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    Confirmation of DeVos Portends Education Policy Upheaval

    By Dan mangan
     | Feb 09, 2017

    DeVos_300One tiebreaking vote by the vice president.

    On that slender a margin, Betsy DeVos—the billionaire philanthropist, GOP mega-donor, and school choice advocate who has no direct experience in public schools—was confirmed as Secretary of Education following a 50-50 split vote in the U.S. Senate.

    High drama preceded the floor vote when two republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, broke ranks and declared they would not vote to confirm DeVos, citing high constituent opposition.

    Their announcement touched off a massive last-ditch effort to produce one more scale-tipping defection, but to no avail despite an historic overload of the congressional phone system. Not even an all-night rally organized by congressional democrats on the eve of the vote was able to break the stalemate.

    Relevant experience

    DeVos’s lack of public school experience cut both ways during the battle over her confirmation. Former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, who introduced her at the start of the Senate HELP Committee hearing, extolled it as an asset because “the nation needed a disruptor to fix its ailing schools.”

    Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) expanded upon this theme as the floor vote neared, noting that DeVos is an outsider, not just “another education bureaucrat who knows all the acronyms.” To him, what opponents of DeVos really want is “to keep power over public education right here inside the beltway.”

    Nevertheless, the limitations of such a credential became apparent during her hearing. DeVos stumbled when Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked if all schools receiving taxpayer funding should be required to meet the requirements of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), first replying that the matter was better left to the states, and then acknowledging that she may have confused the law.

    When asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) for her view on using tests to measure whether students are making progress, as opposed to focusing on whether students meet proficiency standards, DeVos suggested that advancements should be the measure, leading Franken to reply that growth is not proficiency and to express surprise that she didn’t seem to know the issue.

    Conflict of interest

    DeVos underwent an extensive review by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) for conflict of interest issues, an effort that delayed the final vote until the OGE report was available to each member of the senate committee. In the end she agreed to divest from 102 companies and investment funds.

    Committee democrats asked that the floor vote on DeVos be delayed to allow for additional inquiries on potential conflicts based on the OGE report, a request denied by the chair, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who noted that DeVos had already provided answers to 837 written questions from the senators.

    Ironically, those answers gave rise to a side controversy as some appeared to have been lifted from older documents prepared by staff in the Justice and Education departments.

    School choice and public education

    Central to DeVos’s perspective on improving education is the conviction that school choice, including charter, magnet, and private options, must be available to parents of children whose learning needs are not met by the local public school.

    “If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools,” she explained in her opening statement to the committee, but added that if a school is troubled, unsafe, or not a good fit for a child, parents should have the right to “a high quality alternative.”

    Sen. Murray (D-WA) challenged DeVos on this point, asking if she would commit not “to privatize public schools or cut a single penny for public education.” The nominee countered that she would work to address the needs of all parents and students while empowering parents to make choices on behalf of their children. It was a pivotal exchange that marked a clear divide.

    Charter schools proved to be another flare-up issue. DeVos has successfully advocated for charter school options in her home state of Michigan. However, the performance of Michigan charter schools has been a matter of continuing controversy. Critics have zeroed in on the accountability of these institutions, which they claim is minimal at best.

    DeVos rejects any such characterization, calling it “false news.” She maintains that these schools remain accountable to their oversight bodies, and that 122 of these schools have been closed in Michigan since the state first authorized them.

    Civil rights groups, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association seized on DeVos’s school choice views to mount a major publicity effort to block her confirmation due to concerns that choice continues inequity between minority and white students. Meanwhile, 18 republican state governors circulated a letter supporting her for the same reason.

    The challenges ahead

    Since DeVos was first nominated, an intense debate has been ignited on education policy. A vision predicated on the strength of existing models is now confronted by one that draws its power from taking a different tack.

    The assumption that vital progress has been made and is best preserved by current approaches now faces the charge that those approaches have outlived their time and become obstacles to achieving the student learning breakthroughs most sought after.

    As if these deepening rifts were not daunting enough, the discourse needed to bridge them is vexed by presumptions of exclusive legitimacy and assertions of settled fact that all but preclude the finding of common ground. References to what is “mainstream” and what is “troubling” have become a reflexive frame. All is counterpoint, and the result is paralysis.

    Much of the current impasse centers on the respective roles of the federal and state governments. For many, Washington is the only real guardian and guarantor of equal educational opportunity. For others, Washington has become an overbearing national school board whose funding-tied regulatory reach too often puts undue burdens on local officials and classroom teachers.

    At this turning point, critical questions seek urgent resolution. What should be considered indispensable in public education, and what can fairly be put in play? Which existing regulatory mandates ought to be preserved, and where should new options be tried instead?  What is the appropriate educational use of taxpayer dollars? Right now a workable consensus appears almost out of reach.

    Amidst the ferment, literacy professionals continue to grapple day in and day out with instructional realities that lie beyond political paradigms and school system structures. To succeed in this time of upheaval, teachers and school administrators need to hold fast to research-informed approaches to literacy education. With that fealty, forward progress can always be made.

    dan-mangan

    Dan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.

     
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    A New Set of Standards for Professional Preparation

    By April Hall
     | Feb 07, 2017

    The International Literacy Association (ILA) has a track record of setting standards for the literacy field. Every five years, a committee of teacher educators is convened to revise professional preparation standards to stay current with the changing skills and support needed in the classroom. A new revision is underway, and Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017 (Standards 2017) will be published in 2018.

    Rita  Beanphoto
    Rita Bean

    Standards 2017 establishes criteria for literacy professional preparation programs throughout the United States and will also be a resource for states, policymakers and those hiring literacy professionals. The Standards describe what candidates for the literacy profession should know and be able to do in professional settings. They are the result of a deliberative process that draws from professional expertise and research in the literacy field.

    Several key shifts have informed the revision process. First, the title is changed from Standards for Reading Professionals to Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals, reflecting the shift to incorporate all facets of literacy in ILA’s mission. Second, Standards 2017 delineates three roles of specialized literacy professionals: reading/literacy specialist, literacy coach, and literacy supervisor/coordinator. These changes were informed by research conducted in a U.S. study and reported in an ILA brief, The Multiple Roles of School-Based Specialized Literacy Professionals. Third, the committee is revising guidance for the roles of classroom teachers, principals, teacher educators, and literacy partners. Last, Standards 2017 includes a new standard for practicum experiences for the role of the reading/literacy specialist.

    diane kern headshot
    Diane Kern

    The proposed revisions to the Standards for the three roles of the specialized literacy professionals were first presented at the ILA 2016 Conference & Exhibits and posted on ILA’s website. April 17–May 8, the current draft will be available for public comment on the ILA website. Reviewers may offer feedback on standards for the specialized literacy professional roles and for three classroom teacher roles: preschool/primary, elementary/intermediate, and middle/high school.

    “The results of the working committee include a major shift for reading/literacy specialists,” said Rita Bean, committee co-chair and professor emeritus at University of Pittsburgh. “We believe the revised Standards will provide a more precise and comprehensive description of the roles of each of the specialized literacy professionals. As such, the Standards will be helpful not only to those preparing literacy professionals but also to personnel responsible for hiring them.” 

    “We’re preparing not only literacy specialists, but also expert literacy teachers who can take on a role of leadership,” said Diane Kern, committee co-chair and associate professor at the University of Rhode Island. 

    A revised Standards 2017 draft, incorporating feedback from the public comment period, will be presented at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits in Orlando, FL, in July. Standards 2017 will then go to the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Once approved, ILA’s new standards will support CAEP’s evaluation of educator preparation programs.

    April Hall is editor of Literacy Daily. A journalist for 20 years, she has specialized in education, writing and editing for newspapers, websites, and magazines.

     

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    ILA Intervenes in Federal Lawsuit Over Failed Literacy Instruction

    By Dan Mangan
     | Jan 18, 2017

    The International Literacy Association (ILA) cosponsored the amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan last week as part of a pending class action litigation that was initiated last fall on behalf of students in the City of Detroit’s public schools.

    Latin for "friend of the court," an amicus brief is a supplemental pleading by persons who are not parties to the underlying case. Its purpose is to place additional pertinent facts and precedents on the record for the court to consult as it renders its decision. Moreover, the court can accept or not accept the brief, in its discretion.

    Counsel representing the plaintiffs, five students from the lowest performing public schools in Detroit, drew national attention to the case by asserting that access to effective literacy instruction is a federal constitutional right their clients had been deprived of by the state’s neglectful administration, inadequate support, and poor oversight.

    william teale 2017
    William Teale
    ILA President of the Board

    For ILA President of the Board William Teale, supporting the class action plaintiffs was an obvious choice. “ILA knows the critical importance of literacy, and we work around the globe to promote it,” Teale said. “Our mission compels us to support the children and families of Detroit in seeking reading and writing education that enables full participation in a democratic society.”

    Marcie Craig Post, ILA’s executive director, agreed. “This important lawsuit casts light on the critical issue of educational access as a central component to becoming literate,” she explained. “We simply have to address these inequities, or we run the risk of continuing to perpetuate future generations of people who are not literate.”

    To support the plaintiffs’ claim, the complaint cited the persistent and pervasive failure of the city’s public school students to achieve grade-level results on standard literacy assessments as compared with students in other districts and schools in the state.

    Lack of reading material and online access, unfocused teacher professional development, high levels of teacher turnover, and ineffectual intervention were also alleged.

    The defendants—the governor of Michigan and a number of state education officials—filed a motion to dismiss the action last December on the grounds that a right to literacy cannot be found in the actual text of the U.S. Constitution or in any U.S. Supreme Court decision.

    Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never declared literacy to be a constitutional right, it opened the door for a future ruling on this point by commenting in the 1973 case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that some “identifiable quantum of education”—some small piece—might be a constitutionally protected prerequisite to the meaningful exercise of other legal rights.

    Both the amicus brief ILA signed on to and the underlying complaint argue that basic literacy is the “identifiable quantum” contemplated in Rodriguez, the indispensable skill required to exercise First Amendment and other rights.

    The brief further asserts that the development over the last 30 years of reliable measures of literacy attainment needed for things like getting a driver’s license, reading a W-2 form, or applying for employment provides the court with an appropriate standard for judging whether the dismal performance of Detroit’s schools rises to the level of a constitutional violation.

    A ninth-grade Flesch–Kincaid or Lexile Framework reading level was suggested to the court as the minimum level for exercising constitutional rights, participating fully in the political process, and taking advantage of numerous other legal benefits.

    Also joining the amicus brief were Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society in education, and the National Association for Multicultural Education.

    dan-manganDan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.

     

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    Education Secretary Nomination Could Signal Serious Shakeups

    By Dan Mangan
     | Dec 08, 2016

    In the wake of an unprecedented and extraordinary presidential election, the literacy education community waited intently to learn who would be tapped for the top post at the U.S. Department of Education.

    The answer came last month when President-elect Donald Trump announced that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, is his enthusiastic choice.

    “Under her leadership, we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back, so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families,” Trump said.

    DeVos_300
    Betsy DeVos

    Accepting the responsibility, DeVos said, “the status quo in education is not acceptable” and added that “together, we can work to make transformational change.”

    DeVos, 58, is the daughter of the late Edgar Prince, a wealthy industrialist, and the sister of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the private security firm that made headlines during the Iraq war.

    She is married to Dick DeVos, a one-time Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate and former president of Amway and the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

    Betsy DeVos graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and political science. She would not be the first education secretary without an education degree.

    Margaret Spellings, who served as Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, also had a degree in political science, and Richard Riley, who served under Bill Clinton, had a law degree.

    As with Spellings and Riley, DeVos also has never worked in the public school system but is the founder and chair of the American Federation for Children, a group that works to expand charter schools and school voucher programs. She has twice led the Michigan GOP, and she and her family have donated millions of dollars to help elect Republican candidates.

    However, she did not support Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. As a convention delegate, she voted for Ohio Governor John Kasich.

    She does have previous ties to the Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, who expanded Indiana’s school voucher system into one of the largest in the United States while he was governor.

    As she explained in an interview with Philanthropy magazine, “What we are trying to do is tear down the mind-set that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their parents’ home.”

    When candidate Trump announced his education plan, she commented, “We know that millions of children, mostly low-income and minority children, remain trapped in K–12 schools that are not meeting their needs.”

    Many see her nomination as proof that Trump intends to follow through on his campaign pledge to spend $20 billion in block grants to expand private and charter school options for minority children, a prospect that may reignite the debate over making Title I funds portable.

    Reactions to the DeVos nomination have predictably split along party lines. Rick Snyder, GOP governor of Michigan, said she will mean great things to Michigan and to the children of the nation.

    James Goenner, president of the National Charter Schools Institute, said DeVos was a bold pick, an outspoken advocate for school choice and a challenger for the status quo.

    Former Florida governor Jeb Bush described DeVos as a phenomenal, strong woman and expressed his hope that the new administration will usher in an “earthquake” in terms of federal education funding.

    However, there has also been harsh criticism of DeVos. American Federation of Teachers head, Randi Weingarten, said Trump has made it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on “privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.”  

    Lonnie Scott, executive director of the advocacy group Progress Michigan, said the nomination proved that “having a shortage of experience means nothing as long as you don’t have a shortage of money.”

    Diane Ravitch of the Network for Public Education issued a battle cry, saying that those who believe education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good, must resist her nomination.

    Early next year, the DeVos nomination will go to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). Committee Chair, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), praised DeVos as an excellent choice “who will be able to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) just as Congress wrote it.”

    The ranking member of HELP, U.S. Sen. Patti Murray (D-WA), was less optimistic, noting the president-elect had made a number of troubling statements over the course of the campaign on a range of issues that a future secretary of education will have to address. She promised “a robust hearing process.”

    dan-manganDan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.

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    Is Literacy a Constitutional Right? The Battle Over Detroit Schools

    By Dan Mangan
     | Nov 30, 2016

    With the filing of a dismissal motion earlier this month in federal district court, the stage was set for a class action suit seeking redress for children in Detroit public schools on the basis of a denial of their constitutional right to literacy.

    The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, five students from the lowest performing public schools in Detroit, MI, allege they have been denied access to literacy by being deprived of evidence-based instruction and being subject to school conditions that prevent learning in violation of their rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    Rick Snyder
    Rick Snyder, governor of Michigan

    Defendants in the case, filed in September, are the governor of Michigan, eight members of the Michigan State Board of Education, and three other education officials. The plaintiffs contend that decades of disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to Detroit schools on the part of state officials have denied them and other similarly situated school children access to the most basic building block of education: literacy.

    Moreover the schools that the plaintiffs attend serve almost exclusively low-income children of color. The complaint asserts that the abysmal conditions in these schools would be unthinkable in schools serving predominantly white, affluent student populations establishing that the schooling afforded the plaintiffs is both separate and unequal.

    The plaintiffs contend that equal access to effective literacy instruction is a fundamental constitutional right. However, there is no federal case-law precedent directly establishing a right to literacy.

    The plaintiffs rely heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 case that dealt with a Texas statute that excluded undocumented children from the state’s public education system. The court stated that a status-based denial of basic education does not square with the framework of equality embodied in the Equal Protection Clause.

    On November 17, 2016, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the class action complaint, a standard first reply to the initiation of a civil suit. The motion raises technical matters of legal procedure and jurisdiction, and it alleges substantive defects in the plaintiffs’ case.

    Defining literacy

    How the Detroit plaintiffs define literacy is intrinsic to the structure of their argument. The complaint defines literacy as “the skill to decode letters and words, the ability to read and write well enough to access knowledge and communicate with the world, and the ability to compose, comprehend, synthesize, reflect upon, and critique.”

    Building on this definition, the complaint claims that the necessary prerequisite for effective literacy education is a basic environment for teaching and learning. It then goes on to describe the most egregious components of the learning environment in Detroit public schools.

    The schools are alleged to be vermin infested, have unsafe drinking water, and have extreme building temperatures. There is little support for the many children who have mental health needs, experience violent trauma, or are English learners. Teacher vacancy and high turnover are systemic, and classes are often taught by students or left unsupervised.

    What these conditions have wrought is not surprising. Student achievement outcomes as measured by state and national testing data tied to the Detroit school system’s demographics are dismal, a fact the complaint ties to the lack of any system for literacy instruction and remediation.

    To remedy the breakdown of meaningful education in Detroit’s schools, the plaintiffs are asking the court to order the defendants to implement evidence-based programs for literacy instruction and to establish a system of statewide accountability for their performance, including monitoring, intervention, and the provision of compensatory and remedial education.

    Who operates Detroit’s public schools?

    The defendants assert that Michigan’s constitution only requires the legislature to maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools and that  local school districts have the responsibility to provide for the education of their pupils.

    The state never ran Detroit’s schools, according to this argument; although, emergency managers have been appointed to supplant local authority when necessary. Consequently, the defendants claim they cannot be held responsible for an alleged denial of rights owed to the plaintiffs.

    Prior to Michigan State’s sequence of administrative interventions, the defendants point out, the Detroit Public School District experienced steep operating losses that reached a deficit of more than $100 million by 1988. Pupil enrollment declined steadily since 1981, and the city’s population also shrank, resulting in an ever-decreasing tax base.

    In response to this and other recession-driven emergencies in the state, Michigan enacted successive laws to address local government financial crises. These laws provide for state appointment of officials who act on behalf of local government. According to the defendants, the plaintiffs have conflated the state’s appointment of local officials with state control of local schools.

    Constitutional claim a mere proxy

    With respect to the plaintiffs’ claim of a constitutional right of access to effective literacy instruction, the defendants note that this putative right has no support in case law or in the text of the constitution.  The defendants cite San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, a 1973 case where the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question whether education is a fundamental right protected by the constitution and held that no such right exists.

    The defendants contend that the claimed right of access to literacy is a mere proxy for a right to education, which not only presupposes something that was rejected in Rodriguez but also asks that the Constitution be used to guarantee an outcome of the educational process. Their reasoning is predicated on the conceptual overlap between the dictionary definitions of literacy and access.

    Since literacy means “the ability to read and write,” according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and access means “the ability to make use of,” a person cannot obtain and make use of literacy without going through the process of becoming literate, and that process, the defendants assert, means nothing more than general education.

    Furthermore, the defendants do not accept that other schools in the state constitute the appropriate comparison group for assessing the alleged disparate treatment. They insist that such comparisons must be contained to the same school district, a perspective that relieves them from discussing the schools' conditions outlined in the plaintiffs’ complaint, other than observing that such conditions equally affect all students in the same school regardless of race.

    A decision on the defendant’s motion is not expected until early next year.

    dan-manganDan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.

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