The scoop

Jon Schnur, "ideolocrat" poster boy, will not work for Obama

[This post has been updated to include a comment from Jon Schnur.]

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  Jon Schnur, the education policy expert who has been working as an advisor to President Barack Obama and played a pivotal role in writing the federal stimulus plan for schools, will not serve in the Obama administration. He will instead return to running the nonprofit principal-training program New Leaders for New Schools group that he co-founded, according to an e-mail he sent recently to members of New Leaders.

Schnur is one of the most high-profile members of the next-generation “reform” camp of Democrats, who push for dramatic changes in public schools, including strong accountability measures. He had been named as a likely chief of staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and was serving as a senior adviser to Duncan, helping him craft the education part of the stimulus bill.

Schnur’s close role in the administration had been seen as a signal of its direction on education, suggesting that the president was siding with the camp of education advocates that includes Schnur (and for which we singled Schnur out as a spokesman), rather than with the camp that is more skeptical of recent accountability efforts.

As word of Schnur’s plans spread around Washington, D.C., the major question I’m hearing people ask is why he is not entering the administration — and what that says about the administration’s direction. (I am in D.C. for the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association, where I am becoming a board member.)

Duncan addressed the divide obliquely last night in a speech to EWA members, saying that he wants to work with reporters to break through divides and talk about “facts.”

In the e-mail he sent to New Leaders members, which I obtained through a source and which is included in full at the end of this post, Schnur said that he is “excited” to return to the organization. He said he believes the most important work for education advocates right now is to prove that children in poverty can exceed:

…there is nothing more important in  American education right now than to demonstrate how the breakthrough results that have happened in individual classrooms and schools can happen at unprecedented scale (in hundreds of schools and indeed across entire school systems) for children in poverty.  I believe more strongly than ever that we as a community of leaders can and will demonstrate this kind of dramatic student achievement in schools across our country.

I’ve reached out to Schnur for comment. Schnur sent me this comment in which he explains his decision not to seek a position in the federal Department of Education:

President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan are extroardinary champions and leaders who are helping our nation invest in our future and dramatically improve education. I have been so honored to advise and support them over the past several months during my leave of absence from New Leaders. This experience has confirmed for me what drove me to create and lead New Leaders in the first place. First, that breakthrough success in education is urgently needed and possible. Second, there is nothing more important in education than demonstrating and codifying how the breakthrough results that have happened in individual classrooms and schools can happen at unprecedented scale for our students in greatest need. I have decided to return to New Leaders for the same reason I chose to leave the Clinton-Gore White House to found New Leaders a decade ago: to help a community of results-oriented principals and leaders drive dramatic improvements in our schools for hundreds of thousands of students nationwide, demonstrate that success is possible at scale in American public education, and leverage the knowledge we create to change education nationwide.

I am so confident in this Administration and its outstanding education team’s commitment, readiness, and ability to lead dramatic improvements in education. And I look forward to contributing to — and one day celebrating — the results that all of us in education will help achieve for our children and society.

Here’s Schnur’s full e-mail to members of New Leaders:

To the New Leaders Community –
I hope that you, your teams, and your students are having a good, productive school year, and that you and your families are doing well.
As you know, I have been on a leave of absence from New Leaders since September in order to advise the Obama for America presidential campaign, serve on the Presidential Transition Team, and serve as a senior policy advisor to Secretary Arne Duncan.  I am so excited to see the growing potential – in our nation and in the New Leaders community – to achieve our mission of high achievement for every child.
I am writing you today to provide an update on my plans.  As I shared with the New Leaders staff earlier this month, I am excited to share with you the news that I have decided to return to New Leaders.   I will begin to re-engage as an active board member in May (including participating in our spring Foundations in New Orleans with our 130+ member Cohort 8), take some long-overdue vacation time with Elisa and our kids, and return full-time into my role as CEO later by the end of June.
It is an honor to help a new President and Administration leverage what has been learned in schools and classrooms to drive dramatic achievement gains for all students.   The past seven months have confirmed for me two core convictions that have driven our community for the past nine years.
First, that quality education for all children is achievable, essential, and urgently needed to create a better future for our nation and world.
Second, there is nothing more important in  American education right now than to demonstrate how the breakthrough results that have happened in individual classrooms and schools can happen at unprecedented scale (in hundreds of schools and indeed across entire school systems) for children in poverty.  I believe more strongly than ever that we as a community of leaders can and will demonstrate this kind of dramatic student achievement in schools across our country.
In order to act on those convictions, I am excited to return to New Leaders to help drive these changes deeply in our schools and school systems as we support each other and rigorously analyze and share the practices that are and aren’t driving big improvements in student success.  I am also excited to leverage our shared learnings from the New Leaders community to drive even broader impact in our communities, states, and nationally.
I am so grateful for what you do every day – for your commitment to children, for your leadership, and for the results you are making possible for our students.   And I am so grateful for the outstanding leadership and management that my partner LaVerne Srinivasan, our New Leaders management team, and our entire organization have provided over these past months and will continue to provide as we move into this vital next phase of our work together.
Meanwhile on the personal front, it is with great joy that I share that Elisa and I are expecting our third child this fall.  Elisa, Matthew, Elizabeth and I are very excited – and welcome the good counsel and advice from those of you who have parented three small children.
I look forward to reconnecting with the New Leaders community in the weeks ahead, learning deeply from you and your experiences, and celebrating the results of your hard work as they pay off in significant ways for our students.
With respect and admiration for all that you do each day – now and in the marathon that we are in together on behalf of every child,

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.