Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Joe’s Take: Trust Me

A new ad by Apple has the now familiar Mac and PC boys bickering about the reliability of Windows 7. This version will live up to the hype, touts PC, “Trust me.” The claim, however, rings hollow once we learn that similar promises accompanied a string of previous products -- all falling short of expectations.

Like computer operating systems, efforts at education reform also leave a lot to be desired. The most recent national test results in math have prompted debate about whether the assessment and accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are having their intended effect on student achievement. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that the gains fourth-graders had been making since 1990 have stalled, while eighth-graders continue to make only modest progress (see related story).

Against this backdrop, students in religious and independent schools, which are not subject to NCLB, show significant performance advantages over students enrolled in the public option: a 7-point advantage in grade 4, and 14 points in grade 8. (Since 10 points on the NAEP scale is equal to about a full grade level, a 14-point difference is substantial.) Also, the black/white achievement gap is narrower in private schools.

In the past five decades, we’ve seen the following major efforts at education reform, all more or less sold by Washington to the American public with the claim “trust me”:
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)
Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (1981)
Improving America's Schools Act (1994)
Goals 2000: The Educate America Act (1994), through which every child was supposed to demonstrate mastery of challenging subject matter by the year 2000
No Child Left Behind Act (2001), through which every child is supposed to perform at the proficient level by the year 2014

With NCLB apparently not doing everything it was supposed to do, Education Secretary Duncan is now calling for new reforms -- in his words, “reforms that will accelerate student achievement.” But because past efforts have fallen short of expectations, the secretary will have a tough time conveying the message that this version will be different. Something convincing is needed. “Trust me” will not cut it.

Since NAEP first started measuring achievement, students in religious and independent schools have consistently and substantially outperformed students in government-run schools. Many factors may be involved, but the achievement advantage alone suggests that one convincing reform the secretary should consider is simply to allow more parents to select schools with a proven record of performance. Parents tend to know what’s best for their children. Trust them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Joe's Take: Let Me Rise!

In 1971, a 10-year-old boy from a low-income family with a single mom received a scholarship to attend a private school. The school had a profound effect on his life. Years later he described that effect this way: “There was something about this school that embraced me, gave me support and encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper. I am extraordinarily grateful.”

The boy (pictured right) was Barack Obama. The school was the Punahou School in Hawaii (see the December issue of CAPE Outlook for the full story).

As a new ad points out, Mr. Obama now has an opportunity to ensure that similar children get the same chance he did – the chance for a future full of hope.

Voices of School Choice, a Web site promoting the right of parents to choose their child’s school, features a powerful, must-see video about these students titled “Let Me Rise.” Narrated by Juan Williams, the 30-minute film about the profound impact of school choice on particular families and children “offers a compelling look at the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program as told through the voices of the children whose educational futures continue to hang in the balance.”

The site also features several ad-length videos, including a particularly moving one about the effect that a private school scholarship had on President Obama.

A visit to Voices of School Choice would provide a refreshing and uplifting break from the evening news tonight.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Partners or Competitors?

When it comes to educating the nation’s children, are public schools and private schools partners or competitors? Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in on this topic twice in the past month, and delivered the same message both times: there is no competition.

In welcoming remarks at the Department of Education’s fifth annual conference for private school leaders, held September 23 in Washington, DC, Duncan said that expanding the supply of excellent schools should not be a source of competition between the public and private sectors. He called on both sectors to work together and learn from each other while pursuing the same goal. “And if we can get to the point where children have not just one great option but two or three or four great options, and let parents and students figure out what the best learning environment for them is, we will be in a very, very good spot,” he said.

In a much lighter forum on The Colbert Report October 5, Duncan was asked this question by perpetual tongue-in-cheek host Stephen Colbert: “If my kids are getting a good education in a private school, why as a taxpayer should I pay money to a public school? Aren’t those kids just going to compete with my kids? Shouldn’t I get my kids ahead, and then once my kids have landed a place in the world, then start paying for public schools?"

The diplomatic Duncan delivered this artful response: “I’ll tell you where our competition is. Our competition is not between your children in private school and children in public school. Our competition is with the rest of the world and our competition is either we’re going to invest in education early or we’re going to keep building jail cells at the back end. And so I’d much rather you invest early on; do the right thing by children. We’re going to pay now or pay later in a much worse situation. This is the right investment to make. And if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

I agree. The challenges our nation is facing in education, especially in our urban areas, are formidable. To meet those challenges, we need to enlist all available high-quality public, religious, and independent schools, particularly those with a proven track record of achievement. It’s not a competition; it’s a partnership for success.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

President Obama and Intellectual Bingo

President Obama's upcoming address to the nation's students has evoked an array of anticipatory responses ranging from unbridled enthusiasm to unchecked angst. The speech, to be delivered at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, on September 8, at 12:00 noon, EST, will be broadcast via C-SPAN, and made available for viewing at the White House website.

Much of the skeptics' hand wringing is driven by speculation that the immensely charismatic and (still) popular (especially among the young) President plans to inject partisan politics into the classroom, thereby (inappropriately) influencing impressionable young minds.

According to a recent letter to principals written by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: "The President will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning. He will also call for a shared responsibility and commitment on the part of students, parents and educators to ensure that every child in every school receives the best education possible so they can compete in the global economy for good jobs and live rewarding and productive lives as American citizens."

On its face, that doesn't sound like much of a partisan message. In fact, such desiderata reflect elements of culture largely taken for granted in private schools. Moreover, if the late Senator Edward Kennedy and former President George W. Bush could reach agreement on the key elements of the No Child Left Behind Act, surely, all of us can concur that parents, teachers, and students ought to be partners in learning.

Yet, because the President is, inescapably, a political figure, and because the current political landscape is so highly charged and deeply polarized, anything appearing on Mr. Obama's teleprompter will invariable be characterized by some as, " unconscionable intrusion of politics into education."

To the extent that President Obama's address is perceived as an insidious means of political indoctrination and recruitment, wary parents might consider the option afforded by a local private school. All public school parents might do better, however, to pay less heed to the subtleties of a once-in-a-blue-moon presidential exhortation, than to the ubiquitous array of extra-curricular political messages to which their children are exposed on any given day of the school year. To take liberty with Forrest Gump's memorable quip, when it comes to values, sending a child to a public school is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.

Speaking at a 2005 Colloquium on Private School Accountability, UC Berkeley Emeritus Professor of Law John E. Coons hit the nail squarely on the head when he wondered aloud whether, "...all public teachers spread the same message regarding guns, pre-marital sex, assisted suicide, stem cell research, the treatment of animals, vegetarianism, cutting redwoods, capital punishment, just war, competition, drugs, money, the authority of parents, gay marriage, school taxes, gender roles, redistribution of wealth, and television. How much do we actually know about the consistency of public teaching on these kinds of issues?" Concluding that "public school is intellectual bingo," Professor Coons suggested that a chief advantage of a private education is that the values, beliefs, and ideals a given private school seeks to transmit are likely to be transparent and consistent.

Of course, not all private schools seek to inculcate a particular set of values and beliefs, and many a fine school follows a philosophy that accords primacy to the means by which values and beliefs are clarified and appropriated, rather than any preferred set of conclusions. But instruction in such schools is no less systematic, and students are rarely confused by authority figures who present conflicting value positions absent a thorough consideration of evidence and/or philosophical underpinnings.

If I were a public school parent, I'd be less concerned about what the President actually says next Tuesday, than about what my child's teachers say he meant.

(Posted by Ron Reynolds, Executive Director, California Association of Private School Organizations)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Joe’s Take: From the Government and Here to Help

In a joke repeated time and again, the line “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” is described as one of life’s three great lies. But as applied to Jack Klenk (pictured right, at his retirement party earlier this month), the recently retired director of the Office of Non-Public Education at the U.S. Department of Education, the line carries a whole lot of truth. Jack has been a public servant ready to help throughout his 28 glorious years of federal service.

Scripture tells us, “Those who teach justice to many will shine like the stars for all eternity” (Daniel 12:3). Jack has taught me and many others in the private school community about justice and virtue through his actions, words, and life. He has been consistently decent and good. Whether through heroic acts like missionary trips to Africa or through everyday acts like answering the phone with a burst of energy and welcome, he has taught us how to conduct ourselves with joy, dignity and grace, and we are grateful.

Jack’s commitment to justice has extended as well to securing equity under the law for all children, regardless of the type of school they attend. Millions of students across the country have been the beneficiaries of his tireless, persistent, determined pursuit of fairness. So many rulings, guidance documents, interpretations of statutes, and decisions on policy have had his stamp on them, and his influence has consistently worked toward the greater good. Speaking truth to power was not an occasional event for Jack, but an ordinary occurrence.

And Jack has brought so much knowledge and skill to the task. He has understood the systems of government inside out, and has maneuvered all the inner pathways with great dexterity. Building partnerships and coalitions, and not worrying about who gets the credit, has been his signature style. He has always sought to expand the circle to help achieve the objective, knowing that the job is too massive, the consequences too great, to write anyone off as a partner. He has understood the formidable force for good that comes about when we combine our efforts and put the needs of children first.

In a commencement address at a religious school in Washington, D.C., several years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice advised the graduates to find their passion in life and follow it. “Not something you have to do each day, but the thing that you can’t do without each day,” she said. “Something that you love enough and care about enough that it makes you glad to be alive.” Someone must have given Jack that advice a long time ago, because he found that which he had to do each day. His commitment to educational reform, to equity for all students, to parental choice, and to the preservation of authentic pluralism in American education comes deep from the heart; it is a force from within. And he has carried out his vocation with great grace, style, and integrity.

And so we say thanks to Jack for being not only a model public servant, but a model human being. Thanks for teaching us how to relate to others with compassion and respect, and how to pursue a noble goal with patience and purity of purpose. And thanks for teaching us about justice and virtue. His example will shine like the stars for all eternity.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hooray for Hollywood?

What do the following films have in common?

Chasing Holden
Dead Poet's Society
The Emporer's Club
Finding Forrester
Lost and Delirious
School Ties

If you knew that each of these titles is set in a private school, you've probably been watching way too many movies. You'd probably also know that each film depicts its respective school as an ivy covered bastion of privilege. Which is hardly front page news. One need not be a professional film critic to conjure up the stereotypical portrayal of private education, Hollywood style.

From the classic Goodbye Mr. Chips, to the camp School of Rock, private schools are most often presented as opulent enclaves earmarked exclusively for the scions of the upper crust. Castle-like buildings dot expansive quads and lush, immaculately tailored grounds. Middle-aged male heads of school speak in affected British accents. (OK, the head in "Mr. Chips" was a Brit, and his counterpart in "School of Rock" was a ditsy female.) When he isn't acting in service of the script, one senses that the head of school's most important function consists of quaffing brandy with a coterie of well heeled trustees in front of the massive fireplace adorning his spacious, dark oak paneled office. After having returned from the polo match.

Yes, I'm exaggerating. There is, however, a kernel of truth to the observation that Hollywood has helped to shape public perceptions of private schooling that are both misleading and superficial. To put it crudely, Hollywood allows for the impression that every private school is a Phillips Exeter Academy, without according Phillips Exeter Academy due respect. (I've referenced this particular school because its name is exceedingly well known. While Phillips Exeter Academy can proudly identify its unique attributes and achievements, a number of other schools could be substituted to illustrate the same point.)

If every school in our nation could but approximate Phillips Exeter Academy in any one of a variety of ways, wouldn't it be grand?

At Phillips Exeter, twelve students to a class sit with their instructors around oval shaped Harkness Tables, an innovative classroom environment feature intended to facilitate teaching and learning in the form of an interactive conference. The use of Harkness Tables, which was first pioneered at Phillips Exeter, has become increasingly popular in schools throughout the nation.

The school boasts a world-class faculty, as befits a community of learners whose students hail from twenty-three different nations, and speak twenty different native languages. (Phillips Exeter offers instruction in no fewer than ten foreign languages.)

Phillips Exeter's educational program is comprehensive, offering more than 450 courses of study across nineteen subject matter areas. If a student is looking for breadth and/or depth in the humanities, social sciences, math, science, or fine arts, it's available, not to mention an athletics program that would be the envy of many a college. At this school, it's clear that the whole person is engaged in constant, multi-dimensional learning.

There's much more, including more racial and ethnic diversity (fourteen percent of Phillips Exeter's student body is either Black or Hispanic) than is found in a vast number of public high schools.

Then there are the intangibles: more than two centuries of tradition and culture, the highest of expectations, an environment in which individual achievement and group identity are not only compatible, but mutually reinforcing. (No, I'm not an alum. In fact, I've never so much as visited the school, much as I'd love to.) Watch this five minute video, and, like me, you'll probably end up wishing you had attended this great school, or that your kids could do so.

Regrettably, if understandably, Hollywood typically provides viewers of its products with little more than caricatures of great schools like Phillips Exeter. In fairness to producers and directors, I have yet to see a screenplay adaptation of a Teachers College Record article, and I get the fact that schools, as depicted in movies, are little more than settings.

But couldn't we see a little more...what's that word that Hollywood types tell us is so important...oh yes...diversity on the silver screen?

Yes, Catholic schools were featured in "Sister Act," and "Doubt," though neither film focused on any actual, you know, schooling. (I enjoyed both.) And a yeshiva may have played a cameo role in "The Chosen," produced nearly thirty years ago.

For every private school that bears so much as a remote physical resemblance to Phillips Exeter Academy, there are scores of urban private schools that are shaping and inspiring young lives in much the same way. Maybe when they get around to making "The Sonia Sotomayor Story," we'll get to see a more representative picture.

Ron Reynolds

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Joe’s Take: Thanks to CAPE’s President

This past weekend brought me to the spectacular city of Colorado Springs to attend a retirement dinner for the spectacular Ken Smitherman, president of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) since 1996 and president of CAPE since 2005.

I first met Ken in the fall of 1997 at a conference of national private school leaders in Dayton, Ohio. He and I were newcomers to our respective jobs, and we both shared complementary goals: I was eager to expand CAPE’s membership, and Ken was eager to expand ACSI’s influence as a force for Christian education.

The following March, Ken attended his first CAPE meeting as a guest and then returned in October, when, during a discussion about CAPE’s mission statement, this “guest” suggested CAPE should probably think about developing a vision statement, which, as he explained to the board, was “a statement of what the people we serve would be like if we were successful at what we do.” Needless to say, we soon had a vision statement at CAPE, as well as an obvious new force for good.

In October 1999, ACSI became a member of CAPE; by 2001, Ken was CAPE’s treasurer; in March of ‘02, he was elected vice president, and in 2005 president—a rise to the top that rivals President Obama’s in rapidity.

CAPE’s board, made up of the CEOs of the major national associations of religious and independent schools, knows leadership when it sees it. Indeed, when a board of leaders elects you as their president, it’s pretty much a solid confirmation of your leadership skills.

And lead he has—not in a domineering, spotlight-seeking way, but by calling forth the gifts of the group, gently guiding us back on track, respecting divergent points of view, and letting us believe we got to the goal on our own. But we didn’t. Ken’s calm, insightful ways, his tact and skill in moving the agenda forward, and his instinct toward consensus guaranteed that we would get there together.

Ken is always calling his colleagues to new horizons, often by recommending books, like Built to Last, or Life at the Bottom, or Letters by a Modern Mystic, in which Frank Laubach writes about his efforts to keep God in mind all the time as a constant companion and guide in life by listening to the voice of the Spirit.

Recall what Ken taught the CAPE board about a vision statement: “a statement of what the people we serve would be like if we were successful at what we do.” In his foreword to Letters by a Modern Mystic, Ken in effect described his own vision statement, imagining what individuals, families, schools, and communities would be like if they lived in, as he put it, “intentional moment-by-moment relationship” with God.

Ken has pursued that vision, spread that word, shared God with others—not only by distributing Laubach’s book, but by being a personal witness of the life of the Spirit. So for all the gifts and talent and time and friendship and witness he has brought to CAPE, the Christian school community, and the private school community at large, we salute him and thank him.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Culture of Accountability

In April, our U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, said, "We need a culture of accountability in America's education system if we want to be the best in the world." I like that sentence for three reasons:

1. It's true. Every presidential administration in our lifetime has said the same thing, demanding that schools be accountable for their mission, promises and funding through a rigorous set of standards that, curiously, remain pretty much intact for the present administration.

Page one headline from the education establishment journal, Education Week (April 8, 2009): "Obama Echoes Bush On Education Ideas."

- Obama: "set high standards, have high expectations ... cultivate a new culture of accountability in America's schools."

- G.W. Bush: "insist on high standards and accountability ... every school should teach."

- Bill Clinton: "all successful schools followed the same proven formula: high standards, more accountability, so all children can reach those standards."

- G.H.W. Bush: "Accountability, flexibility, tougher standards, [results] - all of these have got to be out there on the table."

2. Of all the schools in the nation, religious and independent schools are the most accountable. How is that? If we do not fulfill our mission and our promises, our funding evaporates overnight. The paying public (who, by the way, pays twice. Once, through taxation and, then again, through tuition.) can decide to pay someone else. Now that's accountability. We either do what we say we'll do or ... the old adage comes true: our citizens will vote with their feet.

Maybe that is why government schools even fear their own charter schools.

3. We do want to be the best in the world. Mr. Duncan had the same goal for the Chicago Public Schools. As a Chicago taxpayer (still), it is fair to say the goal to be the best in the world didn't quite materialize for him in Chicago but, at least, he knows the value of competing to be the best.

Here is how we can be the best: when schools are truly accountable to citizens and when the educational playing field is truly competitive (i.e. full public and private school choice), people will vote with their feet. The monopoly will be over. America's schools will, again, be the best in the world.

(Posted by Gary B. Arnold, Arkansas State CAPE)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Joe’s Take: Nurse Pappas to the Rescue!

I attended the Flu Summit at the National Institutes of Health yesterday, where the main take-away was “Prepare for the Worst!” (Read details here.) No one can tell with certainty the extent to which the H1N1 virus will strike in coming months, but as President Obama told the delegates during a phone call from Italy, “the potential for a significant outbreak in the fall is looming.” He called for “vigilance and preparation.”

Secretaries Kathleen Sebelius (HHS), Janet Napolitano (DHS), and Arne Duncan (ED) all addressed the summit, and a panel of governors participated via video link.

But perhaps the most engaging presenter was Mary Pappas, a school nurse at St. Francis Prep in New York City, the first school hit by the flu outbreak last spring. Attendees listened intently as Pappas recounted how she triaged the scores of sick and scared students who sought her care when the flu first erupted -- scared because they had arrived at school healthy that morning only to suddenly develop symptoms later. Pappas, who eventually sent home 102 students that day, enlisted the assistance of other school personnel to take temperatures and record the results on a sticky note stuck to each student’s uniform. With just a single phone line in her office, Pappas commissioned students to use their own cell phones to find parents. The nurse then informed each parent of the child’s condition.

The key to handling the emergency, said Pappas, was staying calm and relying on her experience and training as a medical professional. (Quick thinking and ingenuity also played an obvious role.) Her effectiveness and expertise have earned her new respect among students, parents, and administrators. Preparing for the next possible outbreak, she counsels students to stay at home if they’re sick, cough into their arms and, when they come upon a strange substance, "If it's wet and it's not yours, don't touch it."

“Every school should have a nurse,” said Pappas. The crowd agreed with vigorous applause.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Joe's Take: More Than Math and Reading

CAPE enters the blogosphere with this initial posting about a stimulating conversation that state CAPE representatives had earlier this week at their summer institute in Little Rock, Arkansas. The discussion (one of many valuable exchanges) centered around the need to distinguish religious and independent schools in fundamental ways from public traditional schools and public charter schools.

Private schools represent so much more than being effective vehicles for securing improvements in math and reading skills, which is what many public policy advocates seem to believe is the only justification for their existence. As some public schools are narrowing the curriculum in pursuit of having every child achieve at an illusory level of proficiency in reading and math, private schools need to remind the public that such skills are only a single point on a path toward educating the whole child. Critical thinking, analytical skills, imagination, creativity, compassion, character, an appreciation of art and music, athletic ability, and the development of spiritual and ethical values -- these collectively constitute the purpose of religious and independent schools. Quality academics are important, but they are only part of the picture. But too often, even we in the private school community give credence to the notion that the best way to judge our schools is by the upticks they show in reading and math scores.

Religious and independent schools contribute too much to the common good to be reduced to such narrow measures. As Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute said in an interview this week, it is no coincidence that the two minority members of next October’s likely Supreme Court (Justices Sotomayor and Thomas) once attended urban religious schools.

One state CAPE representative this week said we have to explain to the public that private schools would be essential to this country even if every public school were producing students with reading and math scores in the 90th percentile. I completely agree. How would you make that case?

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)