Author Archive | Doug Tuthill

Imagine an Arab Spring in public education

After spending time at the Republican convention in Tampa and the Democratic convention in Charlotte, I needed to decompress, so I headed to Montana where I am now sitting on a hill watching a herd of deer graze in the meadow below. These deer have no funny hats on their heads, buttons on their chests or noisemakers in their mouths. They seem peaceful and, as best I can tell, nonpartisan. I’m a little jealous.

I was fortunate to speak with lots of smart and interesting people at both conventions, but I’ve decided the most intriguing speaker, other than Bill Clinton, whose speech seems to have ended the suspense over whether President Obama will be re-elected, was Daniel Barnz, the director of the new education movie, Won’t Back Down. Barnz spoke after a screening of his movie at both conventions. Each time, he expressed bewilderment that his movie is being attacked as anti-teacher and anti-public education.

Even before the movie was released to the general public, AFT president Randi Weingarten sent out an open letter accusing Barnz of “using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen.” She asserted the movie “is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers,” although she neglected to explain how these millions of teachers could be demoralized by a movie neither they nor the general public have seen.

Barnz comes from a family of public school teachers. He wanted to make a fictional movie about teachers and parents working together to improve a struggling school. His sin, at least from Weingarten’s perspective, is that the teachers and parents in his movie saw freeing themselves from the control of the teachers union as essential to their improvement efforts.

Barnz’s fantasy of a community of empowered teachers and parents working collaboratively to raise student achievement, and Weingarten’s vitriolic response, illustrate the power struggle at the heart of today’s efforts to improve public education. Continue Reading →

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The ‘quietest revolution’ in Florida education

Editor’s note: This op-ed was published today by Sunshine State News.

Teacher tenure, performance pay and standardized tests often drive the Florida public education debate, but the quietest revolution may well be the growing legion of parents who now choose their children’s schools.

The learning menu in Florida keeps expanding, and nowhere is that trend more compelling than in Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth-largest school district. For superintendent Alberto Carvalho, parental choice has become an operational credo.

“We are now working in an educational environment that is driven by choice,” Carvalho recently told a television reporter. “I believe that is a good thing. We need to actually be engaged in that choice movement. So if you do not ride that wave, you will succumb to it. I choose not to.”

Dade is setting a blistering pace. The number of students it accepted into magnet and choice programs last year – 39,369 – was larger than the total enrollment in each of 46 other school districts. But that only scratches the surface. An even larger number – 42,367 students – attended charter schools that were approved by the district, and another 22,000 were allowed to choose other public schools through “open enrollment” options. Nearly 15,000 students with meager incomes or learning disabilities chose scholarships to private schools. Continue reading here.

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Education factions battle at the DNC

DNC2012 logo2The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, at least in the area of public education policy, was on full display yesterday at two panel discussions organized by Democrats for Education Reform. (Full disclosure:  I am DFER’s Florida coordinator.)

The first panel consisted of Democratic state legislators from Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Ohio discussing their legislative efforts to improve public education by changing teacher evaluation, tenure and compensation systems. These initiatives, generally opposed by teachers unions, are designed to make the current factory model of public education more effective and efficient by giving management more control over personnel decisions.

The second panel included the presidents of the two national teachers unions (Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers), two educational entrepreneurs with strong technology backgrounds (John Katzman from 2tor and Noodle.org, and Joel Rose from New Classrooms Innovation Partners), and Joe Reardon, the mayor of Kansas City, Kansas. They discussed what a post-factory model of public education might look like. There was broad agreement among these diverse panelists that customized learning is the future of public education. They all emphasized the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship, and the economic and moral imperative of more effectively overcoming the achievement gap related to family income.

The fault lines within this second panel, and in the Democratic Party as a whole, appeared when the moderator, Jonathan Schorr from the NewSchools Venture Fund, asked about the role private providers should play in public education. After acknowledging that private, for-profit companies provide buildings, desks, buses, textbooks, computers, pencils and electricity for district schools, both Weingarten and Van Roekel opposed allowing nongovernment employees to teach in public education, arguing that the essence of public education would be undermined if nongovernment personnel received public funds to teach children.

Katzman and Rose, the entrepreneurs/innovators on the panel, seemed agnostic about who employs teachers. They cared about the freedom to innovative and customize. Katzman in particular stressed that learning providers needed to be agile. Weingartner responded that teachers unions could provide this agility through collective bargaining contracts if only management would agree. She asserted that school districts were the impediment to flexibility and innovation, not teachers unions.

The teachers unions’ current business model is tied to teachers being public employees, so I understand why that’s a must-have for them. No business voluntarily gives up market share, but asserting that only public employees can further the mission of public education defies logic and common sense. Continue Reading →

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DNC 2012: Pro-school-choice Democrats have the momentum

After going 56 years without attending a national political convention, I’m headed to Charlotte for my second convention in a week. For school choice advocates, the Democratic National Convention will be a somewhat hostile environment, unlike last week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, where all forms of school choice were enthusiastically embraced.

As we’ve discussed previously on redefinED, the political left, including wide swaths of the Democratic Party, was supportive of giving parents – especially low-income and minority parents – access to more diverse schooling options in the 1960s and throughout most of the 1970s. That support began eroding when the National Education Association gave Jimmy Carter its first-ever presidential endorsement in 1976, and was mostly gone by 1980.

President Clinton’s support of charter schools marked the beginning of a renewed interest in school choice within the party, and pro- and anti-school choice forces have been battling ever since. After two decades of struggle, the momentum today is clearly on the side of the pro school choice Democrats, which has caused anti-choice Dems to become more desperate and strident. American Federation of Teachers’ President Randi Weingarten’s recent attack on the new teacher/parent empowerment movie, Won’t Back Down, was so disingenuous and hyperbolic I was embarrassed for her.

Both Weingarten and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel will be participating in a town hall meeting tomorrow sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform. Four years ago, at the Democratic convention in Denver, DFER burst on the scene at a similar event, and, with close ties to the Obama Administration, immediately became a majority power center within the party. I’m anxious to see what issues predominate tomorrow, and how Weingarten and Van Roekel position themselves.

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School choice will empower teachers

Unlike Kelly Garcia, fresh out of college I knew a lot about unions.

I grew up in a union household. My mom worked on a factory assembly line and was a member of the United Auto Workers. My dad was a fireman and a member of the International Association of Firefighters.

I started teaching in the fall of 1977, and by the spring of 1978, I was president of our local teachers union and a member of our state union’s board of directors. I moved to Pinellas County, Fla. in 1984 and joined their teachers union, where I was elected vice president in 1988 and president in 1991.

As my term was winding down in 1994, I thought about what I had experienced and learned over the previous 16 years and became convinced we needed a new model of teacher unionism.

Unions are always a reflection of the larger industries in which they reside. A union of freelance software engineers functions differently than a union of Ford autoworkers, or a union of independent truckers. Since today’s public education system took form during the industrial revolution, in the mid-to-late 1800s, today’s teachers unions operate much like the blue-collar unions that were spawned in those early factories.

New organizational structures were developed during the industrial revolution to efficiently manage the increased productivity generated by new machinery, and a rapidly growing public education system soon adopted many of these new structures and management systems. By the late 1800s, public schools increasingly began to resemble factory assembly lines with centralized, command-and-control management systems to generate greater efficiency and productivity through standardization. By the early 1900s, most public school students were moving along educational assembly lines in batches with teachers adding the prescribed knowledge and skills at each grade level.

Since children are not widgets, this production system was ineffective – and at times harmful – for many students. But as bad as these early school systems were for students, they were worse for teachers.  They were controlled by politicians who were often more interested in accumulating and using power than educating students, and teachers were often the victims of their political manipulations.  Increasingly, teachers rebelled against this unchecked political power, and began to fight back by organizing unions.

Adopting a union model similar to that used by the steel and auto workers made sense for teachers, given schools were organized like factory assembly lines. Teachers embraced centralized collective bargaining to respond to centralized management, and started bargaining for one-size-fits-all rules to counter the one-size-fits-all management practices.

By 1994, I understood the strengths and weaknesses of our blue-collar unionism. While we had blocked management’s ability to abuse their power, we had not empowered teachers and addressed their core desire to be more effective with students. We had turned school districts into unmanageable bureaucracies in which teachers and students were increasingly frustrated and alienated. And, under the guise of protecting public education, we had become the primary defenders of these bureaucracies.  In essence, we had become an extension of management. Continue Reading →

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In school districts, low-income children will always lose the battle for resources

Editor’s note: Doug Tuthill responds today to a post I wrote yesterday about the failure of school districts and teachers unions to enact meaningful differential pay plans for teachers – and how that’s indicative of a bigger failure to help low-income students.

Ron, you raised some excellent points in your blog post about the unwillingness of the Pinellas County, Fla. school district to provide each student with equal access to a quality education. For nine years, I received supplemental pay to work in a magnet program that served the district’s academic elite, and for 11 years I was a leader in the local teachers union, which was complicit in the district’s refusal to provide equal opportunity. So your criticisms stung, but they were accurate.

This may be self-serving, but I’m convinced the cause of this leadership failure is not bad people, but an organizational structure and culture that favors the politically strong over the politically weak.

Growing up in Pinellas, I attended segregated public schools. When the federal courts finally forced the school district to desegregate, the focus was on ratios and not learning. The district closed most of the black neighborhood schools and bused those children to schools in the white neighborhoods because busing white students into black neighborhoods was too politically difficult. But white flight meant some forced busing of white students was necessary, so the district created a rotation system that bused low-income/working class white students every two years to schools where the black population approached 30 percent.  (The court order said no Pinellas school could be more than 30 percent black.)

While working-class white neighborhoods lacked the political clout to prevent their children from being bused every two years, their protests were loud enough to force the school board to look for alternatives. In the early 1980s, the district started creating magnet programs to entice white families to voluntarily attend schools that were in danger of exceeding the 30 percent threshold.

These magnet programs were designed to provide white students with a superior education. Class sizes were small, textbook and materials budgets seemed unlimited, professional development opportunities were extraordinary and special pay supplements to attract the best teachers were impressive. In my case, when I quit my job as a college professor to teach in the International Baccalaureate (IB) at St. Petersburg High School (SPHS), my annual salary increased 28 percent.

The magnet strategy worked – especially the IB program. Affluent white families began voluntarily busing their children to attend our program, and in many cases students got on buses at 5 a.m. and rode over 50 miles per day to attend.

Unfortunately, desegregation via magnet schools increased the resource inequities that desegregation was suppose to reduce. Continue Reading →

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More time, money, customization can narrow the opportunity gap in education

I have spent more than 35 years working to help public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity, but two recent New York Times articles illustrate how far we are from achieving that moral and societal imperative.

David Brooks, in a recent column entitled “The Opportunity Gap,” reviews the research on the gap between the haves and have-nots and concludes, “The children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities.” Brooks further reports this gap is growing: “Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extracurriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.”

I see this opportunity gap daily in our racially and economically diverse neighborhood in south St. Petersburg. The affluent kids in my neighborhood are attending a variety of enrichment camps this summer. Meanwhile, the low-income kids are sleeping till noon and then wandering the streets in the afternoon trying to avoid boredom and arrest – and generally failing on both counts. Many of the low-income black teenagers I know are going to get picked up and questioned by the police this summer, and occasionally get arrested. Whether or not they’ve committed crime is irrelevant. They’ll all plead out, go into a diversion program that is a well-intentioned waste of time and money, and the whole cycle will start again.   

In a second Times article, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,’” Jason DeParle chronicles how the differences between one- and two-parent families help explain this growing cultural dichotomy. DeParle writes that, “Changes in marriage patterns – as opposed to changes in individual earnings – may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality … About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago … Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.” While many children raised by single parents do well as adults, DeParle concludes that overall, children raised by single parents are significantly disadvantaged:  “They are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.”

None of this is news in my neighborhood. The vast majority of low-income children wandering our streets this summer are being raised by a single mom or grandmother. They have no fathers in their lives.

The traditional neighborhood district school has little or no chance of overcoming these obstacles, which is why new models of publicly-funded education are emerging. Continue Reading →

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Choice nuggets: Charter school flexibility, public school selectivity and more

Editor’s note: ‘Choice nuggets’ is a new feature we introduced on Monday. It’s what we’re calling occasional platters of noteworthy items that may not merit a post by themselves.

Flexibility and the future of charter schools

While most school district officials oppose charter schools that have corporate ties, Nancy Beal, a Florida school district administrator who is resigning to run a new charter school for Charter School USA, says being part of a charter school system is a plus.

“They run such an efficient operation and do so much for teachers that the staff can concentrate on teaching,” Beal told the Bradenton Herald. “Public school teachers are mired in paperwork, but Charter Schools USA has all that in place for teachers. They’ve taken a lot of the load off of teachers so they can focus on teaching.” 

The economy of scale means that in the future most charter schools will be part of larger charter school systems. How this impacts the autonomy of individual charter schools will determine the long-term value of the charter school movement. If charter school systems become as bureaucratic and authoritarian as traditional school districts, then the charter school movement will have failed.

Money talks in public schools

Competition for entrance into Miami-Dade County’s top magnet schools continues to intensify. The affluent community of Key Biscayne recently offered the school district millions of dollars if the district would give Key Biscayne students priority admission into the district’s renowned MAST Academy. But many non-Key Biscayne parents objected. Raul Sanchez de Varona, whose daughter is an incoming MAST freshman, told the Miami Herald, “What I was against all the time was preferential treatment to Key residents just because they willing to pay the School Board $10 million dollars.” Continue Reading →

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