Who Is In Charge

Obama, Romney spar on education

In the first presidential debate Wednesday night, President Obama and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney immediately dove into an often neglected topic on the campaign trail: education.

Image of voter putting ballot in ballot box.The issue came up early and often, starting when both candidates mentioned education in their opening statements. Obama called for increased investment in public schools; Romney said the U.S. needs to have “the best schools in the world.”

Obama repeatedly hammered on the idea that he has supported education spending, while charging that Romney would reduce resources for schools in a quest to reduce the deficit. To emphasize his point, Obama told the story of a Las Vegas teacher who had 42 students in her classroom for the first two weeks of school and 10-year-old textbooks to teach them with.

“That is not a recipe for growth,” Obama said. “Budgets reflect choices. And if we’re asking for no revenue, that means we’ve got to get rid of a whole bunch of stuff. And the magnitude of the tax cuts that you’re talking about, Governor, would end up resulting in severe hardship for people, but more importantly would not help us grow.”

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Romney rejected Obama’s claim that he would cut education spending by 20 percent if elected – a figure extrapolated from his running mate Paul Ryan’s proposed budget – and decrease aid for college students. “I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college,” Romney said. “I’m not planning on making changes there.”

In the past, Romney has discussed making the U.S. Department of Education a “heck of a lot smaller,” although he has not specified what programs would be eliminated. During the debate, Romney called for getting rid of inefficient federal programs in all areas.

“I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?” he said. One item on the chopping block would be federal subsidies to PBS, even though Romney said he loves Big Bird and likes the debate’s moderator and PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer.

Obama countered that he has ended 18 educational programs that were “well-intentioned [but] weren’t helping kids learn.”

The impact of teacher layoffs also came up, as Obama suggested that Romney would preside over more reductions in the teaching force. Obama’s stimulus package saved or created 250,000 teaching jobs, but there still have been hundreds of thousands of teachers laid off during his administration. Obama proposed an additional $30 billion to save nearly 400,000 teacher jobs in 2011, but the bill never passed. “Romney doesn’t think we need more teachers. I do,” Obama said. “That is an investment where the federal government can help. It can’t do it all, but it can make a difference.”

Romney disagreed with that characterization. “I love great schools,” he said, noting that when he was governor of Massachusetts the state had the highest-ranked school system in the country. “And the key to great schools, great teachers. So I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. Every school district, every state should make that decision on their own.”

One of the few ideas the candidates said they agreed on over the course of the night was Race to the Top, Obama’s signature education program that prompted 46 states to adopt education reforms in a competition for federal funds. The Democrats largely ignored the initiative at the Democratic National Convention, but Obama mentioned it three times during the debate.

Romney said he agreed with “some” of the ideas in Race to the Top. But he took the opportunity to promote his own school choice platform, which would allow federal funds to follow special needs and low-income students to the school of their choice, whether public or private. There is no guarantee, however, that a school would have to accept them.

Obama tried to paint Romney as out of touch when it came to education, though, particularly higher education.

“Governor Romney, I genuinely believe cares about education,” Obama said. “But when he tells a student that, you know, ‘you should borrow money from your parents to go to college,’ you know, that indicates the degree to which, you know, there may not be as much of a focus on the fact that folks like myself, folks like Michelle … just don’t have that option.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: