Imagine schools without good-for-nothing moms

This weekend, America will observe Mother’s Day for the 98th time since it was officially added to the calendar in 1914. Of the 85 million mothers in America, about 5 million are stay-at-home moms, society’s great good-for-nothings.

Officially, motherhood is worthless. Unpaid work does not count in economic statistics, so moms officially contribute nothing to the economy – unless they also take a paying job. We all know this is nonsense, but there it is. The numbers don’t lie, right?

Jeff's Mom
Jeff's mom, Diane

Every year at this time, a small flurry of articles, not all of them silly, discuss the dollar-equivalent value of motherhood. Mothers aren’t paid for being moms – but if they were, what would be their base pay? Should we believe the insure.com estimate that Mom could be outsourced for about $60,000 per year? (Dads, knock that smug look off your face. The same source pegs your dollar-equivalent annual value at around $20,000.)

The usual reaction to these articles is a wave of the hand. How silly, right? Some things have price tags. Those things exist in the world of money. Other things don’t have a clear price, and they exist in the world of stuff-we-take-for-granted.

Like moms.

Money is valuable for what it can buy, but not everything valuable is for sale. Savvy teachers and school leaders are aces at recruiting help for free. Many moms (and some dads) are eager volunteers. They bring commitment and skills of tremendous value to the kids, schools, and programs they support. They tutor students who need help, including their own. They organize activities. They chaperone field trips. They organize fundraisers. They help in the office, or the library, or at the curb. They translate for parents who have trouble with English. They support after-school programs or coach teams.

Unfortunately, this river of unpaid, mostly mom-powered volunteer capacity flows unevenly through America’s communities. In the most privileged communities, parents are eager, able, and available to help. But in places where moms and dads are just scraping by or struggling with English, it can be difficult even to arrange parent-teacher conferences.

This is more than just an impression, or a stereotype. In 2011, a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported major differences in volunteering activity by ethnicity, marital status, and educational attainment.

Data on volunteering (click to enlarge)
Data on volunteering (click to enlarge)

Volunteerism is a valuable resource everywhere, but it is unevenly distributed. Some communities and schools are in a better position than others to recruit moms and dads and put their skills to work for kids. This difference plays a very real and usually overlooked role in the gaps between schools of privilege and schools of poverty. Addressing this disadvantage is part of the reason why states allocate extra funds to schools where there are concentrations of students in poverty and with limited English skills.

Mother’s Day is a good time to remember that while money can buy things of value, not everything of value has a price.

Jeff Camp is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. He co-chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an organization of “good for nothings” in the Bay Area. Full Circle coordinates small teams of volunteers working in support of great nonprofit organizations that need a little help to get to the next level, whatever that may be. A visual summary of Ed100 can be found at http://bit.ly/edprezi .

Local funding can come to the rescue of California schools

California parents often imagine that their children attend a “local” school. They are mostly wrong. In a very real sense, California no longer has local schools – it has a system of state schools.

California voters know that their state school system is under grave financial stress, and that it is harming kids. According to a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), most Californians (90 percent) believe that “the state budget situation” is a problem for schools. Two-thirds of voters surveyed said that education quality is a big problem. More than 90 percent were concerned about laying off teachers. Nearly 90 percent were concerned about having fewer days of school instruction.

But here’s the thing: Most California voters don’t want to be taxed by Sacramento. Not even for the kids. Not even with these problems. In the PPIC survey, only 46 percent say they favor raising the state sales tax to support education. Only 40 percent favor raising state personal income taxes. These are dismal numbers. For heaven’s sake, just how bad does it need to get?

Attitudes are very different, however, if it is not Sacramento doing the taxing. Californians aren’t stingy or spiteful; they just want solutions they can believe in. The same annual survey has consistently shown that reliable majorities of voters across the state would be in favor of taxes in support of schools, so long as they are local taxes in support of local schools. This conclusion harmonizes with two other themes in the survey’s findings: Californians (82 percent) want school spending decisions to reside at the local level, and Californians have a higher opinion of their local leaders than they do of their state leaders.

California’s state leaders should take the hint.

There is widespread support for local taxation to benefit local schools with local control. Today, communities cannot exercise that political will, because Prop 13 set the passage threshold for local revenue measures at two-thirds, a threshold higher than a Senate filibuster. If Sacramento lowers the barriers, restoring to local communities the power to tax themselves in support of local schools, California’s local voters will happily take action.

Yes, but… what about equity?

The advantages of local taxation are obvious…  if you happen to live in a wealthy community. On the other hand, if you live in a community with a small tax base, local taxation is not obviously helpful. To be clear: Simply lowering the passage threshold for local taxes could recreate the kinds of structural funding inequities that led to the Serrano vs. Priest case.

Are there ways to unblock local taxation and also preserve equitable access to funding for all communities?

Yes. Here is one: Create a state-level obligation to equitably match qualifying local education taxes. The goal of this approach would be to ensure that every public school has equitable access to local funding, regardless of the tax base in the district it calls home.

Districts would be expected to win the support of their community in the form of local taxes. Districts with a low tax base per student would receive support from the state. Every dollar the community commits to education in the form of local taxes for public schools would be matched with money from the state fund. How much money from the state fund? It would depend on the community’s local funding capacity. Each district’s tax collections for education would be matched at a level sufficient to add up to at least the funding power per student of the average district in the state. Models drafted for the Education Excellence Committee in 2007 estimated that equalizing funding power might require a tenfold match in communities with a very low tax base per student. A district that enjoys a high tax base per student, by contrast, would not need or receive matching funds from the state.

Could it work? Here are some examples of the devilish details.

What form of local taxation ought to be permitted?

The Education Excellence Committee, citing the historical connection between property taxes and schools, suggested using a form of property surtax. The Think Long Committee suggested changing the mix to include taxes on services and other sources.

How should local tax measures for schools be authorized?

Some, citing Proposition 39 as a precedent, believe a local ballot measure would be appropriate or necessary. Others (myself included) believe that this responsibility should be returned to the jurisdiction of school boards.

Where would the money for a state matching fund come from?

It would be dealt from the top of the state general fund. That is, payment of matching fund obligations would become the state’s first order-of-payment responsibility after meeting its debt obligations.

Should there be a limit on the amount that a community would be permitted to raise through local taxes for its schools?

Yes. It is important to establish a limit in order to avoid unintentionally creating open-ended obligations for matching funds. Such a limit could usefully be expressed in terms that help build the public’s understanding of their investment in education. For example, the limit could be set to an amount equal to 10 percent of the community’s average weighted funding per student in the prior year. As confidence in the system develops, the limit could be adjusted.

If local funding for schools is eased, should state strings be attached?

Yes, with restraint. For example, the state could insist that local taxes for education be equitably used for the support of all public school students in a community on a weighted-pupil basis. Local funds also should not be allowed to become a football in the conflict over charter school funding. Transparency requirements would also make sense.

Could this actually be done? Is it politically feasible? What about Proposition 13?

No one knows, because it has not been tried or deeply examined. But look at the PPIC poll numbers above: Californians do not appear to want state solutions, but they agree about the problem and express confidence in local action and local leadership.

Why bring this up now? Shouldn’t we be focused on passing the revenue-related ballot measures that would support education?

Funding for education in California is pitifully out of whack with the rest of the nation. If California’s voters can muster statewide political will to equitably add school funding through Sacramento, let’s do it. But the survey doesn’t look good, does it? The next serious evaluation of education finance reform options should take a hard look at making local funding options a serious part of the solution.

Jeff Camp is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Jeff has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence. He chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. A visual summary of Ed100 can be found here.

Schools are like businesses – with students as knowledge workers

Schools are like businesses, but not in the way most think.

I frequently find myself in conversations comparing “how it works in business” with “how it works in education.” A popular version goes something like this:

Schools are like factories. They take raw materials (kids and textbooks) and, through years of education, forge a valuable product: young adults prepared for college, life, and work. In this analogy, teachers work the assembly line, supervised by the principal.

Most educators bristle at this analogy. Are teachers really like factory workers? Are students really products? (If they are defective, asks Stanford education professor and author Larry Cuban, can we send them back?)

Here’s a more useful analogy:

Schools are like consulting businesses. The students are knowledge workers, organized into teams to analyze and solve problems, in the process demonstrating their mastery of valuable learning standards. In this analogy, teachers are the managers.

This analogy seems closer to the mark. After all, schools function only if it is the students who do the work. Teachers cannot do it for them. Like any managers of inexperienced workers, teachers’ truest aim is to bring out the best in their charges. They organize, assign, challenge, cajole, and motivate. Through success and failure, teachers develop their students’ capacity to take on bigger challenges with better results and increasing independence.

Thinking of teachers as managers also helps to shed light on the complex responsibilities of the school principal. Imagine running a knowledge-sector organization with hundreds of young, inexperienced, and sometimes unruly employees. Now imagine that your budget compels you to organize the business with a very flat structure, with only one group leader for every thirty or so beginners. This is the structure of most elementary schools.

Middle school changes everything. In business terms, it’s equivalent to a massive reorganization. From middle school onward, our young knowledge workers are assembled into six or more different teams per day, switching academic contexts each hour like fully-booked consultants jumping from one project to the next. They no longer have a clearly defined manager; teachers in middle and high schools often interact with more than a hundred students per day. What’s more, the relationships among teachers and students shift once per semester as students complete courses, or fail them.

Few if any knowledge-sector businesses would put managers in a direct reporting relationship with such a large number of workers, especially inexperienced ones. Nor would they shift workers among assignments with such casual speed, especially if they are struggling to complete the work. Schools do so every day. Is it any wonder students get lost?

Finally, this: Who is the customer? Who demands the work that students produce with their teachers’ guidance? For lucky students, an engaged and prepared adult figure is the discerning customer, demanding good work and providing useful feedback. Some parents play this role well, but not all can or will.

Jeff Camp chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. He is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Jeff has served on multiple education reform committees, including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.

How can the content of character be measured? And should it be?

My daughter’s first-grade report card came in two sections, one related to her academic work and the other for her teacher’s feedback about the character she displayed in school. Did she play well with others? Did she participate in class? Did she take risks?

In a few years, my daughter’s report cards will become less personal, and probably less interesting. Letter grades and test scores will assume for her the central role that they play for just about everybody in education.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. – Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.

For the past decade or so, the most pursued goal of K-12 education in America has been pretty clear: Ensure that all children master essential academic content, and do so in a way that can be verified through tests.

One premise of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was that predictable patterns of academic failure could be disrupted through the transformative power of measurement and scrutiny. NCLB set measurable, escalating test score goals for “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for districts, schools, and subgroups, and established 2014 as the no-excuses deadline for all subgroups to rise to proficiency. Wherever academic achievement lagged, the hope was that “what gets measured gets managed.” If districts were compelled to see the gaps, they would focus on the problems and address them. Lyric sheets for Kumbaya were to be made freely available at a tear-filled ceremony in 2014, which would surely be sponsored by Kleenex.

Ten years on, no one is singing. Test scores have improved, but slowly and inconsistently. Achievement gaps on tests remain large, and they continue to correlate with race and income. With 2014 approaching and AYP requirements rising, schools and districts are failing to meet their targets.

This wave of failure is driving some soul-searching. For one thing, dunce caps lose their meaning if everyone is wearing one. In the absence of guidance from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education is now hoping to draw some value out of the mess by granting selective waivers in a way that can drive focus on a smaller number of problems.

Meanwhile, some educators and reformers are questioning whether academic results on their own are a sufficient measure of success. Some are wondering whether a version of the first-grade report card might be a more useful approach than the letter grade. Back-to-school coffee gatherings are abuzz with discussion of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Paul Tough, titled “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” In this article, Tough brings focus to what could be the next frontier in education reform: character education.

Formal character education and feedback beyond the earliest grades has traditionally been the stuff of elite prep schools, military academies, and high-performing knowledge-sector businesses. In the arena of school reform, however, perhaps the most prominent boosters of character education have been the KIPP charter schools, which from the start have famously emphasized values like “work hard” and “be nice.”

After years of observing, KIPP’s founders observed that “the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character traits.”

“Character” can be a boneless construct, but Tough’s article gives it a useful skeleton. Drawing on the work of the Character Education Partnership, he separates character education into two categories: “moral character” qualities like honesty or tolerance and “performance character” qualities like social intelligence or zest.

The KIPP schools are putting these insights to work by trying to convert attributes of performance character from abstractions into things that students can focus on and make progress against. Recently, KIPP has begun experimenting with a new report card that asks teachers to score their students on a 5-point scale on characteristics like “keeps temper in check.” This framework is based on academic work by Angela Duckworth. A full list of the character elements that KIPP is using, and the seven that they are prioritizing, can be found here and here.

Tough’s article includes snippets of conversations between students and teachers discussing “areas for improvement” on a student’s character report card. These snippets reminded me strongly of performance reviews I delivered and received as a young manager at Microsoft. Years later, I remember some of those conversations quite vividly.

Like any idea in education change, a lot can be learned in implementation, and there are going to be some missteps. A simple “character score” would be of little use. The true point of this kind of evaluation would be to help drive conversations and self-reflection about things that actually matter.

If KIPP’s experiments and Tough’s writing help swing the pendulum toward more formal attention to developing the content of one’s character, Dr. King’s legacy may take on yet another layer of meaning.

Jeff Camp chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. He is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Jeff has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.

10 essential blogs on California education – no, make that 11 (mine)

About 10 years ago, I set out to learn how education works in California, when it fails, and who could tell me why.

I devoured books and magazines. I peppered educators with questions. I attended conferences.  I attended leadership meetings of teacher associations. I gate-crashed school board association meetings, conferences of charter school associations, and administrators organizations. I visited schools with community organizers and met with advocates. I read the voluminous Getting Down to Facts research. I got to know people at the organizations that walk California’s education policy field wearing referee’s stripes, including EdSource, PACE, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office. I learned the lingo. In multiple dialects.

Californians face a huge learning curve to get involved in making education work better. This week, Full Circle Fund launched Ed100.org to lower this barrier. Ed100 will begin as a structured set of about 100 daily posts. These posts will use the question “what is education?” to explore in plain language the main competing ideas about how education actually works in California.

This will add to the growing resources now available for those interested in California education:

  • TOP-Ed blog gives us daily analysis, opinion and ruminations on California education policy. John Fensterwald and co-writer Kathryn Barron report current events that affect education policy decisions.
  • Ed100, a project of Full Circle Fund, explains education change ideas in plain language with an emphasis on California.
  • Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) recently launched Conditions of Education in California, an underappreciated blog that highlights academic findings that bear on California education policy choices.
  • The California Teachers Association offers a news feed for the public in addition to a monthly publication for its members.
  • Politics can drive policy, and those with an appetite for it subscribe to the Roundup, a sometimes-snarky daily look at Sacramento news from the editors of Capitol Weekly and AroundTheCapitol.com.  (This is not to be confused with the Sacramento Bee’s Capitol Alert blog.)
  • The surviving major news providers in California include varying levels of education coverage. Some of the more significant include the LA Times (and its affiliated blog, LA Now), Emily Alpert’s education reporting in Voice of San Diego, and the Bay Area’s Education Report.
  • Louis Freedberg and Corey G. Johnson collaborate to produce California Watch.
  • NBC Bay Area highlights California education innovators in its Class Action program.

Many education-related organizations in California have developed blogs or email lists to keep their followers informed.

  • Pivot Learning Partners recently launched OnPoint to blog about its work with many California school districts.
  • Educate Our State is using its blog to help gather parent power to push for education funding and reform.
  • California Business for Education Excellence relies on email to keep its followers informed.

No doubt I will have missed many useful education blogs and sites with a California emphasis. Aside from ToP-Ed, what do you rely on? What do you wish for? How can Ed100 help you?

I hope you will sign up for Ed100 today. (Yes, of course it’s free.)

Jeff Camp chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. He is the primary author of Ed100, a primer on education reform options in California. Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Jeff has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.

Editor’s note: I highly recommend Jeff’s web site, a great primer on California education.

‘Waiting for Superman’ exposes grim reality that many children face

I recently attended a screening of Waiting for Superman, the new documentary about public education by Davis Guggenheim. This is a terribly important movie. Anyone with an interest in education reform should make arrangements to see it soon, bring friends, and pack tissues.

Not everyone wants you to see this movie. If you can, I encourage you to watch it, as I did, with a mixed audience of parents, teachers, community members and union leaders. We sat together. We all watched the same screen – but based on the discussion afterward it seems that we each saw a very different movie.

The film introduces five children who, on present course and speed, will soon attend an ordinary public school in their neighborhoods. None of these schools has a strong track record. Guggenheim calls some “dropout factories” because children so regularly fail to graduate from them.

As in his movie An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim forcefully presents the case that things are not OK as they are. This is a case that deserves his expository skills. America is failing to prepare children for their future, with tragic results.

Each of the five children featured in this movie is blessed with a crucial advantage: an adult who is determined to find a way for them to get to college. In each case, there is an extraordinary charter school nearby, but it does not have enough seats. Who gets in and who does not is decided – on camera – by lottery. The winners of these lotteries will attend a high-functioning, well-resourced school. They will almost certainly advance to college. The losers, by contrast, will have to take their chances with the school down the street.

The role of victim is played by the children. This movie makes denial difficult: When it comes to education, America’s students are far from the head of the class, and the stakes are enormous. Nations like China are quickly becoming America’s economic peers, and Superman does a marvelous job of establishing that our national self-image is dangerously out of date. College has become the gateway to the middle class. Most Americans are only distantly aware of the long odds that most American children face in getting there.

The role of the hero is played by a handful of America’s most impressive charter schools, and the people who run them. These charter schools are exceptional, by any measure. They are orderly, well-run, and well-resourced. They operate longer school days and school years than America’s ordinary schools. Guggenheim shows children working, learning, and smiling in these charter schools. These children understand their good luck – literally. After all, they won a lottery.

The role of the villain in the film is played by the teacher’s unions. Teachers in America are very rarely dismissed when they fail to educate the children in their care, even egregiously. Guggenheim colorfully describes “the dance of the lemons” and the “rubber room,” disparaging labels for practices that some principals and districts use when they are unable to satisfy the due process requirements associated with dismissing a teacher.

Union leaders, naturally, resent being cast as villains. These are tough schools in communities with many challenges. Does the responsibility to fix the schools really fall to the union? Isn’t it the union’s job to ensure that its members enjoy due process protection from being fired capriciously? Is it fair that the movie compares struggling ordinary schools to a handpicked sample of schools with extraordinary resources? And why did Guggenheim choose to feature only charter schools as the heroes? Is it fair to blame us, they ask? Examples of this resentment can be seen at www.notwaitingforsuperman.org. Some have gone so far as to promote the movie by advocating a boycott.

This petulance misses the larger point. For most parents and community members, Waiting for Superman will be an eye-opener. This is an opportunity to engage an audience that has not become jaded to the grim facts. It gives faces to statistics that, if known at all, are too easily ignored. It is appropriate to feel outrage about persistent achievement gaps, drop-out rates and uneven access to learning. This movie helps us remember why we should feel that outrage. Most important of all, it is an opportunity to discuss what it would take for all children to have the advantages of the lucky ones in this movie.

Jeff Camp chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. He is the primary author of the Education Impact Guide, a primer on education reform options available online.  Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Camp has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.