Sunday, March 20, 2011

Education Reform Talk: Is it real or hypocricy!

[This post was written before the House omnibus bill was publicized, but after the Committee Chair was reported as having proposed the elimination of integration funding....The newly posted House Bill does not eliminate integration funding and appears to provide significantly enhanced authority to school districts to use integration funding free of MDE bureaucrats. For those of us in the regional centers like St. Cloud, the impact on integration funding appears to be a step forward. For Minneapolis and St. Paul there appears to be a major financial reduction. The bill has lots of implications and it is too early to say that one understands all of them. It does appear to provide some reform elements that are positive, and some financial components that are negative, but its too early to tell. .....]

I was energized when Minnesota Republicans changed the name of the House Education Committee to the Education Reform Committee. We sure do need reform in the way we manage education in Minnesota. I even signed onto and testified in favor of Senate File 0056 which freezes public employee pay for two years. If the state would provide management the ability to deliver education the way that it needs to be delivered, and if the State would provide us with sufficient revenues and cost controls, I reasoned, we could really make some fantastic progress. But now, frankly, as I look at what legislators are actually doing, I begin to believe that neither reform nor closing the achievement gap is their paramount goal. One is beginning to be suspicious that the real goal is to keep taxes down at all cost, and to move money out of school districts where most democrats live and into school districts where most republicans live. I hope that I'm wrong, but its hard to explain what is beginning to happen any other way.

Two items in the news caught my eye this week. On March 16, the education media noted that after weeks of negotiations, the KIPP charter school network reached a 10-year agreement with the Baltimore Teachers Union today for how much it will pay its teachers for working extra-long hours. For more information, click here. KIPP had threatened it would close its two schools in Baltimore if it couldn't settle on a long-term contract with teachers. KIPP said, "we can't do our job unless we have the ability to deliver programs the way that work."

On March 18, an important Republican leader announced that it is time to cut revenue to public school districts serving students who are commonly referred to as part of the "achievement gap." He allegedly explained this proposal because we have failed to close the gap in Minnesota. See the Minn Post Article by clicking here. Since we have failed to close the gap, he reasoned, we should cut the funding that is designed to assist school districts in closing the gap. I have a lot of respect for the Republican legislative leaders, but:
This simplistic approach represents a complete abdication of the responsibility of the legislature to solve problems and provide school districts with the tools that they need to do their job.
It would be like saying, since we haven't cured cancer yet, let's cut off funding for cancer research. Since we haven't stopped terrorism, let's stop funding the war on terror. Responsible public servants are responsible to address major public needs, especially public education, with thoughtful, productive legislation. If we are dissatisfied with the progress that public education is making, its irresponsible to stop funding it: what we need to do is to implement the reforms that are needed to do the job as efficiently and effectively as we can. The problem is not that we are spending too much on the achievement gap: the problem is that both parties have encased the managers of schools in a straightjacket that prevents management from delivering instruction in the ways that work the best. In our school district, we had to crawl on our hands and knees to beg for permission to utilize integration revenue in ways that improve learning. We said, look, the best way to achieve integration is to assure that all students are succeeding. MDE bureaucrats said, "no, you have money for education, this is for something else." The solution to this problem is not cutting the funding: the solution is to allow us to use the funding to address the real educational needs that students have, by taking away stupid bureaucratic rules and legislative constraints.

At the same time that some Republican lawmakers were proposing to fix the achievement gap by defunding efforts to address the problem, several articles appeared regarding the highly regarded KIPP program. KIPP's Baltimore program was embroiled in a major dispute with its teachers union over management's insistence that it must maintain a longer school day in order to fulfill its mission to close the achievement gap at a price that KIPP could afford. KIPP has a significantly longer school day and a significantly longer school year. When the teachers union demanded that KIPP pay more than KIPP could afford to continue these initiatives, management said, we are going to close our school, unless we can continue both longer school day and summer school at a price that we can afford, because that's what we need to do to meet our objective. We exist to close the achievement gap. If we can't have the tools we need, we are going to close up shop.

Now in Minnesota, having this discussion would be a joke in public schools. The legislature and governor won't give us the funds to make a longer school day happen and the unions won't have serious discussions on lengthening the day or school year at a price that we can afford. You can't deliver a longer school day at the same price as the shorter school day. And, you can't afford to deliver a longer school day at the same hourly rate that you deliver the regular school day. There would have to be more money, but the additional time would have to be provided at a reasonable rate. In Minnesota, the legislative scheme is that school districts are deprived of the resources and the management powers to do their job, so we criticize them profusely, and then finally, we use that criticism as an excuse to cut their funding.

In Minnesota, the Republicans and Democrats are just kidding around when they say they want public education to close the achievement gap. It's just talk. The Republicans won't provide the funds necessary to do the job; and the democrats won't agree to give management the powers to implement reforms that work at a price that the public can afford to pay. The Democrats get to partner up with big labor. The Republicans get an excuse to cut funding and taxes.

School reformers like to tout KIPP as an example of how to close the achievement gap. But if the so-called reformers were really interested in using the KIPP experience, then they would give public school districts the powers to do what KIPP is trying to do. They would give us the revenues and the powers. The KIPP schools are commonly identified by reform advocates as showing the way to make great strides in educating students of poverty. KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 99 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 27,000 students. To put this into scale, there are just under 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. KIPP schools account for one-tenth of one percent of the schools in the United States. If we want to do what KIPP is doing on a larger scale we aren't going to get there by walking away from this problem and defunding the efforts. We are going to have to provide revenues, management powers, and then demand accountability. Accountability without management powers and adequate revenues is a recipe for failure.

All KIPP schools have special powers not afforded to regular public schools. They have enhanced management powers to organize the delivery of instruction, and they have sufficient resources to cover the cost of doing that. The sufficient resources issue is a combination of revenues and sufficient cost-control to implement the delivery of necessary program. There are too many republicans who believe that they can solve the deficiency of public schools by talking about reform and the starving them to death financially.

Going down that path may please the taxpayer's league, but the Constitution requires the legislature to provide for an efficient properly financed public education system. Any fool can cut the education budget. It takes statesmanship and deep thoughtful studied leadership to solve the problem. The solution lies in giving public schools the powers they need, the funding they need, and then demanding that they use those powers and finances to deliver the best possible education.

KIPP advocates tell us that they are on to something important and part of what they do is to manage schools differently with the special management powers that they have. These extra powers aren't a function of being charter schools. The lack of extra powers in regular public schools results from the abdication of legislative responsibility to give these powers to all public schools. Partly that abdication derives from the subservience of democrats to big labor. Partly, that abdication derives from the abject failure of Republicans to make the effort necessary to understand what works in education. They know how to cut taxes; they know how to criticize; but they haven't taken the responsibility yet to study what is actually working.
Every day, KIPP students across the nation are proving that demographics do not define destiny. Over 80 percent of our students are from low-income families and eligible for the federal free or reduced-price meals program, and 95 percent are African American or Latino. Nationally, more than 90 percent of KIPP middle school students have gone on to college-preparatory high schools, and over 85 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college.
KIPP schools depend upon special rules for teachers, students and parents. They do not accept students who refuse to follow the rules and rigorous demands. Parents must sign contracts agreeing to meet KIPP standards for parents. Teachers must agree to adhere to KIPP's high standards as well. All this is wonderful, isn't it. KIPP skeptics claim that KIPP is successful for the same reason that highly selective universities produce so many exceptional graduates. KIPP proponents say that this is not true. Be that as it may, there is broad consensus among school reformers that KIPP is onto something that other charter programs do not have.

And if you believe that it is the charter nature of KIPP, let us be clear that in Minnesota, the legislative auditor has found that charter schools are simply not superior, or indeed somewhat inferior, to regular Minnesota public schools in closing the achievement gap. As the Minneapolis Tribune reported:
As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions,compared with 32 percent of district-run schools. (Minneapolis Tribune, June 30, 2008.)
KIPP schools insist that students attend a longer school day than other children. They are implementing one of the critical findings that runs across all of the research about addressing the education achievement gap--we make up the gap by extra effort, extra classroom time, extra teaching, extra study. And the point I want to make is that extra school time requires two things: the ability of management to implement extra long days, and the ability of management to pay for that extra time.

We know what is required to address the achievement gap. There is no secret. The first thing is we need to give the managers of school districts the power to implement programs that work. We know what those programs are and how they need to be implemented. The legislators and the Governor need to get together and give us those powers. Giving management the powers we need to implement programs won't please the leadership of labor unions. But it will please the vast majority of teachers because the vast majority of teachers across the state are dedicated to doing what needs to be done so that children succeed.

One of the great hypocrisies in St. Paul is that Republicans criticize school districts for not implementing best practices, but when they have the majority in the legislature, they won't give us those powers, because either they lack the guts to do it, or because really they have a different agenda,
and that agenda does not involve giving public schools the powers we need to be effective. Republicans and Democrats need to get together and put children first and start by giving school districts the powers that we need, and then having done so, insist that we act effectively and decisively.

The second thing that is required to address the achievement gap is that school districts must have the resources to implement reforms. If we want longer school days, if we want summer school, if we want mentoring and tutoring, that comes with a price. Republicans who claim that they believe in reform, but who want to defund gap closing initiatives are engaging in hypocrisy. I fear that what they really mean is that they want to take money away from school districts where most people are democrats and move that money to school districts where most people are republicans. I wish and hope that I'm wrong. But if Republicans are really interested in education reform, they will stop efforts to cripple school districts financially, and instead give school districts the management powers and the revenues necessary to do our job right.

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