Monday, May 21, 2012

State Teams Featured at LMC2

The second United States Department of Education Labor Management Collaboration Conference (LMC) is convening in Cincinnati this week.  The theme is harnessing the power of labor management collaboration in the interest of student achievement.  I attended the last conference in Denver fifteen months ago as a researcher, part of a team of Teaching Ambassador Fellows.  In addition to becoming steeped in the theory and practice of labor management collaboration, I had the opportunity to network with several leaders from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), which is an extraordinary organization that provides free technical assistance to improve negotiations outcomes at the local level.   That learning has proven very influential in changing the tenor of our local negotiations during the last year.
There is an innovation of this year’s LMC that is critically important: the presence of state leadership teams, both as presenters and participants.  Three states, Delaware, Kentucky and Massachusetts, are presenting.  These states will highlight work they have done to support districts in collaborative work.  Vermont is sending a team of statewide leaders, which I find tremendously encouraging.  We need structures and supports at the state level to sustain and expand the good work in our state which is already happening at the local level.  I am confident that our state leaders will find inspiration and practical ideas at the conference to help us move forward.
Mere process reform, however is not enough.  Sustainability of our work ultimately depends on connecting to a greater goal: great student learning.  Leaders at ED already get this; it is a theme of both labor management conferences.  In Vermont, for us to take it to the next level, and to be able to deal creatively and proactively with 21st century education policy challenges, stakeholders need to refocus on this goal.  Thinking about collective bargaining agreements must shift away from emphasis on salary and working conditions, management prerogative and taxation.  Our CBA’s must become education improvement plans in which the traditional concerns become tools.  When I think of the tremendous civic engagement which goes into our teacher negotiations in Vermont, I see a gold mine of effort and commitment which could be harnessed to our common enterprise of great student learning.  Our children deserve no less.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Equitable Funding of Public Education

My friend and colleague Gamal Sherif teaches at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.  We are both Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the US Department of Education (Gamal this year and me last year), and members of the Teacher Leader Network Forum, part of the Center for Teaching Quality.  We are both also union activists - I'm NEA and Gamal is AFT.  What I love about our friendship is the differences: I’m a rural elementary teacher and Gamal is an urban high school teacher, yet across these differences we share so much.  Gamal’s asked me to share his latest blog post and I urge people to follow his excellent blog ProgressEd.

Public education is underfunded because of:
1.       mis-management
2.       mis-use of our military in countries like Afghanistan
3.       warped emphasis on privatized wealth at the expense of the common good

Here are a few examples:
·         In 2001, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook reported that the State of Pennsylvania had taken over the Philadelphia School District. How has that oversight helped students and teachers be more engaged? What stability or efficiencies has state oversight provided? Most importantly, what are examples of effective school district organization? How can we help teachers create effective working conditions so that they and their students can flourish?
·         In 2011, The Washington Post reported that "[t]he U.S. military is on track to spend $113 billion on its operations in Afghanistan this fiscal year, and it is seeking $107 billion for the next." Are there better uses for that money?
·         The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that the outgoing CEO of Sunoco is receiving about $37 million in compensation for liquidating assets. How can we create a sustainable economy that honors labor and fosters a commitment to the social good? Individual excellence is essential, but we are all more effective when we advance social equity along with individual liberty.

If the explanations for inequitable funding of public education are accurate (numbers 1, 2 and 3 above), then what are the solutions?  Below is my list -- what's yours?

Federal solutions:
·         Reauthorize a modified ESEA that acknowledges "college and career readiness" with an emphasis on systemic creation of "school readiness." All children should arrive at school safe, well-fed, well-rested, and curious.
·         Re-visit the 14th Amendment and the Brown v. Board of Ed. decision with consideration of funding inequities that create a "suspect class." All schools should be able to fund education at equal (if not equitable) levels.
State solutions:
·         Ensure teacher representation on state-wide panels that roll-out RTTT.
·         Ensure equitable funding of all school districts akin to NJ's Abbott decisions.
District solutions:
·         Create real equitable choice options so that students can attend schools of interest anywhere in the city -- or across District boundaries.
·         Develop and sustain teacher leadership so that teachers lead the integration of curriculum, instruction, assessment and policy that engages students and teachers.
Union solutions:
·         Integrate the labor frame with professional and social justice frames for a enriched unionism.
·         Cultivate cohorts of teacher leaders who are connected and can advocate for effective working conditions, participate in teacher-led research, and foster democratic learning environments .
Administrative solutions:
·         Provide operational flexibility for principals to build community partnerships, coach teachers, know students, and build the capacity of learning organizations.
·         Require extensive support for nurses, social workers, therapists and counselors so that all students with diverse needs are recognized and supported.
Teacher solutions:
·         View teachers as experts and support the professional development needed so that teachers can effectively lead schools.
·         Create professional learning communities within and between schools and the community so that teachers are facilitating and modeling the collaboration necessary to life-long learning.


Friday, May 11, 2012

One of the Last Best Places Anywhere

Cross posting from a blog I wrote in October 2010 for  Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!
Vermont teachers who need to return to the well for a drink of passion and commitment can do no better than visit the Athenian Hall in Brownington, where they will find a magnificent four story granite edifice high on a windswept plateau, with 360 degree views of the northern Green Mountains and the vast agricultural plain of Quebec to the north.   
Alexander Twilight, preacher, educator, politician, was the first African American to graduate from an American college as well as the first to be elected to a state legislature.  His great stone school, the first granite public building in Vermont, built with his own hands in the 1830's, is the living embodiment of his passion and commitment to education.  One of two schools to serve the expanse of Orleans County, it is now a museum.  The sister school, Craftsbury Academy, still serves students to this day.
The novelist Howard Frank Mosher, in Vermont Life Magazine, Autumn, 1996, wrote:
"I like the way the Stone House still looms up on that hilltop, where the wind blows all the time. There it sits, unshaken and monolithic, as I write this sentence and as you read it, every bit as astonishing today as the day it was completed. What a tribute to the faith of its creator, the Reverend Alexander Twilight: scholar, husband, teacher, preacher, legislator, father-away-from-home to nearly 3,000 boys and girls, an African American and a Vermonter of great vision, whose remains today lie buried in the church-yard just up the maple-lined dirt road from his granite school, in what surely was, and still is, one of the last best places anywhere."
As the first Teaching Ambassador Fellow from Vermont, I had the privilege of accompanying John White, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Rural Outreach, on his recent trip to Vermont, my home state.  On the second day, just a few miles from Alexander Twilight’s great Athenian Hall, we visited North Country Union High School, a school which serves a sixty mile radius and is virtually on the Canadian border.  I felt great pride in accompanying a Federal official to an outstanding school in my state.  
 North Country serves an area in great economic distress, with double digit unemployment and over fifty percent free and reduced lunch.  In Vermont free and reduced lunch is not a true indicator of poverty, because stoic New Englanders are often too proud to accept help.  We can surmise that the poverty of this region is greater than indicated by the statistics.
What did we find at North Country?  Amazingly, given the remoteness and the challenges, we found teachers full of innovation, passion, and commitment.  We found a state-of-the-art Career Center dedicated to preparing students for careers in the trades, business and industry.  We found teachers collaborating in unique ways to integrate high quality academic instruction in the context of programs such as auto mechanics and woodworking in order to prepare their students for life in the 21st century.
As a music teacher, I was pleased to go into a woodworking class and find the students working on building dulcimers.  The teacher had connected with one of the Vermont's finest luthiers for support.  In the High School, we found a math teacher having teams of students measure guitars and banjos to learn geometry, ratios, percentages and understand the difference between accuracy and precision.  When John asked why the students preferred this type of real world embedded instruction, they replied "because it makes it easier."
After John left for the airport I trailed behind to visit the performing arts department.  I met with Anne Hamilton, the chorus and composition teacher who was my instructor when I was trained in the innovative composition and assessment program, the Vermont MIDI project.  This program is a national model for arts and technology.  Like the Career Center, the MIDI Project draws in professional practitioners.  They provide feedback to young composers across Vermont and the nation through technology and the internet.  We walked downstairs to the auditorium and watched the dance teacher, a former Vermont Teacher of the Year, coach dozens of students through an amazing piece choreographed by the students themselves.
I found the underlying philosophy of connecting school with community pervaded the entire school.  Alexander Twilight's vision lives in the work of the dedicated teachers of North Country Union High School and Career Center, where they labor against all odds with joy and passion to keep this remote corner of Vermont "one of the last best places anywhere."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Time for Some Trickle Up?

Working for the US Dept of Education last year, I encountered high officials who expressed astonishment at the disconnect between Federal influence on public education and on higher ed.  Federal influence on public schools is purchased at less than ten cents on the dollar.  Looking at the influence of IDEA, NCLB, RTT, SIG and now NCLB waivers, to name a few, the Feds leverage relatively small amounts of money for big returns.
By contrast, the federal student loan programs run by ED literally bankroll the higher ed enterprise, yet the Feds have little influence on substantive policy in higher ed, including matters like cost control, and accountability for results.  This is illustrated by the way regulations designed to limit the predations of for-profit colleges were gutted, after a vigorous lobbying effort.
Of course higher ed has something to offer policy makers that public ed lacks - sinecures.  The revolving door world of education policy is as insidious as that of defense policy.  If you were a policy maker, would you rather have your next job at a university sponsored think tank, or perhaps as a professor, or in a third grade classroom?  I'm skeptical of the prospects for meaningful higher ed reform in the context of this endemic soft corruption.
So with no meaningful prospects for accountability from universities and colleges, where does accountability fall?  Squarely on the shoulders of individuals, in the form of student loans which cannot be discharged by bankruptcy.  Cost control in higher ed may only be achievable by making student loans subject to bankruptcy again, so some of the risks of the system are again borne by the institutional players who milk the system.
I found it instructive to read What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform by Pasi Sahlberg on the WaPo Answer Sheet.  He wrote:
"In the United States, education is mostly viewed as a private effort leading to individual good....By contrast, in Finland, education is viewed primarily as a public effort serving a public purpose."
In Finland P-12 AND higher ed is free to all residents.
The caveat emptor philosophy of higher ed funding we have in this country has saddled our most educated and ambitious citizens with a trillion dollar ball and chain which is dragging down our economy.  Had the same money that was poured into trickle down corporate bailouts been injected into the bottom of the economy as an investment in the middle class, we might have seen some real economic recovery.
30 years of bitter experience has shown us that trickle down is a vast boondoggle for the well connected.  It's time to try some trickle up economics.