07 March 2011

Education Summit preview: Interview with Elaine Weiss

Elaine Weiss
On Mondays between now and the YorkCounts York County Education Summit on April 14, we'll take a look at some of the issues surrounding public education today. Most of the posts will be written by participants in the summit. Today, we'll start out with an interview with Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. At the summit, Elaine will talk about the state of American education from the national perspective. Here's an edited version of the phone interview we did recently.

DAN FINK: Tell me about your background and how you ended up at Broader, Bolder Approach.

ELAINE WEISS: Well, I used to be a lawyer. I went into law school wanting to do good stuff. And I was always interested in poverty and finding remedies that worked to get people out of poverty. After I was in it for awhile, I realized that law might not be the best way for me to accomplish that. So I went back to school to get a degree in public policy. I studied urban policy at George Washington for my doctorate. I wanted to find out: What does the evidence say about what helps people out of poverty? And it seemed to all go back to education. K-12 reforms weren’t working, and a lot of problems opened up earlier than that, which is how I got interested in early education.

DF: Here in York County, people have done work around improving early education as a way to avoid later problems like truancy and dropping out, and we've had some blog posts about that recently. So where did that take you?

EW: I focused my doctorate on early education, and that's how I ended up at Pew (Charitable Trust). While I was there, I learned a lot about education and policy reform. I began to see that American education tends to go through these cycles, where people decide, "This reform will work," and then a few years later, "Oh, wait, this reform will work." In the course of doing all this reading, I came across Richard Rothstein's book "Class and Schools." It's a wonderful book that brings together all these factors - early education and poverty and reform. I can remember thinking if this comprehensive approach to education policy ever becomes a campaign, I want to be part of it. (Editor's note: Richard Rothstein is one of the original founders of BBA and a member of the BBA National Advisory Council.) (The book) is not at all an apology for schools, as some would paint it, but it points out all the factors that interfere with a teacher's ability to teach and a student's ability to focus and learn, which are pretty obvious to anyone who has taught or who has been in a poor neighborhood or, frankly, has been a parent. Schools are only part of a child's education experience, and reform traditionally didn't incorporate non-school issues that kids face.

DF: What do you mean by non-school issues?

EW: One example is mobility. In urban schools, families move a lot, for reasons usually associated with financial instability, so the kids are constantly having to adjust to new classrooms, new teachers, and schools and districts spend money trying to deal with administrative hurdles that don't exist in less mobile areas. In Flint, Mich., they looked at this mobility issue, and they decided to offer rent subsidies. If the problem is parents don't have enough money for the rent, let's give them money for that, and the kids won't have that disruption to their learning. And they had a dramatic improvement. In York, if you have an instability problem, find a pot of money to help keep these kids in one place and one school, and you can make a difference.

DF: Talk a little bit about No Child Left Behind and the role the federal government should play in education reform. There's a pretty broad range of views, from President Obama's plan for reauthorizing NCLB, to doing away with the Department of Education.

EW: Dismantling the Education Department would do away with many critical programs. But I think (those that promote that) are right the federal government does not belong in state and local education policy to the extent they have come to be. The idea (among federal policy makers) is that states and localities will mess up and the federal government will not. But we have seen that the federal government standards have not really brought about student improvement, they have not provided realistic mandates, they haven't given the state governments and localities the flexibility they need to make the changes required to improve student performance. We need to get back to broad accountability, not the narrow mandates that are required in these tests. Use the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It's not gamed by the system; it shows good results; and it can be used across states very well. It allows states to disaggregate data to show who is and who isn’t doing well compared to other states and would allow more policy comparisons across states.

DF: Here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, there's a lot of talk about choice and vouchers. What do you think about free-market competition as a way to improve the performance of public schools?

EW: The Broader, Bolder Approach doesn’t have a specific position on charter schools and vouchers, because the issues facing schools are not, as many suggest today, based on lack of competition. The market is a very important thing, but it's not the right model for every one of our institutions, and it has serious flaws, as recent years have shown us. Schools, like families, work well when they’re collaborative - when teachers work together, when they work with principals and parents, and with students, and when they collaborate with one another. It doesn’t make sense to have a market model where you have “winners” and “losers.”

DF: How we fund public education will come up in policy discussions here and in other states. Talk about the connection between adequate, equitable funding and reducing the achievement gap.

EW: States vary greatly in the way they redistribute funding across districts to make sure schools have the resources they need. Decades of research suggest that what happens within the school walls – classroom, administration, peer effect – accounts for somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of student outcomes by the time they are done with school. If we had total equity and schools were being run perfectly, we’d still only to be able to close about a third of the achievement gap. We definitely need more equity in funding, but it’s the resources outside of school that account for the majority of the gaps we see. Where the community and the people are connected to the school, you will get good outcomes. Some people will say: "You’re giving teachers excuses; you’re letting them off the hook." That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying, "We know there are things that are outside your control, things that happen outside the schools, and we will support that to help you do your job." That is empowering.
- Dan Fink



What: "State of the Schools: A Countywide Education Summit"
When: 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. April 14
Where: Pullo Center at Penn State York, 1031 Edgecomb Ave., York
How much: Admission is free, but advance registration is requested and box lunches will be available for $5.
Confirmed participants: Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, will provide the national context. Other presenters and panel discussion participants include:
  • Brian Jensen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern PA and senior vice president of civic policy for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development;
  • Dennis Baughman, president of the Board of Trustees for the York Academy Regional Charter School;
  • Thomas Gentzel, executive director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association;
  • James Testerman, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association;
  • Republican State Rep. Ron Miller, who represents southwestern York County, including York, Springfield, Shrewsbury, Codorus, Manheim and West Manheim townships;
  • Republican State Rep. Will Tallman, who represents York and Adams counties and serves on the House Education Committee;
  • Democratic State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, who represents York and parts of Spring Garden and West Manchester townships;
  • Joel Sears, president of the York County Taxpayers Council
To register: Send an e-mail with your name, school district and phone number to events@yorkcounts.org, and if you plan to purchase one of the $5 box lunches, please indicate your lunch preference from these wrap choices: turkey, ham, chicken salad, tuna salad or veggie.
For details: Contact Dan Fink at YorkCounts at 717-650-1460 or at dfink@yorkcounts.org.

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