Monthly Archives: November 2013

What Arne Duncan Can Learn From Texas Moms

It’s not every day that Democrats and Republicans get to shake their fist in the same direction. That honor goes to Education Sec. Arne Duncan whose insult against “white, suburban moms” whose “child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were” has sparked outrage from the tea party to teachers unions — not to mention the PTA moms who are heavily invested in their children’s schooling. Sec. Duncan is still walking back his remarks, but if a similar story in Texas is any guide, he’s not done with this fight by a long shot.

CCSSSpeaking to a group of superintendents, Duncan stepped in it, got down and rolled around in it when he said mothers just couldn’t accept how dumb their kids were.

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”

Common Core has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, and so far, the rollout has been such a disaster that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a Common Core supporter, said, “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”

But Pres. Barack Obama took responsibility for the failures of healthcare.gov and his broken promise that people could keep their insurance plans. Not so with Sec. Duncan, who thought telling mothers that he knew their children better than they was good politics.

This is not the first time a defender of the testing status quo has tried to beat back opposition by blaming hysterical mothers. The top business lobbyist in Texas tried that last year, and it didn’t work out so well for him.

Texas, the birthplace of high-stakes testing, rejected Common Core in favor of its own $468-million experiment in making everyone smarter with standardized tests. This sparked opposition similar to what Common Core is now facing, prompting Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, to accuse school administrators of “scaring mom. They’ve told mom that Johnny is not going to UT [University of Texas] because of the end-of-course exam.”

Dineen Majcher was one of those moms who had organized Texas Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, an unwieldy name most rejected for either the acronym TAMSA or the more popular “Moms Against Drunk Testing.” Majcher sees parallels between Hammond’s attempt to marginalize parents and Duncan’s unwise choice of words.

“Parents are tired of policymakers making accusations and excuses for the harmful and ineffective policies of over-testing. Before policymakers send more taxpayers’ dollars to testing companies, we need to come to grips with many issues, such as the purpose and underlying motives for more standardized tests. As parents, we know that ‘blame and shame’ does not work. Our policymakers’ insistence to use that approach with over-testing in public schools is irresponsible,” said Majcher.

TAMSA did not back down and convinced the legislature and Gov. Rick Perry to partially roll back the testing requirements.

As in Texas, Sec. Duncan’s attempt to blame mothers has caused a backlash. Sec. Duncan’s half-hearted apology for his “controversial-sounding soundbites” and “clumsy phrasing” has done nothing to quell the full-throated opposition. Critics have started a petition on WhiteHouse.gov to remove Duncan as Secretary of Education, and a Facebook group called Moms Against Duncan (MAD) had more than 3,500 members.

The apology is beside the point. Parents of public school students — myself included — are mad that our education system is still based on standardized tests that are developmentally inappropriate, unable to measure classroom learning, and over-emphasized to the point of corrupting the curriculum. Moms (and dads, for that matter) will not be happy until we put developing children and not raising test scores at the center of our education policy. We’re just waiting for Sec. Duncan to realize that he isn’t as brilliant as he thinks he is.

Is Your Child’s Teacher Highly-Qualified?

teacherIs your child’s teacher highly qualified? Thanks to a loophole snuck into the bill to end the federal government shutdown, there’s really no way of knowing.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Under No Child Left Behind, all schools — even the ones where the poor and minority students go — are supposed to hire “highly qualified teachers.” If a school hires teachers who don’t meet the federal definition of “highly qualified,” they send letters home to parents about their kids’ substandard teachers and come up with a plan to fix it.

This is a great idea. It used to be that inexperienced teachers would get stuck with the hardest jobs in underfunded, underperforming schools. As teachers would gain seniority, they would take their experience to better schools where the kids were easier to teach. NCLB recognized that the worst schools couldn’t get better without “highly qualified” teachers.

Unfortunately for Teach for America, their graduates didn’t qualify. Teach for America recruits smart college kids to teach in poor communities for two years. TFA gives them five weeks of training after graduation and places them in front of a classroom by the fall with only 15-20 hours of teaching experience under their belts.

Having our kids taught by someone with minimal experience and training is not what parents have in mind when they imagine a “highly qualified teacher,” and it’s certainly not what NCLB required. So Congress did what Congress does, and created a solution that made the problem worse by allowing teachers still enrolled in training to be classified as “highly qualified.” That way, when schools hire TFA grads they don’t have to let parents know their kids’ teachers are barely trained, inexperienced, and unproven.

Putting someone with 20 hours of classroom experience on the same level as someone with National Board Certification in Teaching is like thinking a 15-year-old with a learner’s permit and an adult with a commercial driver’s license along with school bus and passenger endorsements are equally qualified to drive the school bus. Only one of those options will get you reliably good results, but congress says there’s no problem entrusting your children with the riskier option.

This loophole has been a disaster in California, which tracked where teachers-in-training got placed. Predictably, these inexperienced teachers were more likely to find jobs in schools with low-income, minority students. Shockingly, half of the teachers-in-training were saddled with students with disabilities. Sticking the hardest-to-teach kids with the least-qualified teachers was exactly what NCLB wanted to prevent, so California recently created new rules to keep these rookie teachers away from non-English speaking students.

TFA touts a new Mathematica study that says their teachers are effective at getting results in middle-school math, but most evidence points to the conclusion that TFA alums don’t do as well as credentialed teachers. More recently, the National Education Policy Center found that “class size reduction has 286% more impact than TFA.” And a meta-study published in Teachers College Record reported that Pre-K showed improvements 1214 percent larger than what the Mathematica study showed.

Dozens of national, state, and local civil rights, disability, parent, student, community and education groups — basically, everyone who represents the kids who get the teachers-in-training — lobbied congress and the Obama administration to close the loophole. But Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, likes Teach for America and worked behind the scenes to use the bill to end the government shutdown as a Trojan Horse to keep the loophole open, according to Stephanie Simon at POLITICO. And Pres. Barack Obama, whose administration provided TFA with 12 percent of its funding in 2011, let it happen.

A better option would seem to be to invest in proven reforms such as Pre-K and smaller class sizes, to expand financial aid for college graduates to get certified as teachers, and to stop playing political games with the definition of “highly qualified”.

But what do I know? I’m just a dad with two kids in public schools. No one tells me anything.