Sunday, June 23, 2013

The NCTQ Report and Its Critics

This week the National Council on Teacher Quality released their long-awaited evaluation of teacher prep programs throughout the nation and, boy, did the fur fly.

The report concluded that the vast majority of undergraduate and graduate teaching programs fail to provide their students with the training they need to succeed their first year in the classroom. They also found that most teaching programs are non-selective in their enrollment, allowing academically weak students a pathway to become teachers. Another finding of note is that teaching programs do not train their students in the best methods of reading instruction.

NCTQ based their ratings on the selectivity of the program and an analysis of course syllabus and content.

Since this project was first announced in January 2011, the critics have been denouncing this project as an attempt by "right-wing corporate reformers" to "privatize teaching training." While NCTQ's critics may not understand the motivation for this project, they clearly understand what's at stake in examining these programs: the power of the educational status quo to be the arbiters of who can be a professional educator and who can criticize the educators. The mandarins of the education establishment have been distressed in recent years by parents, philanthropists, and some politicians demanding more accountability and better performance. The university-based training programs have been one of the last bastions of privilege to avoid these demands and to see that line breached is painful for them.

AFT President Randi Weingarten was the first out of the gate to criticize the report, calling it a "gimmick" and saying that we should not use a "punitive approach to shame and blame institutions." Essentially, her hope is that we can all work together to make teacher prep more successful. After roughly a century of such programs, it is hard to be optimistic that such an approach would work, especially since NCTQ had to sue some of the universities for the information needed to conduct their research.

Linda Darling-Hammond used Valerie Strauss' Washington Post column to offer a more substantive critique of the report, except that a number of her "facts" turned out to be wrong. Like other critics, Darling-Hammond makes the point that NCTQ relies primarily on inputs (incoming students, syllabi) and not on outputs (test scores for outgoing students, outcomes for students taught by program graduates, etc). And there is no doubt that having this data would make the rankings more meaningful and accurate, as NCTQ acknowledges. But given the poor and uneven state of data collection for such variables, it is hard not to agree with NCTQ that it is simply too difficult to compile this information at this time.

More academic-minded critics, like Ed Fuller, chose to find small technical issues in their efforts to obliterate the report. Fuller, on his blog, notes, for instance, that NCTQ judged education programs on whether they placed their students with a "highly effective" teacher-mentor for their field placement instead of teacher-mentor who is less highly rated. Fuller is irate, there is no research basis for such a statement. However, it should be noted that since there is a research basis for stating that highly effective teacher improve the outcomes for their students, it would seem desirable that incoming professionals learn from the most effective teachers. Fuller also thinks that it is a capital offense that NCTQ uses the National Reading Panel and not the National Council of Teachers of English as the basis for the standards of reading instruction. Fuller fails to note that NCTQ found that NO coherent approach was used to train future English teachers.

Some of Fuller's complaints are likely true and, to that extent, helpful in developing a better rating system. But the small ball critiques miss the fact that we have an army of teachers in schools right now, many of them are drawn from the bottom half of non-selective colleges and universities, many of them untrained in the best techniques for teaching English (esp for ELLs) and math, and most of them sent through non-optimal field placements. If one wanted to mock NCTQs critics, one could state that this is not how they do it in Finland.

It would be easier to take NCTQs critics seriously if they actually wanted to have a systematic, accurate assessment of the merits of each teacher training program. But since their political goal is to avoid such an assessment or any meaningful public examination, in the end their criticisms are attempts at misdirection.

NCTQs report deserves a lot of credit for staking out a beginning position for talking about the abysmal state of teacher prep in the United States. Its data is no doubt incomplete and, per Fuller, their standards need to be tweaked for future reports. The best analogy we've come up with for NCTQs report is that it is like ranking major league hitters by the number of doubles they hit. You would make the mistake of thinking that Charlie Gehringer (574 career doubles) is better than Babe Ruth (506 career doubles) but there is no denying that Tris Speaker (792, 1st all-time), Pete Rose (746), Stan Musial (725) and Ty Cobb (724) were all great hitters and that they are generally better than those hitters who had 10 doubles or less.

This report gives a broad-stroke, big picture view of the better programs and the many poor programs. It matters little, in the end, if they rated a program at two stars when it really should have two-and-a-half stars according to Fuller. What matters greatly is that there is now a serious, if limited, overview of the landscape that names specific programs as really bad. None of the technical objections of Fuller and Darling-Hammond are so overpowering as to lead us to think that these programs are actually good at training teachers. The false equivalence that the gatekeepers of educational orthodoxy have maintained between all teaching programs has been shattered and it will not be restored. Few programs are excellent, many are mediocre, and some are just awful. Quibbles at the edges about where a specific institution ranks miss the point.

We cannot end this post without congratulating Delaware Governor Jack Markell, who last week signed legislation to improve teacher training that incorporates elements of NCTQs critique. This is where the value of this report will be demonstrated.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Three Things We Learned Through Our First Endorsement Process

With the completion of the April 9th municipal elections in suburban Cook County, we want to take stock of some of our initial findings.

1. The way suburban districts are structured makes reform difficult. This is by far the most important thing we learned. Many - roughly half - of suburban Cook County school districts consist of one school. Each region has an elementary school district and a high school district. The fact that many of these districts consist of one school strongly encourages "in the box thinking."

Imagine being one of seven trustees in charge of running one school. Right away, any reforms that encourage school choice are a direct threat to the one thing you control. If a charter school opens up, the size of the budget you manage is adversely effected. And who gets elected to decrease a district's budget?

This is one reason that there is only one charter school in the south suburbs which demographically matches the populations of students best served by charters (poor, academically behind). And that school only exists because of the state charter authorizing commission that exists to hear appeals from charters rejected by their local school boards.

We would need more proof, but there seems like a definite sense that such small districts are prone to a sort of "regulatory capture" because there is one principal with expertise and no competing viewpoints, making it hard for part-time trustees to challenge the opinions of the principal.

Also, since elementary and high school districts are completely separate with their own school board, coordinated innovation becomes even less likely. At a time when age segregation is under challenge by education technology, the structure of these districts institutionalizes them.

There has been a lot of discussion about reducing the number of school boards for budgetary reasons (reducing administrative duplication) but from where we sit, reducing the number of school boards would help jump start reform in suburban Cook County.

2. There is real interest in the Common Core as a tool for improving education. The most positive response we got on our questionnaire how to do with implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  Candidate after candidate stated their commitment to fully implementing these standards. It is not immediately clear why this reform engaged people as much as it did. Perhaps it seems less disruptive - no need for significant change in personnel or policy. But many of the candidates gave answers that indicated that they know even reasonably successful middle-class schools do not match up well with their counterparts in Singapore, Korea, and some of the better European countries.

Regardless, this was the most heartening discovery of the process.

3. There is a real hunger for engagement on these issues. Judging from the response we received, people want to talk through the issues facing our schools but there are relatively few venues to do so. People were eager to engage us on these issues because so few people pay attention to these important elections. Again, district consolidation would allow for greater attention to be focused on fewer races.

We are still thinking through our experiences with this election cycle as we prepare for 2014, If we learn more, we will share it with you.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


ICBS wants to congratulate their endorsed candidates Julie Jackson, Dennis Ryan, and Vince Aiello for their victories in District 146 on Tuesday. They will be great leaders in Common Core implementation and supporting teachers. To John Carey and Ramnath Cidambi, endorsed candidates who came up short, we thank them for their efforts and hope that they remain active in cause of improving education here in Illinois.

We have been distracted by the April 9th elections in suburban Cook County but it is time to get back to work. Expect a series of posts over the next few days as we reengage the debate about education reform.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

ICBS Endorsements in District 146

For Immediate Release

For more information, contact Josh Kilroy 312.593.1886

March 13, 2013

Illinois Citizens for Better Schools Endorses 4 for the Future 146 Slate

Chicago – Today Illinois Citizens for Better Schools announced its support for the 4 for the Future 146 slate of Julie Jackson, John Carey, Dennis Ryan, and Vince Aiello. Ms Jackson, Mr. Ryan, and Mr. Carey are running for re-election, while Mr. Aiello is a challenger. On April 9th, district voters will elect four candidates to the school board.

“The incumbents on this slate have an excellent track record of working to keep CCSD 146 ahead of the curve on important issues such as implementation of the Common Core State Standards and hiring excellent teachers and retaining them,” said Joshua Kilroy, Chair of Illinois Citizens for Better Schools and a veteran political consultant. “Mr. Aiello will be a welcome addition to the Board as they work to maintain the District’s reputation for providing a strong education to their students.”

Kilroy continued by noting that there are a lot of pressures on school districts, “With the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system and the Common Core at a time when state aid is being slashed, never has proven veteran leadership been more important. ICBS is proud to support this slate of dedicated community members and public servants. We encourage local voters to go to their website, for more information.”

ICBS was formed in November to support candidates and issues willing to set aside partisan blinders to work together to improve the public schools in Illinois. Joshua Kilroy has worked in Illinois politics since 2006, assisting candidates including former Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, State Representative Robyn Gabel, and many others.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Our First Big Endorsement

Sorry for the radio silence. We have been hard at work reviewing candidate questionnaire as we prepare to begin rolling out our endorsements in the suburban Cook County school board races.

For our first endorsement, we found a gem of candidate in Palatine running for CCSD 15. His name is Ramnath Cidambi and he is an IT professional and the father of two children in District 15 schools. He is not a political professional and could really use our help to win one of the four top slots in the nine candidate race. Read our press release and donate to help us help him on April 9th. Thank you.

For Immediate Release

For more information, contact Josh Kilroy 312.593.1886

March 13, 2013

Illinois Citizens for Better Schools Endorses Ramnath Cidambi in CCSD 15

Chicago – Today Illinois Citizens for Better Schools announced that they were endorsing Ramnath Cidambi in the upcoming school board elections. Mr. Cidambi, 41, works in IT and has two children in CCSD 15 schools. There are four school board seats on the ballot in the April 9th election.

“Ramnath Cidambi is exactly the kind of candidate ICBS was formed to support,” said Joshua Kilroy, Chair of ICBS. “He understands that our students compete in a global market and need an education that gives them the skills they need to succeed. Ramnath also appreciates that there are new educational technologies that can help students learn in a more personalized manner. We believe that he will provide real leadership as CCSD 15 moves forward.”

Although ICBS is not making any further endorsements for the four seats, Mr. Kilroy noted that Margaret Babcock, Dave Seiffert, and Robert Bokor were good candidates.

ICBS was formed in November to support candidates and issues willing to set aside partisan blinders to work together to improve the public schools in Illinois. Joshua Kilroy has worked in Illinois politics since 2006, assisting candidates including former Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, State Representative Robyn Gabel, Peter Gutzmer,  and many others.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Couple of Items on Charter Schools in Chicago

1. This week Chicago Public Schools announced they were recommending closing two charter schools for low performance, Aspira Charter School's Mirta Ramirez campus and the Betty Shabazz Charter School's DuSable campus.

ICBS strongly applauds this move and thinks that closing several other campuses would also have been appropriate. The strength of the charter school movement is that we accept the responsibility to improve student academic outcomes. Our schools have no more right to make excuses than any failing traditional public schools.

We sympathize with the closing schools when, for instance, Aspira notes that 93 percent of their graduates are accepted into college. But with such low test scores, they almost certainly attend non-selective, non-rigorous colleges and need remedial help. This is not setting standards high enough to move the needle on the life outcomes that we ultimately care about. To be a charter school is to set the bar high and to recognize that your students deserve results now, not when the school finally gets its administration right.

We must also note that recommending these closings also buys CPS CEO Barbare Byrd-Bennett some political cover as she moves forward with the closing of some traditional public schools.

2. ICBS Chair Josh Kilroy was on a radio show last Monday when a community activist called Chicago charter schools mediocre and cited the CREDO report from 2009 as his source.  But CREDO did separate reports for each state in the study, including Illinois, and found that Chicago charter schools provided benefits for some of Chicago's poorest students, especially in math. The benefits were particularly strong for students that stayed in charter schools for at least three years.

Charter school advocates don't push back enough on the sloppy use of the CREDO report by those who want to relegate students to one school with no choices. While arguing over research data is not going to win the public to one side or the other, not allowing myths to take root is always a good policy.

The other thing the activist said was that traditional public schools are more democratic because of the Local School Councils that help run them. While we at ICBS like LSCs - it is great community service - the reality is that most LSC elections are not competitive and often not enough candidates run to fill all the seats. This suggests that many LSCs are run more by unaccountable cliques than by representative members of the school community.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ben Joravsky's Crocodile Tears

by Josh Kilroy

As a progressive activist in the 1990s and 2000s, the journalism of Ben Joravsky was one of the touchstones for understanding how power works in Chicago. His railing against TIFs was perhaps the loudest and most important voice of protest in the city.

This makes it doubly sad to see how terrible his "journalism" has become, particularly when the subject is education, which has been his favorite topic over the last three years. He rants against charter schools and uncritically praises the Chicago Teachers Union and their president, Karen Lewis. And while there is great journalism being written about Chicago's education system - Catalyst and WBEZ spring immediately to mind - none of it springs from the pen of Joravsky.

ICBS will devote a longer entry to Joravsky's criticisms of charter schools in the future but for now I want to focus on his most recent hypocrisy. In his current column, "The City Council's rules committee: Where good legislation goes to die" and dated February 19th, he discusses a non-binding resolution sponsored by most of Chicago's aldermen to ask for a moratorium on opening charter schools.

In the course of discussing charters, he writes, "Charter schools are nonunion, which allows them to pay their teachers bubkes." Now it is true that most - though far from all - of Chicago's charter schools are non-union and it is true that overall teacher compensation does not equal that of veteran CTU members, but Joravsky leaves out the main reason why teacher compensation lags behind: charter schools generally receive only 75-80% of the per pupil funding that public schools get. 

And why is it that charter schools receive so little funding relative? The answer should be right up Joravsky's alley and yet he won't even discuss it: pure clout. CTU has more of it than even the most powerful charter allies. At least they have it where it counts - in Springfield. 

Joravsky wants us to believe that the Chicago Teachers Union is the plucky kid in the schoolyard bravely standing up to Mayor Emanuel and his powerful friends. To most observers, this would be an odd way of describing one of the most politically savvy and powerful organizations in the Illinois.

CTU is the largest member of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which has contributed over $6 million dollars to Illinois politicians over the last eight years. As of the end of the last campaign finance reporting period, IFT had $1.5 million in their political action committee. Additionally, CTU has its own PAC which had $500,000 as of the end of the reporting period. When CTU and IFT leaders call politicians, their phone calls get answered. CTU is as much a political heavyweight as Mayor Emanuel is and any suggestion to the contrary is ridiculous. 

And one of the bills they got passed encouraged underpaying charter schools.

There is a bill under consideration this session to create funding equity for the students charter school serve but the early betting is that the clout of the teacher's unions will kill this effort. And the teachers in charter schools will continue to be the victim of the ongoing monopoly enjoyed by IFT and its affiliates. Now Ben Joravsky can cry his tears about how cruel charter schools underpay their teachers, but until he is willing to speak truth to power, they are merely crocodile tears.