DFER and Education Policies

16 Jul

            In August 2008, many teachers in America and this one in particular were thrilled about Barack Obama’s nomination. Linda Darling-Hammond was a leading spokesperson articulating the Obama campaigns’ education positions. Darling-Hammond had pushed for professional education standards for teachers and had presented data showing the importance of teacher training. Yet, by November Alexander Russo of the Huffington Post was reporting “The possibility of Darling-Hammond being named Secretary has emerged as an especially worrisome possibility among a small but vocal group of younger, reform-minded advocates who supported Obama because he seemed reform-minded on education issues like charter schools, performance pay, and accountability. These reformists seem to perceive Darling-Hammond as a touchy-feely anti-accountability figure who will destroy any chances that Obama will follow through on any of these initiatives.” In December, Obama tapped Chicago’s Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Because Duncan had no real education experience it was considered highly likely that Darling-Hammond would be the Deputy Secretary of Education. On February 19, 2009 the New Republic reported, “Darling-Hammond was a key education adviser during the election and chaired Obama’s transition education policy team. She has been berated heavily by the education reform community, which views her as favoring the status quo in Democratic education policy for her criticisms of alternative teacher certification programs like Teach for America and her ties with teachers’ unions.” They reported that she was going home to California to work on other priorities and would not be a part of the new administration.

            So, what happened and who were those “small but vocal younger, reform minded advocates that supported Obama” but hated Darling-Hammond? In August 2008 a pre-convention Democrats for Education Reform seminar, billed as “Ed Challenge for Change” previewed a coming attack from within the Democratic Party on teachers and especially their unions. David Goldstein of the American Prospect reported:

            “It was sponsored by a coalition of foundations, nonprofits, and businesses supporting the charter-school movement, including Ed in ’08, the advocacy group founded by Bill Gates and real-estate mogul Eli Broad. The evening provided a truly unusual spectacle at a convention: A megawatt group of Democrats, including Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., and former Gov. Ray Romer of Colorado, bashed teachers’ unions for an hour. Amid the approving audience were Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, an icon of the civil-rights movement; Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, (in)famous as a high-profile African American Hillary Clinton endorser; and Mayor David Cicilline of Providence, the reformer of that once-Mob-ridden New England city. Cicilline took avid notes.”

It was from this crowd that Darling-Hammond was receiving her harshest criticism and where the non-traditional (meaning no education background) leader of the Chicago school system, Arne Duncan, was championed as the next Secretary of Education. The loudest voices were those of a new organization calling themselves Democrats for Education reform (DFER), led by young extremely wealthy hedge fund operators from New York City.

            In the May 31, 2007 issue of New York Sun there was a report about one of the first victories of DFER:

            “A money manager recently sent an e-mail to some partners, congratulating them on an investment of $1 million that yielded an estimated $400 million. The reasoning was that $1 million spent on trying to lift a cap on the number of charter schools in New York State yielded a change in the law that will bring $400 million a year in funding to new charter schools. The money managers who were among the main investors in this law — three Harvard MBAs and a Wharton graduate named Whitney Tilson, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, Charles Ledley, and John Petry — are moving education-oriented volunteerism beyond championing a single school.

“They want to shift the political debate by getting the Democratic Party to back innovations such as merit pay for teachers, a longer school day, and charter schools. …  The group — actually two separate political action committees — has raised money for senators Obama, Clinton, and Lieberman; Governor Spitzer; Rep. George Miller; state senators Malcolm Smith and Antoine Thompson; assemblymen Sam Hoyt, Hakeem Jeffries, and Jonathan Bing, and City Council Member Vito Lopez. They count the charter cap lift, signed by Mr. Spitzer in April, as their first major victory.”

The two political action committees the Sun mentioned are Education Reform Now, a 501c3, and Education Reform Now Advocacy, a 501c4. To lead these committees the hedge fund operators chose Joel Klein, the form chancellor of the New York City schools. It seems likely that Mr. Klein was influential in these young businessmen from elite schools developing the view of education reform they have adopted. Until April of this year, Klein has been the director of Education Reform now. In April he joined his former protégé, Michele Rhee at her advocacy group Students First which is also supported by DFER, the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation. When I looked on the DFER web site the first image that popped up was that of a favorite basketball player of mine and the current mayor of Sacramento, California, Kevin Johnson. He also happens to be Michelle Rhee’s husband.

On the DFER’s official web presence they take at least partial credit for the selection of Arne Duncan instead of Linda Darling-Hammond.

There is a glaring lack of experience or knowledge about education amongst the leaders of DFER. Michael Hirsch writing for the United Federation of Teachers explains, “What do these folks know about education? With the exception of Williams, who’s the hired help: nothing! Understand that DFER’s endgame has little to do with learning and everything to do with marginalizing public-sector unionized workers and bringing down the cost of taxes for social programs. It’s about creating new business and investment opportunities in areas that are still publicly run and serving as a pre-emptive strike against any hope for private-sector union renewal. Where better to start than with attacking teacher unions, one of the few labor strongholds in this country?” His point is a least in part validated by a cursory look at the present Board of Directors of DFER and the Board of Advisors:

Board of Directors

Kevin P. Chavous (chair) – Former Washington, DC, City Council member and chair of the Education Committee; Board Chair of Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

Boykin Curry – Eagle Capital; Co-Founder of Public Prep. Public Prep launched in 2008.

Tony Davis – Co-founder and President of Anchorage Capital Group, LLC; Board Trusteer for Achievement First Brooklyn charter schools. Achievement First has grown into a network that includes 20 academies under ten charters in four cities.

Charles Ledley – Highfields Capital Management; Board Member of the Tobin Project.

Sara Mead – Bellwether Education Partners, Associate Partner; Former Director of Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.

John Petry – Columbus Hill Capital Management; Co-founder of Harlem Success Academy Charter School in NYC. Success Academy Charter Schools operate nine public charter schools in NYC.

Whitney Tilson –  Managing Partner, T2 Partners LLC and Tilson Mutual Funds; Board member of KIPP-NYC, and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

DFER Board of Advisors:

Steve Barr – Founder and CEO, Green Dot Public Schools.

Cory Booker – Mayor of Newark, N.J.

David Einhorn – Founder of Greenlight Capital, LLC.

Joel Greenblatt – Founder and Managing Partner of Gotham Capital.

Vincent Mai – Chairman of AEA Investors, LP.

Michael Novogratz – President of Fortress Investment Group.

Tom Vander Ark – Partner, Revolution Learning.

            In February another self-appointed expert on education policy from Seattle, Washington, loudly bashed teachers and their unions. An editorialist for the Seattle Times, Lynne K. Varner reported that “Major Democratic funder Nick Hanauer’s recent email blasting Democratic lawmakers for failing to buck the teachers union and push for education reforms will go down as the tough-love message heard around the state. ‘It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every important education-reform issue,’ wrote Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist, to other party faithful. ‘Today, the (teachers union) is literally strangling our public schools to death with an almost infinite number of institutionalized rules that limit change, innovation and excellence.’” In that same editorial Varner said, “Reformers watched in dismay as Democratic leaders blocked key reforms including exchanging an outdated seniority-based layoff policy for one based on performance and overhauling the billion-dollar health-insurance program for school employees.”

                Diane Ravitch famously anointed these modern education reformers, “the billionaire boys club” and has valiantly fought off their benighted positions. They call for the end of seniority rights, lessoning of health benefits for teachers, the destruction of the teachers union, privatization of public schools, standards based education, national standards, high stakes testing, no excuses, non-traditional school leadership, imbuing mayors with untrammeled control over schools, trigger laws, lessoning the rigor of teacher certification, and value added measures to evaluate educators. Every one of these positions undermines the American public education system which is not failing and never has been failing. There has been a forty year campaign starting with the Reagan administrations falsely premised document “A Nation at Risk” to convince people that our public schools are terrible. Of course any institution can be improved but destroying the greatest education system the world has ever known is not an improvement. Across the United States, schools are staffed with well trained, experienced and dedicated employees and lead by competent administrators. For students who live in poverty zones that are often drug riddled and crime infested, the local school is often the only functional institution in the area. On standardized tests, poor students do not perform as well as students who live in wealthier and safer communities, but these schools still produce students who excel and win their way into some of the world’s most prestigious universities. John Dewey observed in 1916, “education will vary with the quality of life which prevails in a group.” Even as President Obama was cheering the closing of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, many success stories from that school were following the path out of the poorest neighborhood in the state of Rhode Island opened by their school. These schools are not failing; the communities they are in are failing and schools are being unfairly blamed for it.

                At the DFER web presence is a section called the Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award. Not surprisingly, the awards go to political activists who opened the path for charter schools or who helped close “failing schools” or did some other deed that promoted the DFER agenda in most cases against the will of the local community. When citing previous heroes of education reform, the very first name cited is Alan Bersin. The citation says, “Appointed in 1998 as Superintendent of Public Education of the San Diego Unified School District, Bersin led the eighth largest urban school district in the country. In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger appointed him as California’s Education Secretary. Bersin led the way as one of the nation’s first ‘non-traditional’ big city school leaders, promoting ambitious reform to raise the quality of education and bolster student achievement. Bersin currently serves as the Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection. Bersin was a founding board member of DFER.” By ‘non-traditional’ they meant he had no education experience or training. I worked one year under Bersin’s leadership. Amongst all teachers and most San Diegan’s the Bersin administration is considered a colossal failure. Today, San Diego Unified School District is bankrupt having just issued a 1000 certificated and a 1000 non-certificated layoff notices and still suffers from the loss of experienced teachers and administrators suffered during Bersin’s tenure.

                It was under Bersin that some of the first DFER style reforms were implemented. It is a fundamental tenet of DFER style reform that there are many failing schools and bad teachers especially in poor communities. DFER Executive Director Joe Williams (“the hired help who has some education experience”) reported about Bersin’s success in changing two “failing schools” into charter schools. He wrote about the valiant fight Bersin put on to defeat the anti-reform teachers union and misguided parents who stood in the road of real reform. In November 2006, Wilson stated, “The conversion of Gompers and Keiller  to charter schools in San Diego suggests that with the right combination of top-down and bottom-up pressure for reform, and with sufficient support for reform efforts from inside and outside of school districts, even the most troubled public schools are able to turn the corner toward educational success. The question is whether education policymakers will act on the lessons that schools like Gompers and Keiller teach us.”  Joe Williams claimed victory for the students and parents who lived in the service areas of Gompers and Keiller, but like most “reform” success it is a complete mirage, because the only thing wrong with the schools was they were in poverty stricken gang infested neighborhoods. The charter school replacements were not a magic bullet the repaired the neighborhood and are likely doing worse than their public school predecessors would have. For a comparison, I picked two public schools that are nearby and have similar populations, Granger middle school and Spring Valley middle school and used the vaunted but often misleading standards based testing data.

API (Academic  Performance Index-California)   AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress-Federal)

Gomper  charter              2011 API 657       2006 API 551       +102      Failed 2011 AYP

Keiler  charter                    2011 API 748       2006 API 687       + 61        Failed 2011 AYP

Spring Valley Middle       2011 API 786       2006 API 737       +49         Failed 2011 AYP

Granger Middle                2011 API 817       2006 API 693       +124      Achieved 2011 AYP

Data from California Department of Education.

                Like the supposed miraculous achievements of the Harlem Children’s Zone based on one class in one year or the dramatic improvement in the DC schools based on questionable testing practices, a closer inspection causes great doubt about actual success. The pattern is to claim victory for a reform and berate those who question the wisdom of the reform, but these claimed successes always turns out to be a mirage. The San Diego, New York and DC experiences are being repeated across the nation. Corporate entities are gaining more and more leverage over the education dollar and schools are not being improved! This week in San Diego, the San Diego Unified School district who recently announced the massive teacher layoffs because of budget shortfalls announced they were spending $15 million on i-pads.  The corporate lobbying influence is warping school leadership values to the point where how a corporation like the testing giant Pearson is affected becomes more important than the schools, students or teachers.

                During the 1990’s education reform in America turned in a positive hopeful direction. Throughout America young educators were being introduced to the thinking of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Gardner, and others. They read case histories of how social constructivism was being introduced in classrooms around the globe. The Soka education revolution in Japan based on the ideas of Makiguchi and the Reggio Emelia preschools of Italy led by Loris Malaguzzi presented young educators with decades of practical application of constructivist theories. In Japan, the concept of lesson study and in America the developments of action research were leading to a model of continuous improvement based on peer reviewed application. Darling-Hammond’s professional teaching standards were codified in California promising a path of growing professionalism for educators in all California public schools. The factory model of education was being replaced by a more humanistic model that engendered a love of learning and engaged children in developing understanding. Then NCLB happened and progress in education was stopped by a mandated return to Edgar Thorndike’s behaviorist model that Dewey had resisted so strongly. All positive education reform and improvement in pedagogy stopped and was replaced with privatization, disrespect of the teaching craft and hubris. Ravitch, Meyers and Darling-Hammond were deemed anti-reform and the thinking of Whitney Tilson, Eli Broad and Bill Gates became the guidance for good pedagogy. It is as if night were called day. Sadly, educators and union members can no longer count on the Democratic Party – the support of one hedge fund manager seems to be drowning out the voices of 100,000 educators.

3 Responses to “DFER and Education Policies”


  1. “The End of Public Education” | tultican - December 27, 2015

    […] to education. In 2008, the hedge fund dominated group Democrats for Education Reform convinced Obama to dump his presumptive Secretary of Education nominee, Linda Hammond-Darling, and appoint Arn…. Obama and Duncan put into place the test centric and competition oriented Race to the Top (RTTT) […]


  2. Privatizing California’s Public Schools | tultican - June 19, 2016

    […] is cited by the Democrats for Education Reform as “a hero of education reform.” The citation says, “Appointed in 1998 as Superintendent of […]


  3. I Am Done – I Hope Public Education is Not | tultican - May 24, 2017

    […] tapped to run what was arguably the top performing urban schools system in America. I have written about the Democrats for Education Reform (DEFR) and Bersin. The following citation honoring Bersin is from the DEFR web presence (it has […]


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