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What Are Our Teachers Learning?

March 25th, 2014

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You don’t get a medal for 19th place. Yet when America’s 15-year-olds took an international test to discern how much they’d learned, 18 countries outranked them. American teens were even further from the medal stand in math and science, scoring well below the international average and sitting in the back row with Lithuania. This has become an old story.

So why aren’t we even in the competition for global academic gold? Maybe we should take a closer look at our teacher preparation, all the way from college training to professional development for existing teachers and principals. As students have languished further behind, we’ve done almost nothing to ensure today’s teachers will get the training they need to better reach students in the classroom.

Think about all of those professional development days that teachers take which leave kids home for the day. Are they improving teacher outcomes? As it turns out, all too often professional development for teachers is ham-handed at best, and at worst it’s a complete waste of time. Just ask those teachers in Chicago who were caught on video last month robotically repeating directions as part of their required instructional training.

All of this “professional development” is coming at a cost to the taxpayer — around $1 billion each year at the federal level.

That’s an issue a pair of prescient members of Congress are now seeking to address. Last week, Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Donald Payne Jr., D-N.J., teamed up to introduce bipartisan legislation to ensure that professional development for teachers and principals actually leads to increased student learning. If successful, the Great Teaching and Leading for Great Schools Act would mean no more blank checks for useless workshops. Instead, they would be replaced with training for teachers that actually has research behind it to show its effectiveness.

It seems so obvious as to be unnecessary, but it would actually be a stark change from the status quo, since almost no empirical evidence currently exists to determine if any of the current professional development programs do anything other than keep kids home from school a few days each year.

Measuring whether a professional development program is working won’t be that hard, thanks to the president’s Race to the Top initiative and other education reforms that now connect teachers to their students’ achievement. With these accountability measures in place, we can see which teacher development efforts directly improve student results. And this is one of the rare happy places in the education debate that doesn’t pit reformers against unions. For the first time, the largest teachers’ union is on board for using student achievement data to measure the effectiveness of professional development programs for teachers, as the National Education Association has endorsed the Polis-Payne plan. The National Education Association knows that teachers deserve more too, including individualized development and skills-building, not the one-size-fits-all training found in most schools today.

In order for the U.S. to once again lead the world in education, we must take the necessary steps to improve how we develop those tasked to lead our schools on a daily basis. In Shanghai, where students have dominated on international benchmark exams in recent years, they emphasize using their teacher evaluation system to provide professional development that is laser-focused on improving instruction. A similar approach in the U.S. would be a vast improvement for teachers over today’s “throw everything against the wall and hope something sticks” mentality.

Teachers in the U.S. spend significantly less time engaging in professional development than their international peers (a recent study found that teachers in the U.S. spend 80 percent of their time teaching, compared to an average of 60 percent for teachers in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries), requiring us to make every dollar and every hour count. After all, if teachers are going to be held accountable for how well their students perform, then the programs we use to train them should be held accountable, too.

This piece was originally published via U.S. News & World Report.

Let Us Not Pray

November 4th, 2013

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n 2007 Susan Galloway started going to town board meetings in the town she lived in, Greece, N. Y., to voice support for public-access cable television. Linda Stephens attended several meetings to weigh in on a plan to build a disc golf course at a park. The women arrived to discover that their town board had adopted a new practice: opening each meeting with a prayer. Galloway is Jewish, and Stephens is an atheist. Both felt that they should not be told to bow their heads and join a collective prayer—a prayer in which they could not in good conscience participate—in order to petition their local government. They filed suit claiming that the town board prayer is an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

This week the Supreme Court will hear this challenge. There’s a lot riding on this case. In past rulings the court has drawn a line in the constitutional sand: The state cannot coerce people to join or participate in religious activities. If the court now blurs that line, government will have more power to tell citizens when, if, and how they should pray. The more power government has over religion, the more likely it is that this power will be abused.

Members of both the U.S. House and Senate (most of them Republican) disagree. They insist this is an easy case. They note that Congress begins its sessions with a prayer and point to a 1983 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the practice of opening a state legislative session this way. They say that prayers before a town board meeting are the same thing. But they’re wrong. And that’s the key to this case.

Town board meetings have a fundamentally different function from state or national legislative sessions. Most audience members in the gallery of Congress or a state legislature are simply observers. They can sit in the gallery, or they can watch the legislature on C-SPAN. Either way they’re in the same passive role. By contrast, most citizens attend town board meetings to participate in government. They come to speak up and to petition and influence the board as it makes decisions that matter locally. Much of the work of town boards involves political disputes that impact small groups, neighborhoods, and, sometimes, individual residents. Attending a town board meeting is much more like appearing in court than watching a legislative vote.

And this is where the constitutional problem lies. If your case was being argued before a judge, and he asked you to pray with him at the start of a trial, wouldn’t you feel pressured to comply? Ideally, if you declined, neither a judge nor a town board would hold your unwillingness to join in their prayers against you. In actuality, the risk of alienating the official with decision-making power would probably weigh heavily. Like a courtroom, a town board meeting is up-close and personal. If you decide not to pray, everyone, including the members of the board, will see you sitting silently or leaving the room while the rest of the audience stands and bows their heads.

If you think about it, this is a scenario that’s more prone to coerced religious observance than a graduation ceremony in which students are asked to stand in prayer. And the Supreme Court has already ruled that prayers at public high school graduations are unconstitutional.

There’s another problem with this particular town’s prayer offerings: According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, the town didn’t do a good job of making sure the prayers reflected diverse religious viewpoints. From the time they began in 1999 through the point in 2007 when Galloway and Stephens began raising concerns, every single prayer had been Christian, as was every clergy member on the list the town board used to choose its “chaplain of the month.” In 2008, after the suit was filed, the town finally started letting non-Christians volunteer to do the prayers, and that year they had two prayers from a Jewish leader, one from a Baha’i leader, and one offered by a Wiccan. In 2009 and 2010, the prayers went back to being all Christian. The Appeals Court struck down the town’s prayer practice in light of this poor record, saying it unconstitutionally endorsed Christianity.

True, but Galloway and Stephens should win not just because the prayers were almost always Christian. The government can’t burden religious freedom by pressuring people to pray, period. That pressure is unavoidable in the context of a town board meeting.

The critical principle is this: Courts have to intervene when the government coerces people into religious observance. If the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion means anything, it should mean that a citizen need not choose between the right to petition his government and the right not to pray.

This piece was co-authored by Third Way’s Lanae Erickson Hatalsky and Alan Brownstein, a professor at the University of California–Davis School of Law. It was originally published via Slate.

Supreme progress on marriage

April 9th, 2013

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On March 26, 2003, a lawyer stood in front of the nine Justices on the Supreme Court and argued that states should not be allowed to criminally prosecute gay and lesbian people for engaging in sexual activity. At the time, 14 states still had laws on the books that made “homosexual conduct” a crime. Flash forward exactly ten years later, and the Court was considering whether Proposition 8, (barring gay couples from marrying in California) violates the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. What a difference a decade makes.

To say our country has undergone a rapid transformation on the issue of marriage for gay couples is an understatement. The speed and breadth of this evolution have shocked even the most optimistic advocates. Just in the past two weeks, a cascade of Senators from purple and red states have added their voices to the chorus of marriage supporters, including Rockefeller, Kaine, Tester, McCaskill, Portman, Warner, and Hagan at last count. And this week’s Supreme Court arguments were another landmark moment for the cause.

Because this progress has come at such an astonishing clip, it is understandable that many had hoped the Supreme Court would take this opportunity to issue a broad decision that acknowledged a Constitutional right for gay couples to marry nationwide. After this week’s oral arguments, that outcome seems unlikely. But that reality should not be seen as a setback — rather, it is an opportunity to continue our nation’s swift journey toward full acceptance of gay and lesbian couples.

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Perfect could be enemy of the good on immigration

January 31st, 2013

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This piece was originally published in The Hill.

The phone rings in the house of an undocumented immigrant who has lived here for decades. The person on the line offers her a deal. If she registers with the US government, goes through a criminal background check, and pays a fine, she will be forever allowed to work, travel, and conduct her affairs in America without fear of deportation. For her children, even better — they will be given a fast-track path to citizenship. And down the line, once more is done to secure the border, she can get in the back of the line and eventually earn her citizenship as well.
 
Is there any chance she would say no?

On Monday, a bipartisan group of 8 Senators released an immigration reform proposal that would offer exactly that scenario to undocumented immigrants. Yet many reform advocates reacted warily to the plan, and even the Administration offered a few pointed criticisms in its otherwise favorable statement. In particular, they argued that using a “trigger” of border security to determine when some immigrants can move from a provisional legal status to a permanent one with a path to citizenship is unacceptable.

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Thank Your Grandparents for Equality Surging in Polls

October 31st, 2012

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This piece was originally featured on the Advocate.

This year might bring the first-ever statewide vote in favor of marriage for same-sex couples — and for that you have your grandmother to thank. Why? Because contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans born in the 1940s have been changing their minds on the marriage issue faster than nearly any other age group. And they are in good company.

Some marriage advocates have posited that the mammoth growth our country has seen in support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry has been primarily caused by younger, more accepting voters replacing older ones in the population. But new data released in our new report, The Big Shift, shows that this phenomenon only explains one quarter of the total movement since 2004, while 75% of the shift was caused by Americans of all ages — including your parents’ and grandparents’ generation — changing their minds. Read the rest of this entry »

Marriage for Gay Couples: A Snapshot of Public Opinion Research

May 11th, 2012

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Given the President’s announcement of his support for marriage this week, folks are understandably searching for data on how his position will play with voters in the middle. Our four years of in-depth research into that question provides crucial insights—here’s a quick look at some key numbers from our July 2011 poll.

1. A strong majority of Americans say they will accept marriage for gay couples.

When asked how they would feel if gay couples could marry, 32% said they would be glad, 23% said they would not like it but it would be acceptable to them, and 37% said it would not be acceptable to them (another 9% said they didn’t know). So approximately a third of the country will likely be energized by President Obama’s announcement, and another third will accept it. Only about a third will find it unacceptable—and our guess is that likely very few (if any) of those folks were planning to vote for President Obama before his interview.

2. The “rights” argument may fall flat with the middle, but “commitment” can woo them.

Only a bare majority agreed that “marriage is a basic human right that should not be denied to gay people” (52%) and only slightly more thought that “not allowing gay people to marry is discrimination.” But 60% of respondents in our poll agreed that allowing gay couples to marry would “help committed couples take care of each other and their families.” That included 63% of Independents and 78% of those who rated themselves 5s on a 1-10 comfort scale with marriage. And 61% of all respondents thought the following statement described the issue of marriage for gay couples very well or pretty well: “I believe gay couples want to marry for similar reasons as anyone—to make a public promise of love and commitment.”

A solid 61% described this statement as convincing, including 37% who said it was very convincing:

Some people say that gay and lesbian couples who are truly committed to each other want similar things as the rest of us—to build a life together based on love and commitment, staying together through thick and thin. The Golden Rule is one of the most important values we teach our children—to treat others as we want to be treated. So if a couple is willing to stand up in front of family and friends and make a lifetime promise to each other, it’s not for us to judge, or to deny them that opportunity.

Those who thought that statement was convincing included 64% of Indepen­dents, 79% of those who rated themselves a 5 on the comfort scale, and 80% of those who said marriage would be acceptable but they wouldn’t like it (the grudging acceptors).

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