Shining City on the Hill?

Yesterday, I was sitting on an American Airlines flight reflecting on my trip to our Nation’s Capitol. I was there to learn more about changes in federal laws impacting education, to network with other school board members from across the country and to advocate our members of Congress.

I had lived in D.C. twice previously, both times assigned there by the U.S. Air Force. This time though, I looked through a brand new lens. During my 22-year military career, I (appropriately) saw myself as a servant of the people. When I stood outside the White House grounds viewing the world’s most powerful leader’s residence, I felt a different call to duty. At that moment, I was reminded of our responsibility to ensure the right person sits in the Oval Office and is held accountable by each of us. Too much is at stake – from representing us to the rest of the world to controlling the launch of nuclear weapons. Not only do we have the right to vote, but a sacred duty to do so. Not primarily in our own interests, or to further our own ideology, but to ensure a more perfect union, a safer world, and a lasting legacy for all of our children.

To me, our visits to Capitol Hill highlighted the representative nature of our form of governance. At any given office we visited, there were often three groups in queue to advocate or lobby for their cause or industry. Sometimes those meetings were with the actual gracious lawmaker (as with Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick), but other times, we were relegated to a young staffer (as with Congressman Paul Gosar.) Either way, we and many others funneled through to influence and seek favors. But, since there will never be enough resources to accommodate all requests (many from opposite ends of the spectrum), winners and losers are assured and conflict is the natural by-product.

There were too, those visiting their nation’s Capitol to see democracy in action. Many of them school children with bar coded tour labels stuck to the front of their matching school logoed t-shirts. There was a man with a bullhorn whose message I didn’t quite get, but he was intent on exercising his first amendment rights even if no one cared to listen. I also noticed the youth that defines so many of those who live and work in the city. It occurred to me that although the average age of those in the U.S. Senate is 61 years old, the daily grind of running our country is in the hands of those with enough energy to meet the challenge.

So, what’s my takeaway? Am I more or less hopeful for the future? Guess I have to say I’m still somewhere in between. Spending time with fellow school board members – “volunteer” elected officials from around the country who had made the trip to D.C. to fight for their students – made be optimistic. Hearing their stories of the on-going war against public education in their states highlighted the hard fight still ahead. The countless young people everywhere I looked, made me optimistic. But, so were there signs everywhere that the world is becoming more dangerous by the minute with bollards, fences, metal detectors and armed law enforcement officers around every corner. Going to see the Senate in session, only to find them departed by the time I worked my way through all the security checkpoints, reminded me of a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

The one thing I know for sure after my visit is that our democracy is sacred and must be safeguarded. President-Elect John F. Kennedy quoted John Winthrop in 1961 when he said: “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us.” I don’t think it is too extreme a stretch to say this year’s presidential election could decide whether that shine returns to its original luster, or is forever tarnished. It really is up to each of us, let’s hope we are up to the challenge.


Myths vs. Facts about America’s Public Education

Thomas photo med_2Myth #10 – Anyone Can Teach, Credentials Don’t Matter

  • 2002 Arizona study found students with certified teachers performed about 20 percent better on the tests than students with noncertified teachers (including TFA)
  • Houston study of 4,400 teachers and 132,000 students concluded certified teachers consistently produced significantly higher achievement than uncertified teachers

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

Myth #9 – Funding and Class Sizes Don’t Matter

  • Highest funding doesn’t guarantee best performance but, Arizona has the highest cuts per nation in per pupil spending since 2008and we are 46th in education performance
  • In 2006, California began funding reduced class sizes to 20 students in grades K-3, and 25 in grades 4-12 in schools with large numbers of low-income, minority, and English learners – since then, 85% of these schools have met their goals for improving outcomes
  • Finland is consistently one of the highest achievers on the PISA assessments and has some of the smallest class sizes among the OECD nations, averaging 21 or less in all grades

Myth #8 – Schools Should Be Run Like a Business

Business needs to maximize profits, but our children cannot be a standardized “raw material” from which we “throw away” those that do not meet some pre-determined standard and who do not “perform” in the expected manner the way certain raw materials in a factory might be discarded if not felt to be appropriate for the anticipated outcome.

Myth #7 – Standardized Testing Results Tell Us Which Teachers Are Good

Standardized testing only encourages teachers to teach to the test and in some cases, even cheat for good scores.

  • Texas, the birthplace of standardized high-stakes tests recently passed its preliminary state budget, designating ZERO dollars, for standardized testing after giving test-maker Pearson a $500 million, five-year contract just last year
  • About 880 Texas school districts, representing 4.4 million students, signed a resolution saying standardized testing (like AIMS and PARCC) is bad for education

Myth #6 – The Problem with Traditional Public Education is Teacher’s Unions

  • If unions are the problem, why:
  • Do those states that do not allow teachers to negotiate binding contracts, such as TX, VA, NV, AZ, and TN, rank in the middle or near the bottom?
  • Do the states with strong teacher’s unions: MA, CT, and NJ, rank at the top?
  • Do charter schools, most of which are non-union, not perform consistently better than comparable neighborhood schools?
  • Does Finland, which is 100% unionized, rank at the top in the 2009 PISA assessments

Myth #5 – Traditional Public Schools are Failing our Children and Charter Schools Perform Better

  • A 2009 Stanford University study compared the reading and math state achievement test scores of 70% of U.S. charter school students—to those of their virtual “twins” in traditional public schools who shared with them certain characteristics
  • Only 17% showed any significant growth in math scores over traditional public-school equivalents; 46% were the same and 37% were lower
  • In reading, charter students on average realized a growth less than their public-school counterparts

Myth #4 – Poverty Does Not Affect a Child’s Educational Performance

Family income is the single most reliable predicator of student test scores.  Living in a neighborhood with a high poverty rate can mean:

  • 22% do not graduate from high school, compared to 6% of those who’ve never been poor
  • 32% of students who spent more than half their childhoods in poverty do not graduate
  • If the students who dropped out of the 2011 Class had graduated, the nation’s economy would likely see nearly $154 billion in additional income over the course of their lifetimes

Myth #3 – American K-12 Education Ranks Far Behind the Rest of the World

Again, this isn’t true.  On the latest global tests, the U.S. scored higher in poverty-to-poverty comparisons than any other nation in the world

Myth #2 – Early Childhood Education Provides No Appreciable Benefit

  • Disadvantaged children who don’t participate in high-quality early education programs are:  50% more likely to be placed in special education, 25% more likely to drop out of school, 60% more likely to never attend college, 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime, 40% more likely to become a teen parent
  • Every dollar spent on early learning programs for at-risk children yields $7 to $9 in future savings on expenditures like special education and prison and can improve America’s competitiveness in a global economy by as much as 16% per year

Myth #1 – School Choice is the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time (Senator Melvin)

The civil rights issue of our time is actually “unequal access to quality education” and this unequal access is largely driven by poverty as shown by these following facts:

  • Thousands of charter schools don’t provide subsidized lunches, putting them out of reach for families in poverty
  • Hundreds mandate that parents spend hours doing “volunteer” work for the school or risk losing their child’s seat
  • The vast majority require parents to transport their children to the charter school
  • Application procedures can be extensive (handwritten essays, references and exams)