thirty of the nearly 300 parents who applied for their children's admission even got involved by showing up at the Charleston County Library's main branch last week for the lottery drawing that determined which students could attend the Math & Science charter school on the campus of the former Rivers Middle School downtown. The school will open in August for sixth- through ninth-graders, with additional grades through the 12th added annually.

While parents whose children weren't lucky enough to have their numbers drawn for admission were understandably disappointed, the lottery process assured a fair and equal chance for all applicants to the school, which has no entrance test. And the strong public demand for spots in the school assures strong parental involvement.

One of those disappointed parents, Louis Lawrence, told our reporter that he wants his son, who's entering the sixth grade in August, to have the best education possible. That's an admirable sentiment that can be fostered throughout our community and state by expanding school choice. As Mr. Lawrence put it: "We want change. We want something different. We want opportunity."...

And one of the most critical benefits of charter schools is invigorating parental involvement in education.

While not every parent wins the lottery here, at least some children are given that opportunity to a better education. It will also encourage the movement to grow as more parents will want to have their children in those schools. The other schools will decide it is time to improve if they want to keep their students. It is a win-win situation. Would you want your child attending a failing or non-excelling school if you had the choice?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

School choice news from across the river

Peoria, IL has seen a jump from 25% poverty rate among students to 70% in the last 25 years. This has led to consideration of serious changes to their district. Beth Akeson, School Board candidate believes that statistic means schools are not doing their job. “We’re not moving people out of poverty,” said Akeson. “These people are now parents.”

From Peoria Story blog:

[Akeson] favors “school choice,” and would like to see each school lunch room cook its own food, to take advantage of “a teaching moment.” She wants the District 150 unions to work with the administrators to solve problems. “There is so much anger and mistrust. There is antagonism.”

Improvement will require hard work, she said. “I don’t think we will improve this district by wishing and hoping and praying.”

She also said board members need more information than they receive in their packets. “Asking questions is important,” she said.

“Every decision (made by the board) has an impact on our community,” she said. “You need persistence, goal setting.”

Ken Hinton, Superintendent of Peoria schools, is looking forward to offering choice to students in the district. He believes that school choice is a logical part of a large equation that will improve the school district. This vote could come before the school board as early as this spring.

This seems like great news for Peoria, and an attitude we could use in Missouri. School board members and Superintendents are viewing choice as essential for public school improvement; and Illinois is not that far away from Missouri.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Boy dragged out of school?

I read in the St. Louis Post the other day how a boy was dragged out of a Ladue school, I think right in the middle of the school day, because he doesn't have the right address. According to the article, the family claims to live in the Ladue School District. According to the Ladue School District, the boy's family lives in the Normandy school district. Well, the law will determine which school the boy will attend~obviously it's not up to the parents, even though there is clearly enough room for the boy at Ladue.

How many of us know of parents who went through great measures~like these parents~to try to get their child a decent education?! I personally know a couple of families in my own children's school who don't live here in the county~they live in the city. I won't rat them out either because I can assure you that I would not place those little angels I have come to know and love back in St. Louis Public Schools, especially now that St. Louis Public Schools have lost their accreditation.

One of these children I know that snuck into our school, a little girl, is borderline genius! With the support of our incredible little neighborhood suburbia public school, I know she will have, and live, the hope of breaking away from her poverty-stricken background! I have a sister who also lives in the city who fictiously enrolled her son out in Kirkwood a few years back because she couldn't get an education for her ADHD son. This brought great strain on my family to keep up the guise of my nephew living in Kirkwood.

There are countless families in crisis because time is wasting and their children need educational help and support that is focussed on them personally. They are not finding it in the current public school system. Thank God I accidentally moved to an awesome neighborhood with GREAT schools because I wasn't looking at the public school when I purchased my home~it was four years later that I bore my first child and 5 years after that before that child entered the public school system.

A young financially challenged couple can find cheaper housing in the city. They won't need to look at the school for years later and maybe they think that they will move when the time comes... But all too often, circumstances change and people become bound to their neighborhoods for one reason or another. The option of a good education can stabilize a home and the lack of options can destroy it.

If you cannot care on an emotional level, you should care when it comes to your pocketbook. Choice in education improves future outlook and decreases dependency on the public dole~it simply makes sense to offer educational alternatives to what we've got now, because what we've got now is failing our children.

Does this sound all too familiar?!

Colorado is ready for education reform. In fact, the topic headed up Governor Bill Ritter's State of the State address recently.

"Ritter says education systems and policies have been focused on "seat time" and course titles, assuming the number of years in a certain class is somehow more important than measuring if students actually learned."

Does the above statement sound familiar? Ask the next teacher you come across~even better, the next FORMER teacher, as there are plenty of them out there...if the emphasis in the classroom is on LEARNING/TEACHING? 9 times out of 10 you will find that teachers spend more time filling out forms to verify that they filled out forms and followed processes such that they have little time left for teaching! Go ahead~ASK them!!

Missouri needs leadership that understands that education should focus on the needs of children and that the parents of these children should be empowered to identify the educational options that will best serve their child.

Monday, January 14, 2008

For Profit Schooling?

For the most part, schools are ran as non-profits. One man in Chicago is using the idea that running a school like a business will provide the best outcomes. While I do not know much about running schools for profits, the business like structure makes sense to me. I have always thought that schools would be better off running like businesses, encouraging competition to drive excellence. School choice follows this train of thought. If people were given the choice, the worst schools would lose students, which would then force them to improve to get students back. You can't be a school without the students, right?

Now, a look at the the new Flashpoint Academy of the Media Arts and Sciences vocational school and Experiencia science and business education center for grade school students in Chicago. Entrepreneur Howard Tullman believes education should be ran like a business with profits. These schools are state of the art that offer the best equipment and tools. For profit schools face some issues, such as not being able to offer tax breaks to donors and required to pay property taxes. They have set up foundations that allow charitable donations to be used for scholarship funds. So they found some ways around losing the perks of a non-profit. Additionally, they can offer teachers bonus pay and merit pay. This would attract and retain the best teachers around. "We treat education as the most important business there is, because it's our future," Tullman said. The Chicago Tribune posted more details on the schools and on Tullman's philosophy and history.

It is an interesting idea, and one that backs the ideas behind school choice. Running it like a business allows for competition, freedom, accountability, and pressure to improve. The schools need to try something different. We are not getting better results they way things have been going, it is time for something different.

Something is Better Than Nothing

School choice has made way in one district in Las Vegas. The Clark County School District in Las Vegas will offer open enrollment starting in the 2008-2009 school year. The children will be allowed to attend any school in the region that has room for them. This policy was adapted because of the expectation it will increase competition amongst the schools, therefore improving campus programs.

This is a great first step for this district and stands to help the schools improve and allow each parent and child choice. Unfortunately, the district cannot afford to provide transportation to other schools. The open enrollment will be constricted by those who can provide their own transportation. While there is still choice, the level it can be used will be affected by this. However, the district has decided to still go through with the plan even though it is a smaller pilot program than once envisioned. According to this article in the Las Vegas Sun,

Bill Ouchi, a management professor at UCLA who has researched the roots of successful public school reform nationwide, agreed “I’d say a half a loaf is better than no loaf,” Ouchi said.

Other financially pinched districts have found creative ways to offer open enrollment, Ouchi said. One solution is to allow individual schools to control at least some of their transportation dollars and offer stipends to help students offset their costs.”

Kudos for this district to have the courage and the wisdom to enact this program, as well as not giving up in the face of a small setback. If only Missouri voters could see it the same way. Our districts could use some drastic improvements. The mess we are in is ridiculous. Lawsuits, unaccredited schools, failing students…these are all red flags to me!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Criminality of Choice

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Leondre Washington was removed from Ladue school district without due process because his family lives in Normandy. Read the whole story here.

In a city that has gotten a lot of national recognition for its crime rate, there is a new criminal-at-large: students who want a good education.

In 13 other states there are options for students who are unhappy with the quality of education in their neighborhood. Those states recognized that education is a right that we recognize as a nation, and that if the public education system we have created doesn’t do that, we can’t sit blithely by and say, well, we gave it our best shot. Instead, those 13 states have implemented a spectrum of choices for those students that they may claim that right.

Normandy is a school district spending more than the state per average daily attendance, and substantially more than the state on teacher salaries. Their ACT composite scores are well below the state average, along with their graduation rates. According to NCLB yearly progress report, they are not meeting standards in communication arts, mathematics, attendance and graduation.

And yet a student who seeks out a better school district is violating the law. In a country whose genesis was based on religious freedom, which has worked for generations to offer choices to its citizens because choice is an integral component of individual freedom, this shouldn’t be happening.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe writes:

“Nobody would want the government to run 90 percent of the nation's entertainment industry. Nobody thinks that 90 percent of all housing should be owned by the state. Yet the government's control of 90 percent of the nation's schools leaves most Americans strangely unconcerned.”

The desire for a better education should not be stifled, and not only because it’s a right. Education is a building block for cities. In St. Louis, city development is hindered by the lack of choice in education. People want to work downtown, party downtown, eat dinner in the city, but they don’t want to live in the city because of the dire state of its public education. Not to mention the correlation between dropout rates and incarceration.

In other states Leondre would have the option to go to another school that was performing better. Those states see education budgets increase, public schools perform better and cities themselves become a more desirable place to live. Why not here in Missouri?

A Non-Union Teachers Group

Utah has definitely been making the headlines recently. I paid close attention to the fight for state wide school choice and was distraught when it did not go through. Initially, it looked like voters liked the idea, so I wondering what had happened. Then I realized, it was the work of the teacher’s union in Utah (UEA) and the National Education Association (NEA) that destroyed the progress choice was making in Utah. It is greatly unfortunate that a union, one said to represent the schools and the students, would waste millions of dollars fighting against a bill that could have done great things to the public education in Utah. I have come to the conclusion the unions are not always making the right decisions for the schools or the children. As individual teachers, they may be great, but when it comes down to collective bargaining, etc, I think they lose sight of what their main mission as a teacher should be.

An article in the Salt Lake City Tribune discusses the relatively new non-union in Utah. It sounds like it may have potential to make wise decisions for the children and for public schools. I am hoping the UEA and NEA do not use their power and money to find a way to discredit them or destroy them, just like we witnessed in the choice movement. I also hope this new group finds ways to actually do things to help the kids. One thing about this group I found interesting was that “most of his group's members were against vouchers, but the group's position was to let the public decide and then work with the outcome.” First of all, it gives me hope that some members do agree with vouchers, and secondly, that this group will not force its opinion on everyone, hopefully. The article also noted that Missouri has such a group as well. There was mention that some states had more members in the non-union groups than in the unions. Hopefully, Missouri will be one of them, and hopefully, it will make some better choices for Missouri schools. Giving choice a chance would be a great place to start.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The new separate but equal?

Chief Justice Warren said:

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

What breaks my heart is that 53 years later our schools are still separate and still unequal. The sad reality is that few of the hopes and dreams posted on those bulletin boards will ever come true because they face a grossly unequal education system. These children are bound by geography to attend schools overwhelmed by children with problems. With reasonable concern, more affluent areas make rules to keep their children safe from those problems. To break these bonds every child deserves the right to attend a school of their choice, whether it is the local public school or a private one. We can not place the burden of responsibility on the parents’ ability to afford a home in better school districts or travel long distances to take their children to better schools. School choice can and will repair the brokenness of inequality.

My Thoughts:

Brown V. Board of Education is seen as one of the most significant decisions for education in America. I keep coming back to the detestable of separate but equal, and that public education has reverted to a mere permutation of that concept that students are integrated but unequal. The cry today is that classism is outpacing racism as the number one cause of inequality. Where is the Brown V. Board of the new millennium? Why aren’t we accounting for the evolution toward a new type of inequality? Is it just too radical an idea that a top-heavy, centuries-old institution may be in need of a restructuring? If public education was a body, it would have died of a stroke or natural causes. If public education was a business, it would have been indicted for corporate fraud and gone bankrupt. But instead it is our old and venerated tradition whose nostalgia trumps the fact that it no longer works for those who need it the most.

Legislative Priorities?

“The unbridled creativity and compassion of our nation’s teachers can solve many of the problems those in poverty face. Their skill and determination should not be corralled by the bureaucracy and petty turf wars built into our current system. It is no wonder why so many teachers burn out so quickly. These teachers should be able to open schools in a competitive marketplace where good school programs succeed and bad programs fail.”

­My Thoughts: Teachers Unions are a voice against change. In Columbia today we see the School District’s list of legislative priorities as follows, and my notes on how they should be changed to reflect the needs of students instead of the views of a lobbying group:


Implement accountability measures to ensure that resources are being used to meet state accreditation standards and all waste is cut out so those resources reach the student.


Support choice for special education parents so they can match their child with the most appropriate school.


Columbia Public Schools believe that educating students is the most important and complicated issue facing state leadership and local educators today.


Support Charter Schools that specialize for students struggling to succeed and stay in mainstream public schools.


Ensure that taxpayer dollars already spent are being allocated wisely before issuing another bond. Show taxpayers where waste has been cut, and how any increase in funding will be used to give all students a quality education.


I think that one makes sense as is.


Transition from believing that statement to proving it.


Support teachers who improve student progress through merit pay, and cease the one-size-fits-all pay for both effective and ineffective teaching practices.


Support students’ access to quality education, even non-public, state-of-the-art schools.


Root out fiscal irresponsibility on a local level and find funding for advanced placement tests.


Look into methods of student improvement that have worked for other school districts.


Consider open conversation with all groups attempting to improve public education as necessary to making productive legislation.


See priority 9.

Kristin Maguire upsets the apple cart

Many current South Carolina board members and educrats have decried Kristin Maguire, the newest chairman to the State Board of Education, because she home schools her children. One board member said, “What does a woman who home schools her children know about South Carolina public schools?”

My guess is: more than most public school parents. I wonder why she home schools: there could be many reasons, but my guess is that they all stem from her doing a concerned parent’s job of researching the education available to her child and making the best decision. She obviously found something in the public school system she was wary or concerned about, and I have to applaud her for stepping beyond her own backyard and caring about other people’s education. She knows probably better than most teachers the state standards and has firsthand experience on how a teacher meets those goals. I imagine it helps her see the ways that the education complex hinders teachers from making those benchmarks of achievement.

I also think that kind of motivation is essential for a healthy board of education, and many who have worked with Maguire have lauded her ‘semper paratus’ and are able to look past ideological differences.

If you want to take a gander at Missouri’s BOE spread, it’s here: