Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Day, 1914

I had heard of this story previously but this is the first time that I've seen it in print. Brought tears to my eyes this morning.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah,and Happy Kwanzaa everybody. We are all God's children.

May we continue to fight for peace, justice, and transformation in our troubled world and may we cultivate in our families and communities an earth consciousness so that we may reshape our economic system into one that is sustainable and provides equitably for all.

-Angela Valenzuela

Christmas Day, 1914

My dear sister Janet,

It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their
dugouts -- yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the
wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems
almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn't been through it myself, I
would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang
carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy
soldiers here on the battlefields of France!

As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The
first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held
back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed
in our trenches and waited.

But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an
artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench,
killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our
heads above ground, for fear of a sniper's bullet.

And the rain -- it has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects
right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans.
And with the rain has come mud -- a good foot or more deep. It
splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One
new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he
tried to get out -- just like in that American story of the tar baby!

Through all this, we couldn't help feeling curious about the German
soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we
did, and slogged about in the same muck. What's more, their first
trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man's Land,
bordered on both sides by barbed wire -- yet they were close enough we
sometimes heard their voices.

Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other
times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common.
And now it seems they felt the same.

Just yesterday morning -- Christmas Eve Day -- we had our first good
freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud
froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright
sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.

During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either
side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped
entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might
promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn't count on it. We'd been told
the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.

I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted
asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, "Come
and see! See what the Germans are doing!" I grabbed my rifle, stumbled
out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.

I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny
lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far
as the eye could see.

"What is it?" I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, "Christmas

And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of
their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.

And then we heard their voices raised in song.

"Stille nacht, heilige nacht...."

This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it
and translated: "Silent night, holy night." I've never heard one
lovelier -- or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark
softened by a first-quarter moon.

When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes,
British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started
singing, and we all joined in.

"The first Nowell, the angel did say...."

In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their
fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their
own and then began another.

"O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum...."

Then we replied.

"O come all ye faithful...."

But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.

"Adeste fideles...."

British and German harmonizing across No Man's Land! I would have
thought nothing could be more amazing -- but what came next was more

"English, come over!" we heard one of them shout. "You no shoot, we no

There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then
one of us shouted jokingly, "You come over here."

To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb
over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man's Land.
One of them called, "Send officer to talk."

I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others
did the same -- but our captain called out, "Hold your fire." Then he
climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them
talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German
cigar in his mouth!

"We've agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow," he
announced. "But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you,
stay alert."

Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting
out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing
out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Man's Land, over a
hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men
we'd been trying to kill just hours earlier!

Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled -- British
khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better
dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday.

Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew
English. I asked one of them why that was.

"Because many have worked in England!" he said. "Before all this, I
was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table!"

"Perhaps you did!" I said, laughing.

He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had
interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, "Don't worry. We'll
have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl."

He laughed at that. Then he asked if I'd send her a postcard he'd give
me later, and I promised I would.

Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a
picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely,
I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would
like that very much and gave me his family's address.

Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts -- our
cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef
for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners,
and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I
myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt -- a fine
souvenir to show when I get home.

Newspapers too changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at
ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly
beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said,
"Well, you believe your newspapers and we'll believe ours."

Clearly they are lied to -- yet after meeting these men, I wonder how
truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the "savage
barbarians" we've read so much about. They are men with homes and
families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In
other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise?

As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and
then all joined in for -- I am not lying to you -- "Auld Lang Syne."
Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some
talk of a football match.

I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched
my arm. "My God," he said, "why cannot we have peace and all go home?"

I told him gently, "That you must ask your emperor."

He looked at me then, searchingly. "Perhaps, my friend. But also we
must ask our hearts."

And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve
in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending
of enemies?

For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent
fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the
same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and
never could we shirk that duty.

Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown
here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must
always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in
place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of
reprisals? Would not all war end at once?

All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I
wonder if we want it quite enough.

Your loving brother,

The two songs below are about what is described above. The
first song is written by Joe Henry and Garth Brooks, the second by John


Oh, the snowflakes fell in silence
Over Belleau Wood that night
For a Christmas truce had been declared
By both sides of the fight
As we lay there in our trenches
The silence broke in two
By a German soldier singing
A song that we all knew.

Though I did not know the language
The song was "Silent Night"
Then I heard by buddy whisper,
"All is calm and all is bright"
Then the fear and doubt surrounded me
'Cause I'd die if I was wrong
But I stood up in my trench
And I began to sing along

Then across the frozen battlefield
Another's voice joined in
Until one by one each man became
A singer of the hymn

Then I thought that I was dreaming
For right there in my sight
Stood the German soldier
'Neath the falling flakes of white
And he raised his hand and smiled at me
As if he hoped to say
Here's hoping we both live
To see us find a better way

Then the devil's clock struck midnight
And the skies lit up again
And the battlefield where heaven stood
Was blown to hell again

But for just one fleeting moment
The answer seemed so clear
Heaven's not beyond the clouds
It's just beyond the fear
No, heaven's not beyond the clouds
It's for us to find it here.


My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, ``Now listen up, me boys!'' each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
``He's singing bloody well, you know!'' my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
``God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen'' struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was ``Stille Nacht.'' ``Tis `Silent Night','' says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
``There's someone coming toward us!'' the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
``Whose family have I fixed within my sights?''
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Valley schools in the spotlight

Districts claim state's funding formula unfairly benefits property-rich areas

By NEAL MORTON/The Monitor
December 17, 2011 9:52 PM

Rio Grande Valley school districts have gained significant presence on litigation against the state’s school finance system, which many claim unfairly disadvantages children in poor and minority-heavy areas like the Valley.
Four districts — Harlingen, San Benito, La Feria and McAllen — received major statewide attention this week after filing a third lawsuit against the state with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF.
The strength of that case — led by Edgewood schools, which has won prior lawsuits against the state’s public school funding formulas — lies in the assertion that the current system overwhelmingly harms low-income and English Language Learner, or ELL, students, said MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa.
“The data show they are truly struggling much greater than all other students, and that makes (this lawsuit) much more ripe for a victory for these children,” Hinojosa said.
“This is not a lawsuit our clients wanted to bring,” he added. “It’s a lawsuit we were forced to bring once the state raised (student performance) standards and then cut back on funding, making it even worse than it was before.”
Starting next spring, the state will implement a more rigorous school accountability system, which legislators hoped would raise college readiness when they adopted the new standards two years ago.
However, the Legislature this summer gutted public education by more than $5 billion, a move Hinojosa said stacks the deck against struggling students.
The MALDEF suit piles on state data that show low-income and ELL students — whose numbers are growing within Texas schools — already struggle to meet student performance goals.
For example, the state designated 52 percent of all students as “college-ready graduates” in English Language Arts and Mathematics; just 38 percent and 5 percent of low-income and ELL students, respectively, achieved the same recognition.
And while 26.3 percent of all Texas students completed an advanced or dual enrollment course, just 20.4 percent and 11.6 percent of low-income and ELL students, respectively, enjoyed the same opportunity.
“Districts want their students to be held to more rigorous standards,” Hinojosa said, “but the state can’t get away with upping the ante and not putting its chips on the table. That’s what’s happening here.”
His case also includes a claim found in a lawsuit filed by the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, which has earned popularity among Valley districts.
According to both groups, the state’s funding formulas inexplicably allocate more money to property-wealthy districts than property-poor districts.
Hinojosa looked directly to the Valley to prove that point: in the wealthy Point Isabel school district, where landowners enjoy a tax rate of just $0.95 per $100 of taxable value, schools collect $5,915 per pupil. However, in McAllen, taxpayers pay $1.17 per $100 of taxable value, and yet their schools draw just $5,088 per pupil — an $827 gap.
Similar disparities abound in the state, and nine Valley districts — including Mercedes and Edinburg schools this past week — have joined the Coalition’s lawsuit to narrow the funding gaps.
And experts expect that the Houston-based Thompson & Horton law firm will soon file a fourth lawsuit against the state, largely arguing the Legislature has effectively set an illegal state property tax.
The Sharyland school board this past week joined that effort, and Superintendent Scott Owings said a mandatory drop in school property taxes limited a community’s ability to provide for their children.
“Local communities had decided how much they wanted to support our schools, then that was taken away from them” by lawmakers in 2006, Owings said. “Now we have to start back over, and if we want to build (the tax rate) up again, there’s a cap at it.”
According to some estimates, more than 200 districts in Texas have a tax rate at a legally allowable cap, which Owings argued robbed them of any “meaningful, local discretion.”
Lawyers and school officials expect litigation to last many months before a court decides the fate of Texas’s school finance system.
But Owings said a growing number of lawsuits and districts joining them should send a strong signal.
“It shows to the state and the courts and Legislature that if you have two-thirds of districts in the state actually suing the state … there’s a lot of power to that,” he said. “Perhaps they’ll think, ‘Maybe we are wrong, if so many districts have taken us to court.’”

California politician advocates assassination of Obama and family

This is extremely sick and disgusting. You can't get access to the examiner so here is what was actually posted and that I was able to access this morning. Such violent, hateful speech should not be tolerated in this country.


California politician advocates assassination of Obama and family

Michael Stone, Democrat Examiner
December 18, 2011

Facebook faux pas: California libertarian and Tea Party darling Jules Manson is caught calling for the assassination of President Barack Obama and his children.
On Sunday, many Facebook users were greeted by the shocking spectacle of a California libertarian and Ron Paul supporter by the name of Jules Manson advocating for the assassination of President Barack Obama. Manson, a failed politician, recently ran for and lost a seat on the City of Carson’s City Council last March.

The following is the text of Manson’s racist, treasonous, deplorable post:

“Assassinate the f----- n----- and his monkey children”

Manson posted the disturbing and openly racist call to assassinate Obama and Obama’s children on his own Facebook wall, which was open to the public. Manson, a Ron Paul libertarian, was angry with Obama over a policy matter.

Manson removed the obnoxious post, but numerous Facebook users, outraged by the despicable threat, captured an image of the threat before Manson had the good sense to take it down.

Two hours after making the offensive post, and after being bombarded by hundreds of Facebook users outraged by his racist call to assassinate the leader of the free world, Manson made a bizarre Facebook post, presumably in the hopes of justifying his unjustifiable rant. There Mason argued that using the word “n-----” does not make him a racist. However, most reasonable people would disagree with Manson’s assertion.

One Facebook page, Americans Against the Tea Party, posted a screen capture of the offensive remarks and recived over a 100 angry and outraged comments in a little over an hour. The following is a small sample of those remarks:

I sure hope the Secret Service and FBI get this creep, he is dangerous to everyone! We can thank the Republicans for this brand of extremism.

reported to secret service...who seemed interested enough to ask for the url and a screen shot

‎"And his monkey children" smfh. That part bothers me the most.

I'd like to see how Fox News will defend THIS!

I hope the FBI has seen what he has said and will be showing up at his door soon.

The best way to stick it to idiots like this is vote to re elect Obama and then Warren in 2016.

At the time of posting this story, Manson’s Facebook page had been removed, no doubt as a result of the numerous Facebook users reporting Manson’s vile, disgusting and illegal call to assainate President Obama and his children.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

UT System Launches Online Route to Degree Completion

by Reeve Hamilton | Texas Tribune
December 13, 2011

The University of Texas System is creating a new path to completion for students who attempted but — for whatever reason — have been unable to finish their college degree.

The Finish@UT program, which launched last week, is a selection of UT-System-approved online courses aimed primarily at students between ages 25 and 35 who have already amassed credits toward an undergraduate degree. “Particularly those students who have had various life issues intervene and cannot get to campus on a regular basis,” said Martha Ellis, associate vice chancellor for community college partnerships at the UT System.

So far, three institutions are participating, and each offers a different degree. Students can earn a bachelor of science in university studies degree at UT-Arlington, a bachelor of multidisciplinary studies degree at UT-El Paso or a bachelor of arts in humanities degree at UT-Permian Basin.

Students must apply and be accepted to the institution from which they will ultimately graduate, but once they are in the system, they can take courses from all three.

So far, the program is fairly small. This fall, 18 students were enrolled with the declared intent to graduate at UT-Arlington, 40 at UT-El Paso and 72 at UT-Permian Basin. However, the total course enrollments were significantly higher at each university, which, according to Ellis, indicates “some students are taking more than one class and from more than one institution.”

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This summer, the UT System increased its commitment to developing new options for blended and online learning. UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s framework for the future of the system, which was unanimously approved by the board of regents in August, included a $50 million investment in a new Institute of Transformational Learning, which will focus on such issues.

Other institutions in the system have also been investing in online expansion. UT-Arlington, for example, has a deal with Academic Partnerships, a private company owned by Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best that focuses on translating public university programs into online courses.

While somewhat similar in spirit, Ellis said those initiatives are separate from Finish@UT, which has been in development for about two years — one year of planning, followed by another of pilot projects.

In addition to the ability to earn a degree from the highly regarded UT System, Ellis said the primary benefits of the program for students are the flexible scheduling and degree personalization. “We want to know: How can we tailor a degree to get you a quality degree best utilizing the coursework that you’ve taken to date?” she said.

Students need not have begun their studies at a UT System institution, nor do they need to be Texas residents, to participate, and prices vary based on institution. For Texas residents, 12 credits — a full load — will cost roughly $4,448 at UT-Arlington, $2,815 at UT-El Paso and $2,697 at UT-Permian Basin.

While it’s possible that the program could generate revenue at a time of declining state funding, Ellis said that was not the driving force behind the program's conception. “Revenue? Sure, that would be great too,” she said, “but the primary purpose is to meet the needs to the state of Texas with having a trained work force.”

Gingrich on school and work: More than a bad idea

Disgusting and unbelievable--but yes, true! Give me a break. Repeal child labor laws and turn children into custodians?! This is right out of a Charles Dickens novel. What a mean, cold-hearted soul.


Gingrich on school and work: More than a bad idea
By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Mike Rose, who is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is the author of “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” and “Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”

By Mike Rose

During a Q&A after a recent speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, former speaker of the House and current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich offered “a very simple model” to address income inequality that he said he has held “for years.” The first step is to do away with child labor laws, which, he said, “are truly stupid.” Then in high-poverty schools – schools that, in his words, are failing with teachers who are failing — fire unionized janitors (but retain one master janitor), and hire the kids as custodians. Said Gingrich: “The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

As could be predicted, his comment has been generating both incredulity and some support on the Internet. Mr. Gingrich is notorious for making off-the-cuff incendiary remarks, and even his supporters acknowledge his lack of discipline and recklessness. But he said he has held the “model” outlined in his comment for years, and his doctoral dissertation (in history from Tulane University) was on the Belgian education system in the Congo during the last period of colonization, so it’s fair to assume that his ideas about education and work have been developing for some time.

As unusual as his proposal is, it has woven through it several widely accepted ideas: The importance of so-called “soft” job skills (punctuality, cooperation, and the like), the value of involving students in their school, the benefits for young people of work and earning a wage. Every defender of Mr. Gingrich that I’ve read mentions the value of their first job. It could be that Mr. Gingrich is expressing these ideas in a provocative fashion to catch our attention, to stir things up — something he famously likes to do.

Given Newt Gingrich’s identity as a big thinker — “a pyrotechnician of ideas,” as The Economist recently put it — and given his rising status in the GOP presidential candidate contest, we need to take his proposal seriously as reflecting the way he thinks about poverty, school, and work. We need to consider his proposal as well for it reflects assumptions about poor people and economic mobility that are in the air.

Let’s begin with the proposal’s core idea — repealing child labor laws and hiring students as custodians — for if it is meant to shock us into fresh thinking, then we need to see where that thinking leads us. Mr. Gingrich doesn’t limit his proposal to one level of schooling, so it seems to apply to elementary, middle, and high school.

This means that children would be handling disinfectants and cleaning agents and other toxic chemicals, be regularly exposed to unsanitary conditions, and be doing some tasks that are physically demanding. We are not simply talking here about tidying up classrooms, for, except for a supervising janitor, there will be no one else but children to clean bathrooms, and the nurse’s office, and vomit in the hallway. Child labor laws were enacted to protect children from such work.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that society did decide to sanction custodial labor for children, which would allow us to consider the goal of the proposal: the development of soft job skills leading to a rise up the ladder of economic mobility. Soft job skills are important, to be sure, but most analysts across the ideological spectrum studying the future of work also emphasize the need for literacy and numeracy, computer skill, and some sort of specialized training. The punctual nurse or mechanic who can’t calculate ratios won’t be on the job for long. Mr. Gingrich doesn’t say anything about improving the academic programs of schools in poor communities. Remember, his proposal was in response to a question about solving economic inequality, and he seems to put all his eggs in the soft skills basket.

The job-specific knowledge the children would develop would equip them for entry-level custodial work – work not known for its mobility – and Mr. Gingrich’s proposal would decimate one category of that work, the school custodian. So rather than mobility, we would most likely see more rather than fewer young people stuck in low-skilled, low wage jobs.

There’s one more counter-productive element to this proposal. Many of the school custodians Mr. Gingrich targets live in the communities in which they work, or in similar communities. The loss of their jobs would increase unemployment in working-class communities, and thus increase the threats of poverty Mr. Gingrich is trying to alleviate. Janitors’ kids would make a few bucks, while their parents would have the economic rug pulled out from under them.

Essential to the discipline of history is understanding events in their historical context (like the passing of child labor laws) and understanding the way a single action (like the elimination of a category of workers) can have multiple social and economic effects. Mr. Gingrich touts his bona fides as an historian, but his proposal – even if meant to provoke – reveals a terribly limited historical sensibility.

There is a further problem with Mr. Gingrich’s thinking, the logical error of overgeneralization, in this case assuming that all members of a particular group like poor children share the same characteristics. Sadly, this assumption is not at all specific to Mr. Gingrich’s proposal, but is widespread, one of those troubling ideas in the air.

The fact is that people at the lower end of the income distribution hold a wide variety of attitudes toward work and education and about the work ethic and economic mobility. And there is a long line of social science research that demonstrates that working-class and poor people tend to espouse so-called middle class values about education and work.

Of course poverty is destructive; some poor families are torn apart. Some kids grow up in chaos, lost and angry, and turn to the streets. But these are segments of a varied population. And it needs to be said that such variability exists across class lines; I’ve taught a fair number of students from middle-class and affluent backgrounds who could benefit from an infusion of the work ethic Mr. Gingrich champions.

We have a shameful history in the United States — a country that prides itself on its spirit of egalitarianism — of painting poor people with a single brush stroke and then offering an equally one dimensional solution to their problems. This tendency has led to some damaging social and educational policies, like channeling the children of poor families into low-tier vocational education.

It is worth pondering that the job category Mr. Gingrich targets is custodial work. Of course, he gets to undercut a union in the process — a plus in this campaign season — but why custodial labor rather than having the children help out in the office, or using older kids to tutor or coach younger ones, or creating the conditions for students to develop their burgeoning computer skills in service of the school?

Custodial work is honorable labor and requires knowledge and skill, but it is physical work low on the Department of Labor’s Standard Occupational Classification System. What category of work in the school would middle- and upper-class parents who are in agreement with Mr. Gingrich choose for their children?

Mr. Gingrich sparked outrage over his dismissal of child labor laws, and he also got some support for the common sense notion that work is beneficial for young people. Without dismissing the significance of this back-and-forth, I think it misses the wider sweep of issues worth considering in Mr. Gingrich’s proposal.

There is the revelation of Mr. Gingrich’s simplistic, not just reckless, thinking — at least on topics like this one. There is the issue of the way the poor get represented in contemporary political discourse. There are the twin issues of education and work and who receives what kind of education for what kind of work.

If Mr. Gingrich gets us to think carefully about these issues, then maybe he succeeded after all — though not in the way he intended.


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By Valerie Strauss | 12:00 PM ET, 11/29/2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Longer Standardized Tests Are Planned, Displeasing Some School Leaders

What a disaster!


Published: December 9, 2011

Students across New York State will sit longer for high-stakes standardized tests in language arts and math this April compared with past years, education officials indicated Friday, drawing criticism from school leaders and parents who believe that lengthier tests are a move in the wrong direction.

A week after David Abrams, the state’s longtime testing director, was forced to resign after he sent an unauthorized memorandum about lengthening testing to school districts, officials declined to specify how much time they planned to add. Mr. Abrams’s memo said the tests would grow to more than four hours — over several days — for reading, from about two-and-a-half hours now, and to three hours or more for math, from an average of two hours now.

Top officials disavowed the memo and said the increases would not be so drastic. They said Friday that they would send the new times and other details to districts next week.

The annual tests, given to students in grades 3 through 8, will factor into teacher evaluations for the first time this year. Extending test times, state officials said, would enable them to field-test new questions that would not count toward a student’s score but could be used to develop future tests.

Currently, new questions are tested in practice exams given in selected districts. That has raised the concern that students, knowing the tests do not count, do not try very hard, resulting in misleading data. Such inaccurate feedback, these officials say, has contributed to the state’s score inflation in recent years.

The Board of Regents discussed including sample multiple-choice questions in the actual tests at a meeting in December 2010, and the State Education Department issued a memo in March notifying districts that the change would take effect next spring.

But some school administrators and parents say it was not clear from the memo that a result would be longer tests.

Critics assert that more time spent on testing cuts into time for classroom instruction. They also say that lengthier tests penalize younger children who cannot concentrate for long periods, giving an inaccurate assessment of their abilities.

“I think the last thing we want is a test of stamina,” said Richard Organisciak, superintendent of the 11,000-student New Rochelle district in Westchester County. “The thought of a third grader sitting there for three hours — it boggles my mind that he would stay as focused or perform as well on a high-stakes test.”

The stakes are particularly high in New York City, where a top score can help a student gain admission to some of the city’s most coveted middle schools.

Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, the union representing 218,000 public school teachers, said the state should be trying to decrease testing time, not increase it.

“If it becomes a burden on the student and teacher and it takes away from instructional time, then we’ve missed the point altogether,” he said. “We’ve moved away from an instrument that measures and improves student growth, and gotten wound up in the concept of how much data we can collect.”

Nationwide, most states already blend field questions into actual exams taken by students because doing so provides more reliable data about questions, said Brian Gong, executive director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, a nonprofit group that provides support to state education departments. “That’s a very common practice; the SAT also does it,” he said. “It’s the best way to get real data.”

New York’s tests are shorter than those given in some other states: third graders take a 150-minute test in language arts, and a 100-minute test in math, compared with 150-minute to 270-minute tests in other states, with sample questions typically accounting for 10 to 20 minutes, Mr. Gong said. “There are many people asking tests to do more things,” he added, “which technically requires the test to be longer.”

Kathleen M. Cashin, a Fordham University education professor who joined New York’s Regents in March, said there should have been more discussion in the state about increasing test times.

“I think we have too much testing now,” she said. “I mean, is the purpose of education just to identify weaknesses through accountability measures? Or is the purpose to expand the child’s learning with knowledge and vocabulary, and give them the opportunity to discuss and think at a higher level?”

Lisa Siegman, principal of Public School 3 in Greenwich Village, said she would like to see evidence that increasing the length of state tests would help schools like hers to better educate their students. “They’re trying to measure something,” she said, “but I’m not quite sure it connects to what we do.”

Measuring the Impact of Historic Texas Education Cuts

by Morgan Smith | Texas Tribune
December 12, 2011

Since well before the 2011 legislative session began, one question has dominated conversations about the state budget cuts to public education: How will they affect public schools?

There are many answers.

In March, the Texas Education Agency will release the official numbers on school district employment for the 2011-12 school year, including job losses. The figures will be a reckoning in some ways — the first time the state will actually measure the affect of a historic reduction in financing. But several groups, including nonprofit organizations and professional associations, and at least one lawmaker, would like to have a better idea before then — to help shape their own policies and in some cases to be able to control how the discussion is framed.

The Texas American Federation of Teachers, the state branch of the national teachers association, recently released a survey that showed that budget cuts had resulted in widespread layoffs and low morale among public school employees. Linda Bridges, the branch’s president, emphasized the strength of the study’s findings, but because it was an online survey, she said, it was “unscientific” in nature.

The KDK-Harman Foundation, a private nonprofit, is working with Children at Risk, an education advocacy group in Houston, to conduct a comprehensive study on how schools are managing with less money. Jennifer Esterline, the foundation’s executive director, said a lack of both quantitative and qualitative information on the effects of the cuts prompted the study, which was expected to cost just over $100,000.

After a statewide assessment, the study will focus on 25 districts chosen to represent an array of schools. The goal is to determine which programs, employees and other costs they have chosen to eliminate and how that is affecting the classroom.

“It will allow us to get really deep into what are the kinds of decisions superintendents are having to make,” Esterline said, from learning to do more with less to choosing which programs and employees to cut.

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, decided to canvass the state’s 1,000-plus school districts after he heard that one superintendent in his area had laid off several teachers and then rehired them once final state budget cut numbers came out.

Huberty’s office is not planning to release the results of the survey publicly, said Maggie Irwin, Huberty’s legislative director. It is more of a “self-imposed interim project,” Irwin said, to help shape his understanding of the budget cuts.

Lynn Moak, whose school finance consulting firm, Moak, Casey & Associates, has kept track of job-loss estimates since the start of the session, said the figure of layoffs could vary widely by source, depending on which employees are counted.

For instance, if only teachers are included, it may be a much smaller number than if all employees are included, because many districts are trying to cut everywhere except in the classroom. Moak said that depending on their financial status, districts may face the greater bulk of their budget cuts for the 2011-12 school year — which could cushion the numbers districts report this year.

Moak cautioned against overstating the effect of less money in public education.

“It’d be incorrect to characterize it as a huge impact, except in the concept of what does it mean for the future,” he said. “It means the Legislature can cut and will cut money to public education if the circumstances are right.”

School Finance Expert Leaving Texas Legislature

by Ross Ramsey | Texas Tribune
December 12, 2011

After 20 years, Scott Hochberg is bailing out of the Texas Legislature. He says it’s time. He’ll be 59 when he leaves office a little over a year from now. He won’t have to campaign in a newly drawn legislative district, and he’ll get back his nights and weekends.

He’ll leave a hole in the House. Hochberg, a Houston Democrat who started as a House staff member and won his first election in 1992, is an acknowledged wizard at school finance and has a deep well of experience in education issues.

He plays it down, saying: “Holes in the Legislature are kind of like holes on the beach. They fill up pretty quickly.”

What Hochberg is good at is a couple of the most important issues the Legislature will be tackling when it convenes in January 2013. The state’s school finance system is under siege, with school districts joining lawsuits challenging the distribution of education money and budget writers struggling to keep conflicting promises: to fully finance public schools on the one hand and to hold the line on taxes and spending on the other. On the policy front, the perpetual wrestling match over testing and management and education curriculums continues.

Hochberg managed to be in the middle of things without becoming a high-profile partisan like his colleagues Garnet Coleman, Jim Dunnam and Pete Gallego. He said the changes at the Capitol had more to do with politics than with policy. Education experts have been forming and departing the Legislature for decades. Another one — Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who heads the Senate Education Committee — is leaving after this term, too. People like them have always arrived to fill the holes.

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But the nature of the place has changed. It has always had partisans, Hochberg said, but they weren’t encouraged.

“What I used to hear an awful lot is, ‘I can’t vote for that because my district will kill me,’” he said. “Certain subject areas were certainly off the table, but there was also this feeling of if we could all get together on something, then we’re all better off politically.”

“Perhaps now there’s more concern, particularly on the Republican side, with what goes on in the primary,” he said. “If that’s where the cover is being sought, I think Republicans are less likely to seek cover from opposing Democrats and more likely to seek cover from some of the socalled kingmakers on their side.”

He remembers a dentist who used to voice his opinions the old-fashioned way — on paper, mailed with stamps. “Literally, the letters were sometimes in crayon or Magic Marker,” he said, “and they started out, generally, with ‘What are you idiots doing down there?’”

With modern technology, that one dentist could look like an army, sending thousands of emails. “He was the only guy who ever saw them,” Hochberg said. “He didn’t have the ability to send them to 20,000 people with the click of a button.”

“I’m really not sure, from a psychological standpoint, that we’ve figured out how to deal with that, and to give it its appropriate weight,” he said. “What it means is that the loud voices can be far louder.”

The Republicans came after Hochberg in 2003, redrawing his district so that — they thought — he’d get beat by a Republican. He responded by campaigning heavily in apartment complexes filled with adult nonvoters, identifying issues important to them and working to turn out the people he identified as political supporters. He got a higher percentage of the vote in the 2004 election than he got two years earlier and remained safe, until now.

His Republican colleagues in the Legislature came after him again this year, drawing a map that put him and Rep. Hubert Vo, also a Houston Democrat, in the same legislative district. The maps currently in place — drawn by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio — have him on safer ground, at least in the partisan sense. But it’s not his old district.

“I’ve got about half a new district,” Hochberg said of the new political maps. “That’s a lot of people to get out and get to know. It takes a while to learn the street corners, the liquor licenses.”

“I started over once, 10 years ago,” he said of his decision to leave. “I kind of know what that’s like.”

New STAAR Test More Challenging Than TAKS

Visit this link to listen to a short clip on STAAR.


December 12, 2011
by: Jack Williams

Implementation of the state's new accountability exam, the so-called "STAAR" test, is just a few months away, and ups the stakes considerably when it comes to what students and educators need to know.

Dr. Nancy Gregory, who oversees curriculum and instruction at the Houston Independent School District, appears calm as she sits in an office at HISD headquarters. But she admits the new test, which replaces TAKS, is indeed a whole new challenge.

"It's daunting because we know for a fact across the state that when TEA says the tests will be more rigorous — yes, the tests will be more rigorous."

Gregory has been part of the state process to vet questions on the new test, which begins at the end of March. She says TAKS has been a good test, but not hard enough in some areas.

"TAKS is a great improvement over TAAS, but now we have something that is really upping the level of instruction many, many, many levels and that can only be a good thing."

Students will be expected to answer more complex questions on a longer test that requires more high-level thinking. They'll also have less time to complete it, only four hours per test compared to the untimed TAKS test. Gregory says students
will notice a big change in the math and science tests.

"We will have, for the first time, open-ended questions. So instead of having a question with four answer options, it's just a question. The kids have a grid that they work with and they have some work space and they have to do their own thinking without any hints from answer options."

Students will also be required to be proficient in expository writing, not just narrative writing. Universities have complained that high school graduates have the narrative writing down, but fall short when it comes to writing in a more informational style.

"The kids will be writing in 4th grade, sticking with narration, but also writing an expository piece. In 7th grade, narration, but an expository piece. In 9th grade, exposition has been added. In 10th grade, exposition and persuasion has been added.
In 11th grade, it's persuasion and analysis. So the kinds of writing that are now required are tougher than what they've been in the past."

Elementary students in grades 3-8 won't see much of a change when it comes to which subjects they'll be tested on. The changes are more pronounced in high school, where 9th graders will be the first to take the STAAR test in the spring. Current sophomores and upperclassmen will finish high school taking the TAKS. The new tests will also now be end of course exams each year that count toward a cumulative score that has to be met in order to graduate.

Not everyone thinks the new test is a good idea, including Gayle Fallon. She's the head of the largest teacher's union in Houston.

"The biggest problem we've got is it's a significant jump in difficulty in a year to be followed by another year where we're seeing the largest class sizes we've ever seen. We're seeing resources disappear on a daily basis. I'm not saying our teachers can't do it, but it's kind of like saying run this race and we're going to tie both your hands behind your back. Now good luck."

Districts like HISD say they've worked hard to prepare teachers and students for the new test. One thing is still missing. The state hasn't decided on passing standards on the test yet. That should come after the first of the year.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

U.S. Senate Hearing on Teacher Quality

Two proposed acts that are germane to this discussion: The first is by Congresswoman Judy Chu and is called the Equal Access to Quality Education Act

and in the Senate, the Assuring Student Success through Effective Teaching Act

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Districts Pay Less in Poor Schools, Report Says

It hasn't just been education "experts" who have stated that within district funding disparities exist, communities have also argued this for years. Glad Dillon made a point of saying that this report does nothing more than confirm what we already know is occurring. I wonder how much money was spent to put this report together and how few dollars will be put into addressing the root of the problem.


Published: November 30, 2011

Education experts have long argued that a basic inequity in American schooling is that students in poor neighborhoods are frequently taught by low-paid rookie teachers who move on as they gain experience and rise up the salary scale.

Until now, however, researchers lacked nationwide data to prove it. That changed Wednesday when the Department of Education released a 78-page report.

Its conclusion: Tens of thousands of schools serving low-income students are being shortchanged because districts spend fewer state and local dollars on teacher salaries in those schools than on salaries in schools serving higher-income students.

“Low-income students need extra support and resources to succeed, but in far too many places, policies for assigning teachers and allocating resources are perpetuating the problem rather than solving it,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a conference call.

The report, Comparability of State and Local Expenditures Among Schools Within Districts, is based on data collected from 84,000 public schools in districts that had to report salary expenditures to receive emergency federal money under the 2009 economic stimulus law, which channeled $100 billion to public education.

The inequities documented in the report began to accumulate within a few years of the passage of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law on public schools, which channels money to educate poor children. To prevent them from simply substituting the federal antipoverty dollars for local funds, districts had to show that they were spending at least as much state and local education money in the poor schools getting federal money as they were spending in their more affluent schools.

But a loophole allowed school systems to report educator salaries to Washington using a districtwide pay schedule, thus masking large salary gaps between the higher-paid veteran staffs in middle-class schools and the young teachers earning entry-level pay in poor parts of the district.

A few researchers have documented the problem with statewide data in Florida and some other states, said Cynthia Brown, a vice president at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group. “But I’m excited because this is the first time that data documenting the problem has ever been collected on a nationwide basis,” she said. “Many of us have known for a long time that in some individual districts the high-poverty schools weren’t getting their fair share of state and local funds.”

Federal officials estimated that although the inequities were widespread, alleviating them would not be costly.

“Providing low-income schools with comparable spending would cost as little as 1 percent of the average district’s total spending,” but the extra resources “would make a big impact by adding between 4 percent and 15 percent to the budget” of schools serving poor students, the department said in a statement.

Newsom Stakes a Claim With Student Protests

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom joined a group of protesters on Monday after they disrupted the University of California Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco and conducted a meeting of their own.

Published: December 2, 2011

Dozens of chanting protesters disrupted a public meeting of the University of California Board of Regents on Monday, driving all but one of the regents from the room.

“What the hell,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a regent by virtue of his office, as he flashed a smile and strode past nervous police to mingle with protesters.

While other regents at the meeting in San Francisco huddled behind closed doors or waited at a safe distance on a teleconference call, Mr. Newsom sat forward in his chair, surrounded by students and faculty members railing against a raft of ills: rising tuition, mounting student debt, grim job prospects and accusations of police brutality.

When he finally spoke, Mr. Newsom thanked the protesters for “restoring my faith and confidence in this state and country.” He added, “You have my support.”

And, no doubt, he would like theirs in return.

With the University of California and the California State University systems convulsing over increases in tuition and the ensuing protests at several campuses, Mr. Newsom has staked a position as a populist champion for students, a key part of his base that will be critical if, as expected, he seeks higher office.

“Gavin is speaking from the heart, but it also makes sense for him politically,” said Nathan Ballard, a former press secretary and an aide to Mr. Newsom.

In an interview Thursday, Mr. Newsom said he was deeply alarmed by what he called the dismantling of the U.C. and C.S.U. systems and gently criticized the budget deal struck by Gov. Jerry Brown last year that included steep cuts to financing for both institutions.

“You can’t cut $650 million from both systems and tell me you value the system,” he said. “I believe we could’ve avoided a substantial portion of these cuts.”

He added, “If I were governor, I’d take that as a critique, but I stand by it.”

While Mr. Newsom, 44, has grabbed headlines by criticizing tuition increases and cuts to state spending on education, Governor Brown, a fellow Democrat, has been wrangling for months with the Legislature over a pension overhaul and proposed taxes to help finance education.

Mr. Brown was on vacation last week, and aides had to address criticism that he failed to swiftly address incidents in which campus police used pepper spray and riot batons to quell student protests at Berkeley and U.C. Davis, incidents that were condemned by Mr. Newsom and John A. Pérez, the Assembly speaker and a U.C. regent.

Mr. Newsom told The Sacramento Bee last week that the relationship between a governor and a lieutenant governor was typically “difficult.”

But on Tuesday, Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Mr. Brown, said the governor and Mr. Newsom had a “shared concern” over the tuition increases.

“The governor’s position has always been that without additional revenue coming into the state we’re faced with some terrible choices,” she said. “The lieutenant governor is very aware of the very serious fiscal realities that are facing the state.”

Larry N. Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University, said Mr. Brown and Mr. Newsom had fundamentally different aims.

“The easy part is to condemn tuition increases; the harder part is to decide how you’re going to offset those increases with revenue augmentation,” Mr. Gerston said. “Jerry Brown has to be the conductor and make all the pieces come together. Gavin can be a star performer, but he’s just one instrument in a 60- or 70-piece symphony.”

Although Mr. Newsom sees higher education as an issue within his purview as regent, the latitude the governor allows him will be scrutinized because Mr. Newsom has been openly frustrated by the limited scope of his office.

When he briefly ran against Mr. Brown, 73, in the gubernatorial primary last year, Mr. Newsom repeatedly emphasized his youth and questioned the “fire in the belly” of Mr. Brown.

During Mr. Newsom’s campaign for lieutenant governor, “much of Gavin’s support came from the younger generation,” Mr. Ballard said. “He’s certainly speaking to a demographic that will help him in the future.”

In fact, advisers who cultivate Mr. Newsom’s social media presence are quick to note that the majority of his followers on Twitter and those who “like” his Facebook page are young.

Mr. Newsom’s supporters say that he has always backed students’ causes, and that his outspokenness underscores his integrity and his image as an iconoclast.

In 2004, Mr. Newsom riled elders in his party when, as mayor of San Francisco, he issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a state ban.

“He’s always had a ‘damn the political torpedoes’ attitude and a willingness to take on tough issues,” said Peter Ragone, a close political adviser to Mr. Newsom.

As the matter of tuition increases and cuts to education spending has gained prominence nationwide, Mr. Newsom has stocked his official Web site with press releases calling for more transparency around spending decisions.

At Monday’s regents meeting, he declined to sign a petition calling for state lawmakers to close corporate tax loopholes, among other proposed changes in the tax code, but pledged his support for the initiatives.

“I think it’s a lot better than any signature," Mr. Newsom said, adding that he was working with Mr. Brown to devise various changes in tax laws.

Mr. Newsom is not the only U.C. regent to express support for students. On Monday in Los Angeles, for example, Sherry Lansing and Eddie Island met with protesters for 45 minutes after the latter disrupted the regents’ conference-call meeting there. And Ms. Lansing, the board chairwoman, has said she intends to march with student demonstrators in Sacramento early next year to protest cuts in education spending.

But in some ways, the lieutenant governor’s support for the uprising, including students’ demands for higher taxes on the wealthy, may seem like a peculiar undertaking. He recently bought a $2.2 million home in Kentfield, and his business and investment holdings made him the richest of the state’s top elected officials in 2010, according to the most recent financial disclosures available from the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Some observers, however, say his years in politics have allowed Mr. Newsom to cultivate an unusually approachable demeanor.

“He has a much broader role than the typical regent,” said George Marcus, a U.C. regent who is the founder and chairman of Marcus & Millichap, one of the largest commercial real estate brokerage firms in the country. “He is much more accustomed to dealing with different groups of people. Some regents are more inclined to interact with students than others.”

John Vigna, a spokesman for Mr. Pérez, said Mr. Newsom was casting himself as a liaison between the students and the regents, who are under intense scrutiny.

“I think that he does have a needle to thread here,” Mr. Vigna said. “The risk is you identify the problem and never figure out what the solution is.”

Plan to Close or Restructure 21 Chicago Schools Draws Quick Reaction

Published: December 3, 2011

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education team made its first attempt at improving struggling schools last week, and the negative reviews came quickly. State legislators and community leaders called the proposed closing or restructuring of 21 schools “very troubling” and said administrators were violating the intent of a new state law.

Chicago Public Schools designated 10 schools for turnaround — a controversial process in which existing staff members are fired and changes are made in the school’s curriculum and learning climate. Four elementary schools will be closed, two high schools will be phased out, and six schools, one of which will also begin phasing out, will share buildings.

About 7,800 students will be affected by the proposed changes, and more than 600 teachers and other employees could lose their jobs. All the designated schools are on the city’s South and West Sides.

Legislation signed in August by Gov. Pat Quinn requires the district to follow a strict timeline for school closings and requires public comment at nearly every step of the process. The district is allowed to set the guidelines for determining which schools are subject to turnaround or closing. District officials are relying on academic achievement as the key factor in those decisions.

But academic performance at the designated schools varies widely. For example, the school district is proposing a turnaround at Pablo Casals Elementary School, where 62 percent of the students met or exceeded state standards in math and reading. At the same time, they also plan to turn around Fuller Elementary School, which had just 37 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards.

Oliver Sicat, the district’s chief portfolio officer, said administrators were careful to take action only at schools where students had a better option nearby.

“Our recommendations are to close schools where we feel like we can put our students in a better seat now,” Mr. Sicat said.

Members of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a state entity that monitors Chicago Public Schools’ compliance with the new law, said the proposed guidelines were too vague and the process was not transparent enough to satisfy the law’s requirements.

Representative Cynthia Soto, Democrat of Chicago, one of the bill’s sponsors, said, “We need explanations, specific explanations” for the decisions to close or restructure the schools.

Becky Carroll, the school district’s chief communications officer, said the district had “followed every single requirement” of the new law.

Ms. Carroll said school officials had held more than 40 meetings with community groups and elected officials, in addition to two public meetings required by the law. She estimated that 60 more meetings would be held by February, when the Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed actions.

But members of the task force said the public comments fell on deaf ears; no formal revisions were made to the draft criteria before district leaders finalized them at the end of November.

In a written statement, Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, called the proposed changes “the same old, ineffective policies couched in new and exciting public relations boosting language.”

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the district’s guidelines “enable them to close whatever they want.” Ms. Filardo helped draft the law governing the school board’s decision-making process.

Under the guidelines, more than 140 schools were eligible to be closed, and district leaders said there could have been many more on the list.

“We could not do the entire city in one year,” said Jean-Claude Brizard, the Chicago Public Schools chief executive.

Andrea Lee, a member of the educational facilities task force and an education organizer for the Grand Boulevard Federation, said the Bronzeville community on the South Side had been disproportionately affected by school closings and turnarounds. She said 24 schools had closed in the past several years, and this year six area schools are affected.

Ms. Lee said the passage of the new law had initially made her cautiously optimistic, but she was “not that optimistic anymore.”

In Another Blow to Public Schools, Hochberg Leaving Legislature

"The House will dearly miss its resident nerd"
This sums it up well.


by Abby Rapoport | Texas Observer
Friday, December 02, 2011

Scott Hochberg was none too happy that everyone called him a nerd. "You can't think of something to call me?" he groused more than once. But it was hard to think of anything else to call the state legislator with his messy white hair, glasses and encyclopedic knowledge of school finance law. In a House chamber of cheerleaders and quarterbacks, he often proved that knowing the facts and doing your homework could actually bring power and influence. As the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the vice chair of the Public Education Committee, Hochberg seemed a living example of Revenge of the Nerds.

Until last session, when he watched helplessly as the Texas House chose to make unprecedented cuts to public education, and the leadership shut him out of school finance negotiations, making cuts less equitable across the state.

So maybe it's not a huge surprise that today Hochberg announced he won't seek re-election after almost 20 years in the state Legislature.

Hochberg is one of 25 incumbents so far to announce they aren't coming back. But his decision may have the most widespread impact, particularly for education advocates. The funding mechanisms around public schools and universities are mind-boggling complicated and irrational. Hochberg was the undisputed expert on how the laws worked. He often tangled with the Texas Education Agency, following up on how policy was actually getting implemented. He spent much of his time on the floor translating and explaining the rules to less-informed colleagues. Because education has traditionally been a bipartisan area, Hochberg often had Republicans sponsoring his bills in the Senate and supporting him in the House—most notably working with Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

Last session, however, everything blew up. With an ultraconservative Republican super-majority and a $27 billion budget shortfall, things turned nasty fast. Spectators watched Hochberg's and Eissler's friendship implode as the two men battled on school finance plans.

Hochberg was kept out of the closed door meetings on school finance and ultimately had almost no say in the plan the House backed—a plan that cut the same percentage from all school districts, despite vast funding inequalities. He had little say on the Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers ultimately decided to cut $5.4 billion from public schools. Then, adding insult to injury, the Legislature passed redistricting maps that put Hochberg in a district with fellow Democrat Hubert Vo. While those maps have now been redrawn by federal courts, it's hardly shocking to think Hochberg's downtrodden.

In his announcement, Hochberg writes, "My decision should not be thought of as any commentary on the current political environment, the challenges ahead, or, for that matter, the disappointment of soon having to endure the designated hitter rule when watching hometown Houston baseball."

But regardless of his reason, Hochberg's departure leaves an enormous gap in education expertise—at a time when the Legislature can least afford it. The 82nd legislative session was bleak, but the 83rd will likely be worse. Next time around, lawmakers will actually have to deal with the state's structural deficit and tax-policy problems, which means figuring out a better system to pay for public schools. Meanwhile, they'll probably also have to figure out a new way to distribute money to the schools. School districts across Texas are suing the state in several different lawsuits around both inadequacy and inequity in funding.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is clearly the chosen member to take the reins from Hochberg, but it's bound to be a tough job. During the session, it fell to Aycock to try, unsuccessfully, to pass a fiscal matters bill containing school finance language. While Aycock is undoubtedly smart and eager, he's only in his third term. Hochberg had the trust of his colleagues, that he both understood all sides and would explain the policy options fairly.

The House will dearly miss its resident nerd.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Texplainer: Could Universities Undergo Sunset Review?

Great response from Texas Tech: “We have a sunset review; it’s just not called sunset review. Every two years we come down here and try to justify what we’re doing.”


Hey, Texplainer: Could the state’s public universities go through the so-called sunset review process, forcing them to periodically defend their existence to state legislators?

The issue came up at a November hearing of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, a group formed earlier this year amid tense debate over the operations of higher education institutions in the state.

A co-chair of the committee, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, cited a recommendation from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank whose higher education proposals she has openly opposed, that was delivered to legislators prior to the recent legislative session. It called for lawmakers to “study the feasibility, the pros, and the cons of placing universities under sunset review.”

Most state agencies go through the high-stakes process every 12 years. Their operations are scrutinized and the Legislature decides whether they should continue to operate. If legislators don't act to keep an agency in sunset alive, it shuts down.

“If the Legislature were to adopt such a recommendation, how would your universities in your system be impacted?” Zaffirini asked a group of university system chancellors who had been invited to testify on matters of governance.

As might be expected, the chancellors didn’t go for the idea.

University of Houston System Chancellor Renu Khator said it was “not doable.” Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance, a former legislator, said, “We have a sunset review; it’s just not called sunset review. Every two years we come down here and try to justify what we’re doing.”

That the discussion was even occurring surprised some in the higher education community. Michael McClendon, an education policy expert from Vanderbilt University, has been retained by the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, an organization that sprang up in opposition to the TPPF’s proposals. He said it struck him as “illogical,” at a time when universities must increasingly look to private dollars to fund their activities, that they might have to do so with the caveat that they might not exist in a few years. “What right-minded donor would give to that organization?”

Lee Jackson, the chancellor of the University of North Texas System, expressed reluctance to proclaim that universities should be exempt from the sunset process — after all, as a state representative in 1979 he had disagreed with the State Bar of Texas that it should be exempted.

Higher education might be different. Usually, Jackson said, when an agency is sunsetted — a nice way of saying shut down — its functions are transferred to another agency. But because of accreditation requirements, among other issues, the students at a university that was eliminated through the sunset review process could not simply or easily be transferred and would most likely be left in the lurch.

“If the question were asked … could the state of Texas use our time better evaluating our progress, I would say yes,” Jackson said.

That’s what the recommendation was driving at, according to Thomas Lindsay, who arrived as director of the TPPF’s Center for Higher Education after the proposal was made. “The idea behind it is pretty common sense,” he said. “As an entity created for and paid for by the taxpayers, it, like all other state entities, should be reviewed.”

The intent was not to shut down the universities, he said, adding that it was “unfortunate” if that was the impression that had been given. And if a sunset process were in place, he does not believe it would shutter universities. “The purpose of education is not something that’s going to go out of style, so it’s not looked at as a way to abolish them,” he said. “If any entity can [defend its existence], institutions of higher education would be those.”

Lindsay said the TPPF is currently examining different ways to review universities as they piece together what will ultimately be their recommendations for the 2013 legislative session.

Those proposals, when they come, will likely be pored over carefully by the higher education community both in Texas and elsewhere. “I think some people look to Texas with befuddlement,” McClendon said. “They understand that the questions being asked there are being asked everywhere, but some of the solutions being raised seem a bit extreme.”

Bottom line: Technically, it's feasible, but university leaders and some higher education experts say it's not realistic.

Robin Hood an Accepted Reality for Texas Schools

by Morgan Smith | Texas Tribune
December 2, 2011

When David Thompson is asked about Texas’ long history of school finance litigation, he likes to make a Harry Potter analogy.

“There are common characters, common themes, consistent plot thematic issues that run through all the books,” said Thompson, a lawyer. “But every one of them has a specific focus.”

Now, one phrase is conspicuously absent from the discussion: Robin Hood. The state’s practice of collecting portions of property tax revenue from wealthier districts and redistributing it to poorer ones, also known as “recapture,” was a rallying cry for districts challenging the school finance system in a lawsuit that made its way through the courts from 2001 to 2005.

Though Robin Hood has been a political flash point since its inception in 1993, it has now become settled law. After it survived a high-profile effort at repeal during the 2003 legislative session, a decision from the Texas Supreme Court in 2005 “pretty much dashed” any expectation that the law could be overturned, said F. Scott McCown, who presided over the case in the lower courts as a state judge in 2002.

The state received just over $1 billion in payments in 2010 from more than 300 Robin Hood school districts, according to Texas Education Agency data.

By the end of the year, there will most likely be at least three lawsuits filed against the state relating to how it finances public schools, one led by Thompson. But none of the plaintiffs — not even the group formed primarily of school districts that contribute revenue under Robin Hood — have said their goal is to overturn the law.

“We’re not asking to alter or repeal that provision,” said Rickey Dailey, a spokesman for the Texas School Coalition, which represents property-wealthy school districts that send money back to the state.

Dailey said the districts would instead argue that the state has failed to dedicate enough money to public education to meet increasingly strict accountability standards, and that it has created an unconstitutional statewide property tax because it has left them with little choice in how to spend local taxes or whether to raise them.

“We’re all resigned to the fact that, until the state does something to pull the many school districts that are tax-poor to a minimally adequate level, Robin Hood is going to be here,” said David Webb, the chief financial officer of Deer Park, a wealthy district near Houston that has given back about $578 million since the law was enacted.

While wealthy districts may not have chosen to highlight concerns with Robin Hood as a part of their lawsuit, they still struggle with its consequences — and many have devised ways to get around it, like creating private foundations to help support their schools.

Asking voters to approve higher taxes, some of whose receipts go to poorer schools, is “really a nonstarter,” said Superintendent Kevin Brown of San Antonio's Alamo Heights Independent School District, which has given about $300 million of its property tax revenue to the state since 1993.

But districts hoping for a school finance solution beyond Robin Hood will most likely be disappointed, said McCown, who is now the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal research group that supports Robin Hood.

“This very court would have to reverse itself,” he said, “and it doesn’t solve anybody’s problem.”

The state needs the money it receives from wealthy school districts to help finance education for the rest, said Pat Forgione, who was superintendent of the Austin Independent School District from 1999 to 2009 and was a chief witness for the districts fighting Robin Hood last time. The Austin district still sends more to the state through Robin Hood than any other. In 2011 those payments will amount to $111 million — more than three times what the second-highest-contributing district, Plano, in Collin County, will give up.

“They don’t know how to deal with Robin Hood because now Robin Hood isn’t just $100 million anymore,” Forgione said of state lawmakers. “It’s hard to give up that.”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Texas education board opts to stay out of dispute over new tests

By TERRENCE STUTZ | Austin Bureau, Dallas Morning-News
November, 17 2011

AUSTIN — State Board of Education members indicated Thursday they will not get involved in a dispute over the new high school end-of-course exams and how much they must count toward student grades in the 12 subjects that will be tested beginning this year.

Several board members said they were unwilling to modify a law passed by the Legislature that says the new test must count for at least 15 percent of the final grade in each of the core subjects.

Under the 2007 law, high school students must get a passing average on the three end-of-course tests in each of four subject areas — English, math, science and social studies — to receive a diploma. The law also spells out how the test results will be calculated into the final grade in each course.

School superintendents across the state have complained that the testing law is unclear about how such things as course credits, grade-point averages and class rankings should be determined after inclusion of the end-of-course test scores — and the Texas Education Agency has been reluctant to issue guidelines on the 15 percent requirement.

State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, proposed Thursday that the board adopt a rule that students failing an end-of-course test still be given credit for a course if they had a grade of 70 or better in the course — exclusive of what they scored on the end-of-course exam for the subject.

His proposal was backed by superintendents, who argued that it would maintain local control of grading policies in school districts and allow students who met all passing standards in the course except for the final test to still get credit for their work.

“I can’t find a school superintendent who is not in favor of this proposal,” Abilene ISD Superintendent Heath Burns told the board in voicing support for Ratliff’s plan. “This is a change that needs to happen.”

But several board members said they could not favor such a move, particularly since a similar effort in the legislative session earlier this year failed.

“The Legislature had a purpose in mind, that students have to pass these exams to get a diploma,” said board member Terri Leo, R-Spring. “You need to go to the pink house [state Capitol] if you’re having problems with this requirement and not ask us to lower standards. This would lower the bar for students when we’re supposed to be raising it.”

Board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, said the proposed change would send the wrong message to students and teachers.

“The state is just asking for some accountability, just 15 percent,” he said. “This initiative will send a message to dumb down our standards. Everybody will get a trophy and nobody will fail.”

Ratliff rejected the notion that the proposal would diminish standards, saying, “What we’re trying to do is protect kids who are passing their class as determined by 180 days in a school year and not four hours on a test.”

With less than a majority of board members inclined to take action, Ratliff said he would set aside his proposal for now.

“My goal was to raise awareness of this issue so that we could see the unintended consequences of the law,” he said.

Ratliff noted that some school districts have already revised their grading policies so that any failing grade on an end-of-course test will be converted into a score of 69, making it impossible for a student to fail a class solely on the basis of the test score. Students would still have to get passing averages on each group of tests to earn a diploma.

Big expansion, big questions for Teach for America


MIAMI (AP) — In a distressed neighborhood north of Miami's gleaming downtown, a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced instructors from Teach for America is trying to make progress where more veteran teachers have had difficulty: raising students' reading and math scores.

"These are the lowest performing schools, so we need the strongest performing teachers," said Julian Davenport, an assistant principal at Holmes Elementary, where three-fifths of the staff this year are Teach for America corps members or graduates of the program.

By 2015, with the help of a $50 million federal grant, program recruits could make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation's highest need school districts. The program also is expanding internationally.

That growth comes as many districts try to make teachers more effective. But Teach for America has had mixed results.

Its teachers perform about as well as other novice instructors, who tend to be less successful than their more experienced colleagues. Even when they do slightly better, there's a serious offset: The majority are out of the teaching profession within five years.

"I think ultimately the jury is out," said Tony Wagner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an instructor to the first class of TFA corps members.

Teach for America teachers work with not just the poor, but also English language learners and special education students. They provide an important pipeline of new teachers. But critics cite the teachers' high turnover rate, limited training and inexperience and say they are perpetuating the same inequalities that Teach for America has set to eradicate.

"There's no question that they've brought a huge number of really talented people in to the education profession," said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority children, and a longtime supporter of TFA.

But, she said, "Nobody should teach in a high poverty school without having already demonstrated that they are a fabulous teacher. For poor kids, education has to work every single year."


Wendy Kopp started Teach for America while studying public policy at Princeton. For her senior thesis, she developed a plan to place top college graduates in the poorest schools. She sent the plan to dozens of Fortune 500 executives. Within a year, she had raised $2.5 million and had 2,500 applications.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of recent college graduates have taught for two years in some of the most challenging classrooms in hopes of helping close the achievement gap. Applications have doubled since 2008. Foundations have donated tens of millions.

With Teach for America's guidance, groups are being established in India, Chile and other places with deep educational inequalities.

Many countries, including those where students perform higher in math and reading, send the strongest and most experienced teachers to work with the lowest performing students. The U.S. has done the reverse. There are nearly twice as many teachers with fewer than three years' experience in schools where students are predominantly low income and minority.

Family income is one of the most accurate predictors of how well a student will perform. Just 18 percent of low-income eighth-grade students, for example, scored as proficient or above in reading on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"When we started this 20 years ago, the prevailing notion backed up by all the research was socio-economic circumstances determine educational outcomes," Kopp said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We've seen real evidence it does not have to be that way."

How to overcome the challenges of poverty is at the center of the debate over education reform, with an increasing focus on effective teaching.

Highly effective teachers are hardest to find at the least advantaged schools.

"The reality, particularly in urban centers in America, is they aren't there," said Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, who served as the founding director for Teach for America in New York City.


Teach for America believes it can create a corps of such teachers in a short time.

Research, however, shows that beginning instructors improve with experience.

A Harvard study of students in Texas found that a teacher's level of education, experience, and scores on licensing exams have a greater influence on student performance than any other factor. North Carolina research on teacher training programs, including Teach for America, showed that elementary students taught math by a first-year teacher lose the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared with students who had teachers with four years of experience.

If inexperienced teachers don't perform as well, then why pair them with students who struggle the most?

"When they started, we were staffing our high poverty schools ... with anything that breathed," said Haycock. But, she added, "Saying their solution is better than what came before it is not to say it's the right thing."

Wagner noted that his master's degree in teaching from Harvard hardly prepared him for the challenges of being a first-year teacher. "Unless and until we have a dramatically different system, and a universally high quality system for preparing teachers, I think TFA is a stop gap, and an important one," he said.


Most who apply for Teach for America have not studied education or thought about teaching, but consider it after speaking with a recruiter or program graduate.

For Ryan Winn, it was a picture of a recruiter's third-grade class in Phoenix that persuaded him to apply. The recruiter told him that half the students were expected to drop out by the eighth grade.

"That struck me as incredibly unfair and I was upset about it," said Winn, a teacher this year in Memphis, Tenn.

At Holmes Elementary in Miami, the classrooms of Teach for America teachers are filled with posters reminding students of the ambitious goals set for them.

"I have to make a change," said Michael Darmas, a first-year teacher at Holmes. "I have to make a difference."

Teach for America training starts with thick packages of readings and then five weeks co-teaching a summer class, usually in an urban school district, with students who have fallen behind and are taking remedial coursework in order to advance to the next grade.

The fledgling teachers are overseen by another instructor. That could be a more veteran public school teacher, or current or former Teach for America corps member.

"It was a real steep learning curve," said Sarahi Constantine Padilla, a recent Stanford University graduate teaching at Holmes.

When the summer is over, teachers are sent to their assigned districts, which pay up to $5,000 to Teach for America for each corps member they hire, in addition to the teacher's salary. Many don't find out exactly what they'll be teaching until shortly before school begins.

In interviews with nearly two dozen Teach for America corps members, many described classroom triumphs. Several also acknowledged feeling dubious about their abilities as first-year teachers.

"I struggled personally with my ability to be effective, and I think the gains my kids achieved were largely in spite of me," said Brett Barley, who taught in the San Francisco Bay area. "I thought the key thing I was able to bring to them was communicating the urgency of the predicament they faced and having them buy in to the idea they could be successful."

Most of the fourth-graders Barley taught entered reading and writing at second-grade levels. About 30 percent weren't native English speakers; two were classified as blind.

"The biggest challenge was trying to learn on the job to meet all the kids at their different skill levels," Barley said.

In her book, "A Chance to Make History," Kopp tells the stories of several Teach for America teachers who achieved remarkable success in the classroom. But it's not hard to find teachers who come out with a very different story about their experience.

Megan Hopkins, a Spanish major in college who was placed in Phoenix as a bilingual teacher, said she did not receive any training on teaching English language learners.

"I had no idea how to teach a child to read," Hopkins said. "I had no idea how to teach a second language learner to read in Spanish, much less in English. After five weeks of training, I really had no idea what I was doing. I felt that was a big disservice to my students."

Teach for America encouraged her to set a goal of advancing her students 1 1/2 grade levels. She didn't know how to go about building such a measurement, but was able to develop one with other teachers.

Hopkins said she was praised "up and down" for increasing student reading levels, but she questioned the results. One student, a native Spanish speaker, could read fluently in English, "but if you asked him what he read, he had absolutely no idea."


Teach for America, in its own review of external research, concludes that its teachers achieve student gains that are "at least as great as that of other new teachers." In some studies they do better, and in others they do worse.

Teach for America gathers information on how its teachers are performing, but does not release any data to the public. "We just don't feel it's responsible to show," Kopp said. "There are so many flaws in our system."

One consistent finding is Teach for America's high turnover rate. According to the organization, 33 percent of its graduates are still teaching. But in many districts, retention rates are significantly lower. A study published last year from North Carolina, for example, found that after five years, 7 percent of Teach for America corps members were still teaching in the state.

Kopp and others at Teach for America note turnover rates are high across low-income schools. But among teacher preparation programs, Teach for America has one of the highest.

She said requiring a two-year commitment is critical to attracting high quality candidates. The main reason Teach for America teachers leave the classroom, Kopp said, is because they want to have a bigger impact. Sixty percent of the program's graduates are still working in education, whether it's in policy, or for a nonprofit or government agency, according to TFA.

Throughout their time with Teach for America, corps members are frequently told about the organization's "theory of change." It's the idea that, no matter what field they ultimately enter, they will remain committed to fixing educational inequalities.

Many of the graduates interviewed for this story did leave teaching.

Hopkins, the Phoenix teacher, earned a doctorate in education and has focused much of her research on English language learners.

"But what if their theory of change would encourage their teachers to stay in the classroom as a form of change, as a form of leadership in the field of education?" she asked.


At Holmes Elementary, much is at stake.

If the state isn't granted a waiver from the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, the school could close unless it significantly improves math and reading scores on Florida's standardized assessment.

"I like the pressure," said third-grade teacher Daniel Guerrero. "It makes me want to stay up late and make sure everything is ready."

Assistant Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says clustering Teach for America teachers together has worked in other district schools and he hopes to attract more beyond their two-year commitment.

Davenport, the assistant principal and a program alumnus, said that will depend on whether corps members feel valued.

"If they don't feel that opportunity to exercise their abilities," he said, "they won't be compelled to stay."

Texas Schools Face New Rules on Financial Hardship

This history behind this legislation is sickening.


by Morgan Smith | Texas Tribune

The Texas Education Agency has released new guidelines that set tough thresholds for school districts hoping to take advantage of special legal exemptions passed by the Legislature and intended to help schools cope with significant budget cuts.

A school district's declaration of “financial exigency” is necessary to trigger many provisions of Senate Bill 8, including those that allow districts to streamline mid-contract employee terminations and avoid seniority-based layoffs in certain circumstances. The law, passed during the special session, left it up to the Commissioner of Education to establish a minimum standard for such declarations, which were previously largely in the hands of local school boards.

The rules released Wednesday give several scenarios that allow districts to claim financial exigency — but they are so rigorous that it’s likely that only a small number of districts will actually meet the any of the standards, says Jackie Lain, an associate executive director at the Texas Association of School Boards. The conditions include a funding reduction of more than 10 percent per student or more than a 20 percent decrease in its fund balance.

To put that in perspective, the $4 billion reduction to public education funding during the past legislative session has most districts seeing a 6 percent cut during the first year of the biennium and not more than a 9 percent cut in the second year. Districts vary widely in how much they've used of their fund balances, which amount to emergency savings accounts.

"Before SB8 there weren’t any standards for declaring financial exigency and the bill required the commissioner to adopt minimum standards," says Janice Hollingsworth, who is the interim director of the agency's financial audit division.

Among the other conditions are a decline in enrollment by more than 10 percent over the past two years, an unforeseen natural disaster requiring significant expenditures in excess of 15 percent of a district’s yearly budget, and “any other circumstances approved in writing” by the commissioner of education. Hollingsworth says the commissioner maintained some discretion to anticipate any unforeseen circumstances the other conditions didn't account for.

What the new guidelines mean in practice, says Lain, is that districts may be forced to go through more expensive processes to lay off employees, whose salaries typically make up about 80 percent of their annual budgets, instead of being able to take advantage of the more efficient practices lawmakers approved during the session.

“The thresholds seem to be overly high without any explanations,” Lain says. “How the commissioner uses the discretion will determine if the rules are overly prescriptive, or properly restrictive.”

The TEA will have a period of public comment on the rules. Hollingsworth says they are "subject to change" depending on the feedback the agency receives.