Archive | March, 2016

Breakfast with Professor Lawrence

25 Mar

Tuesday was another spectacular day in southern California and I was cruising up old Highway 101 to meet Larry Lawrence for a late breakfast. We met at the Ki café just south of Swami’s and the Kook. Swami’s is a famous surfing spot in Encinitas, California and the Kook is an often redecorated statue near the San Elijo State Beach. The Ki specializes in smoothies, juices and healthy meals prepared from organic products including the coffee I had with breakfast. Larry is a regular there. He directed me to a seat at his favorite table with an awe inspiring view of the Pacific Ocean. A scintillating three hour conversation about saving public schools ensued.

Professor Lawrence has reservations about standardized education. He illustrated them with a personal experience.

In 1962, he attended a class during the summer put on by the University of Illinois Committee on the School of Mathematics. In December 1951, the Colleges of Education, Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences established the University of Illinois Committee on School Mathematics (UICSM) to investigate a new pedagogy for high school mathematics. When he returned to Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, Larry convinced a colleague from the middle school to go take the course with him the following summer.

Two years later, Larry was teaching geometry and one of his classes was composed of the students out of his middle school friend’s honors algebra class. Larry soon discovered that this teacher had gotten so bogged down with teaching new ideas like set theory and algebra properties that he had not completed most of the fundamentals of algebra. His students were lost. Therefore, Larry changed the class he was teaching from geometry and made it algebra I. The administration supported his decision with almost no reservations. In today’s standardized environment, Larry is quite certain no professional educator would be allowed to make that kind of call.

The weekend of February 28th Professor Lawrence was at the United Opt Out conference in Philadelphia. He sees opt out as one of the most effective means of fighting today’s mean spirited greed driven education reform. He says the destruction to Philadelphia’s public school system by test driven reform and privatization is pervasive and profound. He called it truly sad.

On March 3, he was in Los Angeles at a meeting of TEAch (Transparency, Equity and Accountability in CHarter schools). He estimates an attendance of 80 people including Joan Kramer (retired teacher, activist, author of the Turtle Learning blog), Jackie Goldberg (former California State Assemblywoman, founding member of the progressive caucus and former student of Professor Lawrence at Morningside High), Steve Zimmer (President of the Los Angeles Unified School District), Scott Schmerelson (LAUSD board member) and the Red Queen of LA (The well known blogger). The moderator was Susan Phillips. These activists gathered to form strategies for saving public schools from the destruction caused by the billionaire financed charter school movement.

On March 8th, Larry was in Anaheim where Superintendent of Schools, Michael Matsuda was hosting a viewing of “Killing Ed.” He says, “This is an excellent documentary about the Gulen Charter Empire that needs to be shown to everyone.” On this occasion he also got to speak with Tina Andres (Southern California BAT leader).

On March 9th, he represented the Occidental Alumni in Education and toured the original High Tech High in San Diego.   After a brief meeting with the schools CEO and philosophical guide, Larry G. Rosenstock, Larry and one other Occidental alumnus were lead through the High Tech schools by two student “ambassadors” for almost two and a half hours.

High Tech schools were started with the support of Qualcomm founder, Irwin Jacobs and Bill Gates in 2000. Larry saw a very casual environment with small classes. Curriculum at High Tech is all presented using problem based learning, also known as the constructivist approach which derives from the thinking of John Dewey. High Tech has a robust professional development program for teachers which supports the constructivist ideal. It also confers a  masters in education, through the profession development program.

During the tour, Larry noticed that everyone was taking the same math class. When he asked the “ambassadors” about it, one of them said “yeah, that’s frustrating. I am good at math and I am not being challenged.” Overall, he rated the school as first rate but did see a few warts.

I have had a few students come into my classes from High Tech High who really hated it and a teacher friend of mine at Southwestern Community College says the students from High Tech struggle with a non-problem based learning environment.

Professor Lawrence shared some personal experience and knowledge that leads him to believe that High Tech system will eventually fail because it has no robust structure in place like public schools.

UCLA started a lab school in 1882. In 1925, Corinne A. Seeds was hired to lead the school. She like Larry Rosenstock was a Dewian and was a dynamic forceful personality. Seeds became a key figure in developing and promoting progressive education during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. When Seeds was in charge, the school flourished. Seeds retired in 1957 and for three years the school floundered.

Then fortune shined on the school again with the arrival of another dynamic personality in 1960, John Goodlad. In his New York Times obituary it said, “Professor Goodlad proposed a radically new model of schools, in which elementary school students would not be divided into specific grades and their work would not be graded.” Larry worked with Goodlad at what was then called the Seeds school and he still promotes this idea. I see a lot of merit in it as well.

In 1987, Goodlad left UCLA and the Seeds school. After that the school, suffered tremendous financial duress without its charismatic leader. In the 1990’s, Seeds tried to solve its problems by becoming a charter school and today it is a private school that calls itself a lab school.

Professor Lawrence thinks that when the charismatic founding leader of High Tech is gone it will face a bleak future as well. Not being part of the democratically supported and supervised system will eventually catch up with High Tech and undermine the good work being done there.

On March 19th, Larry got an email from Karen Wolfe (education activist and parent) inviting him to Sunday morning breakfast in LA with Diane Ravitch. At 6 AM Sunday morning he was headed north on Highway 5 for breakfast with Karen, Diane, Tina Andres, Ellen Lubic and Josh Leibner. His commitment to public education and energy to fight for it has inspired me.

We left lunch challenging each other to think of some way to bring together the disparate activists in San Diego who support public education. We are hoping that we might be able to join with other southern California activist at the National Public Education conference this April in Raleigh, North Carolina and advance our struggle for the salvation of public education in our part of the country.

The California Charter School Fiasco

13 Mar

In 1992, California became the second US state to pass a charter school law. Today, twelve percent of all schools in California are charter schools with 9% of all state supported students attending charter schools. In these more than two decades; charter schools have enriched some people – have harmed public schools – have not improved publicly financed education – have increased segregation – have increased the cost of publicly financed education – have paid foreign based entities to operate schools in California – have generated massive fraud.

The California charter school experiment should be ended and these undemocratic publicly financed institutions should be carefully transitioned into the public schools system.

Peter Greene is a prescient commentator and observer of education policies and trends. Every day he posts at least one editorial about some education related claim or movement on his blog, Curmudgucation. Last week he wrote this comment about charter schools:

 “One of the great lies of the charter-choice movement is that you can run multiple school districts for the price of one.

 “A school district of, say, 2,000 students can lose 75 students and with them about $750,000 dollars of revenue, and somehow that district of 1,925 students can operate for three quarter of a million dollars less. And how does the district deal with that loss of revenue? By closing a building– because the more school buildings you operate, the more it costs.”

 I live within the boundaries of the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). It is the second largest school district in California and eighth largest in the nation with 140,000 students. Former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, wrote in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “San Diego was a surprising place to launch a major reform effort, because the district was widely perceived in the 1990’s as one of the nation’s most successful urban school systems.”

Today SDUSD is 20% charter. So, in San Diego we have a dual school system and that is one of the reasons many classes in both the privatized system and the public system must run such large classes. The money to pay for an extra layer of administration and in some cases to pay profits for investors must come from somewhere. It is coming out of the classrooms of what was once the envy of other urban school systems.

Steven Singer is a leader in the Bad Ass Teachers (BATs) movement. He writes a blog focused on education called Gadflyonthewallblog. A few weeks ago he published an article called “Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice.” Reason four resonated with me:

 “4) Voucher and charter schools actually give parents less choice than traditional public schools

 “Public schools are governed by different rules than charter and voucher schools. Most public schools are run by a school board made up of duly-elected members from the community. The school board is accountable to that community. Residents have the right to be present at votes and debates, have a right to access public documents about how tax money is being spent, etc. None of this is true at most charter or voucher schools. They are run by executive boards or committees that are not accountable to parents. If you don’t like what your public school is doing, you can organize, vote for new leadership or even take a leadership role, yourself. If you don’t like what your charter or voucher school is doing, your only choice is to withdraw your child. See ya.”

Today, the charter school movement is nearly unregulated. Charter schools claim to be public schools but if you ask to see how they are spending public money, they claim in court that they are private businesses and we the public have no right to that information. In other words, charter schools are given tax money without any oversight. Of course that is a recipe for fraud and abuse.

Old Town Academy (OTA) made the news in January when it was able to have its charter renewed by SDUSD despite the restraining order against Tom Donahue its founding principal or the fact that OTA had not informed SDUSD that it was now being run by an out of town charter management organization called Tri-Valley.

In the Voice of San Diego’s report we read:

 “Chris Celentino, OTA’s current board chair and one of the school’s founding members, said when the school opened with a class of 180 students, half came from families that would otherwise send their kids to private schools. He attributes OTA’s ability to attract college-educated parents to its challenging and innovative curriculum.”

 And,

 “Whether it’s a product of innovative instruction, or has more to do with the fact that unlike at many traditional district schools, few OTA students live in poverty, test scores have remained consistently above the district average.”

 In addition to being unstable, Old Town Academy is really a publicly financed private school. Many parents do not want their children in school with “those people” so the poorly written charter school law made it possible to set up what is essentially a private school but charge its operating expenses to taxpayers.

In February the San Diego Union reported on the final stage of the Steve Van Zant charter school corruption trial:

 “Steve Van Zant, a key figure in the expansion of charter schools in San Diego County and elsewhere in California, pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony violation of the Political Reform Act. Van Zant’s financial interests in growing independent charters, and his efforts getting them into school districts without notification, have raised questions about widely perceived shortcomings in state law that now even advocates say allow for exploitation. While superintendent of the rural Mountain Empire Unified School District, Van Zant received a stipend through his contract for each charter school the district authorized. The arrangement was in violation of conflict-of-interest laws, said Deputy District Attorney Leon Schorr, who heads the public integrity unit.”

There was no effort here to improve education in California. It was simply greed driven corruption that used a poorly written charter law to purloin tax dollars.

College Preparatory Middle School was one of those out of district schools granted a charter by Steve Van Zant’s Mountain Empire School District. It opened with 83 uniformed students in a church in La Mesa. They now appear to be trying to execute the infamous charter school real estate scam.

The San Diego Union reported on January 31, 2016 that College Preparatory Middle School wants to build a major new facility in Spring Valley. The Union describes the financial proposal:

 “Under the financial arrangement, a Utah charter school developer and a Delaware subsidiary of a real estate trust headquartered in Missouri would finance the project with millions of California education dollars. College Prep would lease the new campus from the financiers for more than $620,000 a year, or 9.5 percent of the project cost. The charter could buy the campus after five years for 125 percent of the projected $6.8 million cost of the project.”

This is not about improving education or providing choice. This is solely about profits.

This year I wrote about the schools controlled by the Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen withdrawing its request for a charter in Oceanside. In California, his schools are called Magnolia Public Schools. There are eleven of them including one at 6365 Lake Atlin Avenue in San Diego, the site of the old Cleveland Elementary School.

Foreign nationals are literally running our schools and it is hard to find a mall that does not have some form of charter learning center trying to lure children into sitting at computers in the mall school. Most of the new charter schools in San Diego are mall cyber schools with some tutoring. They are notoriously poor schools but they are sprouting everywhere because they are profitable.

The charter school movement (aka privatization of public schools) is dangerous for children and for society. It is time to pull the plug on profiteers and fools raiding public coffers.