Archive for June, 2011

June 29, 2011

Otis Rolley Education Town Hall Tonight

Mayoral Candidate Otis Rolley

Otis Rolley has invited the people of Baltimore to share ideas about how to improve Baltimore’s public schools. Here are the details:

WHEN: Wednesday, June 29th, 2011
TIME: 6 – 8 p.m.
WHERE: Huber Memorial Church
5701 York Road
Baltimore, MD 21212

Here are some links, so you can get up to speed before you go:

A little note: Since June 19, the Rolley campaign has rephrased its pitch. “Mayoral control” and “vouchers” were initially touted as “radical.” Now, you’ll hear references to “city control” and “helping students escape the worst performing middle schools.”*

  • News on the recent cheating revelations, which Rolley referred to in his invitation to tonight’s event: “Cheating, tampering found in city schools,” The Baltimore Sun, Erica L. Green, June 23, 2011
  • A light factcheck of Rolley’s criticisms of the current mayor, post cheating revelations: “O Rolley?” City Paper blog, Eric Erickson, Jr., June 23, 2011

Here are two questions I’d like to put on the table:

  1. Rolley claims his plan has “been proven to work in other cities.” I’m interested to hear which cities and what constitutes proof.
  2. The citywide enrollment model of charter schools undercuts the role that zoned public schools can play in attracting new residents to city neighborhoods. So why is Otis Rolley – a city planner and a parent of a student at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School – pushing so hard for charter schools? (Which are proliferating apace as it is.)

I may not get a chance to ask these questions. So why not start the conversation here? Comments welcome.

* NOTE: In a handout from the town hall meeting itself, the campaign refers to vouchers as “opportunity scholarships.”

June 21, 2011

Hey Baltimore, Do We Need Neighborhood Public Schools?

The mural on the wall of my neighborhood school, Hampden #55

Here’s Diane Ravitch’s answer:

“Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is a place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors. For more than a century, they have been an essential element of our democratic institutions. We abandon them at our peril.

Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king. But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhod public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.”

from The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

What’s yours?

June 19, 2011

Roll(ey) Call: Why the Frontrunner for Mayor Needs to Revise His Education Plan, ASAP

Otis Rolley talks at TEDx MidAtlantic 2010. Credit: Andy Babin/TedXMidAtlantic

When I wrote in May about why Hampden is ripe for a neighborhood school renaissance, I included in my praise for this place the bike shop, the baby shop, the chocolate-and-shoes shop. But I neglected to mention the other new hot spot on The Avenue – the campaign headquarters of mayoral contender Otis Rolley.

I want to like Otis Rolley. He seems like a really good guy. Watch his TEDx talk on new urban renewal and you’ll want to let him kiss your baby. But Rolley’s education plan, which started making waves last Sunday, has caused a few Baltimore parents to scratch their heads.

Here’s a quick rundown: “The Rolley Plan to Improve Baltimore’s Education System for the Future of Our Children and Our City” roots itself in the failing state of our schools. In 2010-11, six out of 10 schools didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) – the measure set forth in No Child Left Behind that demands 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

“This year,” the bad news continues, “the results are expected to be even worse. Just 39 percent of graduating seniors are prepared for college or the workforce” (emphasis added). And it’s true. While there are a few bright spots, on the whole the Baltimore City Public School System isn’t looking too hot.

But keep reading.

Rolley’s four “distinct, tangible solutions to help permanently fix Baltimore’s education system” are:

  1. Mayoral control of City Schools;
  2. Education vouchers for students in the worst performing middle schools;
  3. Fifty (50) new or renovated schools in 10 years through public-private partnerships; and
  4. State charter school law revisions to expand the options for parents.

The promise:

Together, these reforms along with expedited academic reforms currently underway, will allow Baltimore schools to increase the high school graduation rate to 85 percent and ensure that at least 90 percent of graduates are prepared for college or post secondary job training by the end of this decade. (emphasis added)

I wish I had time to do a thorough point-by-point analysis of the Rolley Plan. But I’m going to focus on #1 and #2, the points that the Rolley campaign calls “radical.”

#1. Baltimore City Bests All of New York State, or to paraphrase Rolley, “New York is nice, but it’s no Baltimore.”

You have only to look at New York City to see that mayoral control isn’t doing any good. On June 14, 2011, the New York Times reported on the level of college readiness among state graduates, with numbers for Mayor Bloomberg’s empire:

In New York City, 21 percent of the students who started high school in 2006 graduated last year with high enough scores on state math and English tests to be deemed ready for higher education or well-paying careers. (emphasis added)

Twenty-one percent for a city with a school system that has been under mayoral control since June 2002. The percentage for all of New York State – 37%. That should put the figure Rolley’s plan laments – 39% – into perspective. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lousy number. But it’s almost double that of New York City, which is number one on the list of cities that Rolley cites as exemplars of mayoral control over the school system.

#2. Vouchers Don’t Improve Academic Performance, They Breed Discrimination, and They Can’t Be Targeted
Vouchers are a 21-year-old experiment currently coming of age in Wisconsin, where the nation’s first voucher program was instituted, in Milwaukee, in 1990. We have a model to look at, and here’s what it’s showing:

a) Students in voucher versus public schools in Milwaukee do about the same academically, according to research put out a couple of years ago by the University of Arkansas. (See “Study finds results of MPS and voucher school students are similar” by Alan J. Borsuk of the Journal Sentinel, March 26, 2009.) The National School Boards Association has taken up Milwaukee vouchers as a key advocacy issue, and maintains a running archive of articles on the topic. Here’s a link. This is just to say that there is no data from the oldest voucher program in the nation to support the notion that students will be better served by private or parochial schools than they would be by traditional public schools.

b) Voucher programs discriminate, according to the ACLU. Less than a week before Rolley unfurled his education plan, Milwaukee’s voucher program came under attack by the ACLU for alleged discrimination against students with disabilities. (See “School choice program shuts out disabled, federal complaint says” by Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel, June 7, 2011, and “Milwaukee’s Voucher Program Discriminates Based On Disabilities, ACLU Says,” Joy Resmovits for Huffington Post, June 7, 2011.) I wonder if i) Rolley was aware of the ACLU’s claim and went ahead with his platform anyway, or ii) he didn’t have a chance to rethink his position. I’m hoping it’s the latter, and that he rethinks it now.

c) Introducing vouchers for a few – or “targeted” vouchers, to quote Rolley – is a slippery slope. Rolley seems to think that he will be able to limit eligibility for vouchers to students in the worst performing schools. Recent events in Wisconsin – where Republican governor Scott Walker has been in the limelight these past months for anti-union and pro-privatization schemes – would indicate that this limit may be beyond a mayor’s ability to enforce. It’s certainly not above politics, especially when funding for the program would have to be approved by the state, as Rolley admits.

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled state legislature recently voted to expand the voucher program to a county outside Milwaukee and raise the income limits for parents who want to send their children to “choice” schools. (See “Amid protests, panel votes to expand school choice, cut aid to local governments” by Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel.) Who’s to say that wouldn’t happen here? How much control can a mayor assert over the budget of a city school system that is funded largely – 80% – by the state? (See this.)

I could go on. On #3 – improving or building new school buildings – the ACLU is on that tip. So is the Baltimore Education Coalition. How public-private partnerships work and what a sale-lease back deal entails – those are concepts I hope a journalist in this town will explain. On #4 – if I were in a union I would look into this piece pretty closely.

As far as #1 and #2 go, the evidence is all bad news for Rolley’s plan, and for this hopeful voter. But I really, really want to give his campaign the benefit of the doubt. After all, the New York City college-readiness numbers came out after Rolley announced his education plan. And the news from Wisconsin about claims of discrimination against the voucher program, that was less than a week old. The timing gives Rolley good reason to sit down right now and revise the plan.

Just think: a politician who can pivot in the face of evidence that demands a new line on education reform – that would be radical. It might even earn him this city mom’s vote.

Related Posts

If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?

The Mis-Elevation of Otis Rolley

June 12, 2011

“Portfolio”: The Vocabulary of Education Reform in Baltimore City – Lesson One

When I first read the term “portfolio” in an official document put out by the Baltimore City Public School System, I pictured an artist’s portfolio. Then my brain did a little Rubik’s cube turn. The word wasn’t coming out of the art world. It was borrowed from the world of finance and investing.

The document bears the name of Andrés A. Alonso, Ed.D., Chief Executive Officer.

Pause there: Chief Executive Officer. Alonso is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. Call a school superintendent a CEO and, just like that, you turn a government entity into a corporation. The highest aim isn’t to do whatever it is your office is responsible for doing – in this case, educating a city’s young people. It’s to turn a profit.

What’s in the BCPSS portfolio? Schools. Our CEO is keeping the ones that perform and dumping those that don’t. What constitutes “performance,” at least right now, isn’t measured in dollar gains and losses. It’s measured in test scores – the currency of the public school market. Its measured in the percentage of students who are passing state tests.

Critics of education reform – the most outspoken of whom has been education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch – say testing and choice are undermining the American public school system. Whether or not you’re a fan of test-based accountability or vouchers or the charter school movement (or even of Diane Ravitch), it’s difficult to argue that test scores say very much about what’s gone on in a particular classroom. What is clear is that performance on tests is being used to justify significant decisions about whether or not to close individual schools and give merit pay to individual teachers.

In Baltimore City, more than two dozen public schools have been closed since 2007 with more slated for closure. An even higher number of charter schools have been founded. And some of them have been closed.

My question isn’t whether those closures were needed. My question is whether we’re using the right metaphor. Are schools stocks? Is the system a portfolio?

In the world of investing, ads for mutual funds, stocks, and bonds are always accompanied by this caveat: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. It’s a warning to investors – especially beginner investors – to resist the impulse to chase high returns. (Click here for a primer on “performance chasing” by Joshua Kennon.)

It would be great if school system CEOs would repeat that to themselves like a mantra. As “stakeholders” in the education of our children and our nation’s public, we might want to repeat it to ourselves, too. Here’s how that might sound:

  • Think it’s a good idea to close a school because passing percentages are low? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • Tempted to weight your portfolio toward charter schools because a few have raised test scores dramatically and seem to have narrowed the achievement gap? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • Won’t look at your neighborhood public school because only 85% of students are proficient in reading? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

If these analogies don’t work, it’s because the public school system is not a portfolio. Schools are not companies. Test scores are not currency. Though it has become serious business to think as if they are.

Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System gives an account of when American public school leaders started thinking this way. It’s an important book to read right now. Hers is an important voice. But it’s up to us – parents and guardians, students and teachers, principals, taxpayers, school system employees and advocates for reforms that work for all students – to evaluate whether treating our public schools like stocks is a good idea.

What do you think?

June 5, 2011

A Little Change from the Bottom Up

WHAM! Parents organized a meet-up-and-clean-up at the Hampden Elementary/Middle School playground on Saturday morning. At about 10:00 a.m. we put on some gloves and set to picking cigarette butts and Hershey kisses tags from the grass like chimps picking nits from their babies’ fur. Our principal – who was right there with us on what turned out to be a gorgeous weekend morning – coined a term for our crew. She calls us “the Pre-T.O.”

My souvenirs: rainbow-glittered spin art and a lucky penny. Sweet.

If you’re interested in learning more about WHAM! Parents, stay tuned. A little website is in the works.

UPDATE! On September 10, 2011, just in time for Hampdenfest, the Wham! Parent Co-op website was born! Click to welcome it into the World (Wide Web).

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