Archive | May, 2016

Charter Schools Strip Public System

27 May

United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) contracted with MGT of America Consulting, LLC for a report on costs to Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) caused by charter schools. MGT reported, “these data indicate that LAUSD has a nearly $600 million impact from independent charter schools. By far, the most significant financial impact to LAUSD is in the area of declining enrollment lost to charter schools” which they estimated as a “total net revenue loss in 2014-15 $508,280,866.” Within a few days the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) began attacking the report in an open letter to the LAUSD Board of Education.

CCSA said of the report: “This report is riddled with inaccuracies;” “It draws sweeping and often irresponsible conclusions based on limited information and obsolete data;” “It paints a distorted picture of charter schools’ role in L.A. Unified’s financial portfolio;” “Charters are essential to the district’s success.”

A fair reading of the report reveals that MGT’s representative was conservative, clear, careful and reasoned. MGT is a private research firm that has expertise in analyzing school and other governmental systems. They accepted a contract with the UTLA to research a set of specific questions and they do not appear to have a dog in this fight. Conversely, the $15 million budget that California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) has to promote charter schools gives them an undeniable agenda.

CCSA Disputes and Reality

There are 24 findings stated in the MGT report. Each of the findings is explained in some detail and the source of the data is given. The CCSA disputes four of these findings in their open letter. The refutations bring to mind arguments about how many angles can dance on the head of a pin.

CCSA disputed the special education findings. MGT found, “the district has both a higher proportion of special education students than the charter schools (13.4% vs. 8.1%, as of December 2013) and of that proportion, has double the percentage of higher cost ‘Moderate to Severe’ special education students than its charters (30% vs 15%), as reported in the data compiled for the Independent Financial Review Panel report published November 10, 2015.”

CCSA says, “The report uses a number of outdated and erroneous statistics that paint a misleading picture of both the proportion of students with disabilities in charters schools and the fiscal impact on the District.” They claim a “recent analysis” shows the LAUSD over identifies special education students. They also point to data from the Office of the Independent Monitor that shows that LA charter school only served 3% less special education students in 2013-2014 not the 5% difference shown in the report. Why there is a discrepancy between the data provided by the Independent Monitor and LAUSD is not clear. The following chart based on data provided by LAUSD and the state of California indicates for some reason the percentage of charter school students in LAUSD is increasing.

SPED Percent LA

It may be that the CCSA is more worried about possible changes to California law than they are about this report. They stated, “The UTLA/MGT ‘Finding 5’ regarding Proposition 39 oversight fees is false. If a school district, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, charges a pro rata share, the facilities are not substantially rent free and the school district cannot charge the 3% oversight fee.” On this subject the MGT report explains, “LAUSD has fifty-six (56) charter schools currently co-located in LAUSD facilities and has elected to use the “pro rata share” approach for facilities charges. By doing so, the district may have determined it may not also charge the 3% oversight fee. However, the majority of the costs included in the pro rata calculation are direct costs that charters should already be paying that are associated with occupancy of the facilities (e.g. utilities, custodial, trash, grounds, etc.).” It does not look like a false claim at all but just a suggestion for the district to save a few dollars from going into the pockets of CCSA clients.

Poor Law Harming Local Schools

The MGT study illustrates how charter school law in California is fashioned to favor privately operated charter schools over public schools. If a local community passed a bond measure in the 1980’s to build a new public school, it is the law in California that the members of that local community – who still might be paying for that public school – will have no choice but to allow a private operator move into the facility. In addition, the charter school law requires the local school district to incur many direct and indirect costs to support charter schools.

In California, since its statehood, a super-majority (67%) was required to pass a school bond measure. In 2000, after losing an effort that March to mitigate the super-majority rules and the infamous proposition 13 limitations, supporters brought forward proposition 39 that would reduce school-bond super-majorities to 55% and did not seriously threaten proposition 13 protections enacted in 1978. It passed 53% to 47% in November.

In the official ballot summary for proposition 39 in the November 7, 2000 election the support message was signed by Lavonne Mcbroom, President California State PTA; Jacqueline N. Antee, AARP State President; and Allan Zaremerg, President California Chamber of Commerce. The statement against the proposition was signed by Jon Coupal, Chairman Save Our Homes Committee, Vote No on Proposition 39, a Project of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association; Dean Andal, Chairman Board of Equalization, State of California; and Felicia Elkinson, Past President Council of Sacramento Senior Organizations.

This proposition was a battle royal with every media source and elected official bloviating endlessly about the righteousness of their side. However, like in the official ballot measure statements, there was no discussion of the charter school co-location funding requirement in article six of the proposition.

When proposition 39 is coupled with the undemocratic charter authorizing system in California, citizens lose all democratic control of their local schools. With the three levels of government having the power to authorize charter schools it is almost impossible to turn down an charter request no matter how bad the schools previous history is or how inundated a community might be with certain types of schools. As former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch writes:

 “District officials in California have confided in me that it is virtually impossible to stop a charter proposal, no matter how bad it is or how little it is needed. If the district turns down the proposal, the charter advocates appeal to the Los Angeles County School Board, where they are often approved. In the off-chance that both the district and the county turn down their proposal, the advocates appeal to the state, where they are almost certain to win approval.”

CCSA Influencing Elections

Here in San Diego, it appears the CCSA is trying to pack the San Diego County Board of Education with charter school proponents. Four of the five seats on the Board are up for election on June 7. The Voice of San Diego reported, “Nine candidates will vie for the openings, including four incumbents: Gregg Robinson, Mark Anderson, Guadalupe Gonzalez and Rick Shea. All except Shea are community college educators.” And they continue, “CCSA is backing four challengers in the election: [Mark] Powell, Jerry Rindone, Paulette Donnellon and former state Sen. Mark Wyland.”

Evidently the fact that “The County Board denied six of the seven charters it has reviewed since 2011 is a cause for corporate spending. In all of those cases, County Board members went along with the recommendations of staff members who reviewed the document.” The County Board only reviews cases that have already been turned down by local school districts.

Stop Authorizing Charter at Least until Law Fixed

Public education run by democratic processes is a major good. The past two decades of school reform have produced nothing but negative results and profits. The more enthusiastically the corporate and billionaire driven reforms have been embraced the worse the results (see Denver, New Orleans and Washington DC). It is time to stop all new charter school authorizations in California. It is time to reject the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. It is time to embrace professional educators working democratically within local communities to restore public education in America. It is time to protect our great inherited legacy – public education – which is definitely not a privatized market driven education.

Competency Based Education and San Diego

15 May

A May 4 San Diego Unified School District  press release “announced a significant reduction in the amount of high-stakes standardized testing at local schools.” The next day, May 5, former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, wrote on her blog, “I met [SDUSD] Superintendent Cindy Marten when she was a principal. I could see her love for the children and her respect for teachers. For her courage in doing what is best for children, I add her to the honor roll of the blog.” Two days later, May 7, Emily Talmage (educator and blogger from Maine who has notable expertise regarding Competency Based Education, {CBE}) wrote, “A closer look at San Diego Unified’s agenda reveals that instead of shedding corporate-driven, top-down reforms as Ravitch claims, the district is instead embracing the highly profitable yet woefully under-researched 21st century version of ed reform that is rapidly sweeping the nation.” Talmage was referring to CBE.

Looking into the matter myself, I have concluded that both of these women are correct. Cindy Marten has been wonderful and the reduction in testing is real and significant. I work in a school district adjacent to Cindy’s and we too have recently selected a true professional leader who works for good, Karen Janney. Even though both of these women are extraordinary leaders, their school districts are targeted by corporate sponsors of what Emily insightfully labeled “the highly profitable yet woefully under-researched 21st century version of ed reform.”

Cindy Marten and StriveTogether

Talmage implies that Cindy Marten is in league with Bill Gates and his ilk because she is listed as hosting a StriveTogether conference in San Diego, October 2014. StriveTogether uses the creepy subtitle “Every Child. Cradle to Career.” Its parent organization is KnowledgeWorks whose self described purpose is; “Every student experiences meaningful personalized learning that enables him or her to thrive in college, career and civic life.” This means a software driven curriculum delivered by a digital device. KnowledgeWorks has a large corporate sponsorship comprised mainly of companies associated with technology and testing. But I don’t think Marten intended to align herself with StriveTogether or Bill Gates.

In 2011, the Sol Price Foundation started the City Heights Partnership for Children where Marten was serving as principal of Central Elementary. In 2013 the United Way took over management of City Heights Partnership for Children. Marten’s relationship with StriveTogether is through Partnership for Children and United Way. Talmage is correct about StriveTogether being a terrible front for corporate raiders targeting education dollars and Marten should rethink representing Partnership for Children at any events associated with StriveTogether. However, Gates money is ubiquitous and it is difficult to be socially engaged and not have some relationship with organizations that Gates supports; for example the PTA, AFT and NEA.

The 70-person committee tasked with creating a plan for San Diego Unified’s digital path forward last reported in December 2014. One of their goals that they provided to Marten and the school board was “implement competency-based learning and problem-solving-based assessment, aligned with Common Core standards.” This also can be correctly interpreted to mean a software driven curriculum delivered by a digital device and tested on-line.

As a classroom teacher for the past fifteen years, I find these goals reprehensible. Common Core is a set of standards paid for by Bill Gates, copyrighted by a non-profit Bill Gates finances and written by testing corporation employees (mostly College Board and ACT). The standards are poorly written and horribly aligned. Competency Base Education is one of those awful agendas that will facilitate purloining education dollars but sounds reasonable to people who have no significant time in a classroom or have been out of the classroom so long they have forgotten how important the human connection is for a successful learning process.

Daisaku Ikeda, the founder of the Soka Schools, touches on this subject in his book Soka Education, “Recognizing each student as a unique personality and transmitting something through contacts between that personality and the personality of the instructor is more than a way of implanting knowledge: it is the essence of education.” Ikeda also mentioned that Socrates likened this to being “kindled by a leaping spark” between teacher and student. Low cost on-line learning is spiritless, amoral and dead.

Why so much Spending on Technology?

 Education is my fifth career. My previous career was as a researcher in Silicon Valley developing advanced recording devices. I wrote code to run test equipment and take data. The database I developed would handle automatic data inputs and produce presentable reports. I evolved into a technology loving geek. When I became a teacher, it was clear to me that technology was the wave of the future which would significantly improve teaching. I was wrong.

Technologists who are often entrepreneurs; government organizations under the influence of these entrepreneurs; school information technology leaders; and fans of technology form a formidable vanguard of support for the untested belief in the efficacy of digital based education. And when these groups meet, they easily succumb to the dangers of group think.

On October 23, 2015, most of the top technologists in San Diego County schools gathered to brief each other on what they were doing and to learn about new education technologies. The event was billed as a “Market Briefing.” The news release by The Center for Digital Education said. “The Center for Digital Education hosted a Market Briefing event in San Diego, CA. IT leaders from some of the largest districts in San Diego were [on] hand for a special briefing on their technology plans, priorities and focus for the coming years.”

The Center for Digital Education belongs to eRepublic. Take a quick look at the eRepublic web pages and you will learn how eRepublic can help you create and market digital products to all levels of government. They are not education specialist. They are sales facilitators, who understand how to co-opt government employees and make them allies. At conferences like “Market Briefing,” digital tools are seen as unquestionably essential to the path forward for 21st century education.

The Obama administration is 100% on board with Competency Based Education. His department of education has literally hundreds of citations from reports, mostly by think tanks supported by technology companies, which sell the virtues of CBE. The department’s stance on CBE is made clear here:

 “Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.”

This statement is typical of the statements supporting CBE and other digital learning schemes. It is all assertion with no evidence. The Achilles heel of “corporate education reform” continues to be that the evidence does not support the claims.

When the government and corporate America is applying so much pressure for schools to embrace CBE and other digital strategies, it is little wonder that school boards and superintendents acquiesce. This week, the leadership (which I like and respect) in my school district (Sweetwater) announced that the board voted to: “Accept the technology task force recommendation to continue purchasing student devices for grades 9-10, and direct staff to enter into contracts and execute lease agreements for such purchase, and to maintain the iPad program at middle schools for the 2016-2017 school year, and allow the technology task force to continue its work for the 2016-2017 school year.” If they had conducted a more thorough cost benefit analysis, they might have hired more teachers or janitors instead of purchasing I-pads and laptops.

The Sweetwater Union High School District’s technology plan was published in 2014 before the present leadership took the helm. However, it is clear that the push for a 1:1 digital device ratio and facilitating online learning are still being pursued. The evidence supporting these policies in the Technology plan is provided by corporate America. Here is an example:

 “’Schools with a 1:1 student/computer ratio are cutting the dropout rate and reaping this broader benefit.’ On another front, there are the cost-savings associated with reduced printing, copying and paper usage. According to Project RED, ‘It is estimated that high schools where every student has a computer and which use an LMS [learning management system] could cut copy budgets in half. On a national basis that would equate to savings of $400M a year for high schools alone.’” (page 81)

 This is just one of many statements citing Project Red as evidence for these policies. The problem is Project Red in not an independent research organization without an agenda. They are funded by some of the largest companies in the world including Pearson Corporation, a company that hopes to dominate the online education world.

Technology does have a place in education and online learning is possible. But, it cannot be done on the cheap. Computer learning systems that are little more than drill and skill systems are terrible. School leaders need informed educators and constituents to help them protect community schools from corporate greed and government malfeasance. One to one digital policies do not pass a rigorous cost-benefit analysis and Competency Based Education appears to be more scam than legitimate education policy.

A Recommendation for Beyond Measure

1 May

Vicki Abeles, the director of the documentary film “Race to Nowhere”, writes about the damage modern education reform is doing to our children and our culture. Her book, Beyond Measure, subtitled “Rescuing an Overscheduled, Over Tested, Underestimated Generation” jumps into the readers face starting with the amazing poem in the forward and continues gaining powerful momentum through chapter five. Abeles is trained in law and not education and that fact leads to my one criticism; her suggested solution, starting in chapter six, reflects the tendency of those without deep educational experience to discover silver bullets that will fix everything.

Abeles writes, “Without even realizing it, our driving goal has become all about preparing for the college application, not preparing for the college experience or life beyond. Performing, not learning. Amassing credentials, not growing. Not even really living.” (page 7)

She writes of observing her own daughters’ growing stress and of her staying up until midnight or later to do homework. But the event that got her attention was the suicide of 13-year-old Devon Marvin. Devon was viewed as one of the success stories in the community. When her mother Jane investigated Devon’s emails and text messages, the only cause for the suicide appeared to be a math test. “’She was torn up about this math.’ Jane told me. ‘Here’s a child who had always been so successful on so many fronts – and a stupid math grade.’” (page 9)

Abeles explains how eighteen-year-old Emily recounted slipping into deep depression her junior year and contemplating suicide. Here is Emily’s powerful quote that Abeles shares:

 “Junior year is supposedly the most important in high school and my effort just wasn’t going to cut it, not if I wanted to go to a decent college, and without a degree from a top university I was not going to be successful…. I had failed. All those years of late nights studying for AP classes followed by 5 AM water polo or swim practices, what would they come to? Nothing, just like me. In a world where we must excel in not one but many areas, I had not done so in any. I would rather be dead than face the years to come, sure to be filled with constant reminders of my failure. In my mind, there was only one way out.” (page 10)

 After sharing powerful anecdotal evidence, Adele opens chapter one, “Sicker, Not Smarter”, with a quote from Saint Louis University School of Medicine professor and pediatrician Stuart Slavin:

 “My personal feeling is that we are conducting an enormous and unprecedented social experiment on an entire generation of American children, and the evidence of a negative impact on adolescent mental health is overwhelming. This is particularly disturbing given the fact that having mental health problems in the teen years predisposes to mental health problems in adulthood. It is even more profoundly disturbing when one considers that there is absolutely no evidence that this educational approach actually leads to better educational outcomes.” (page 15)

 Abeles developed personal contact with multiple mental health and brain development experts in the writing of this book. She writes:

 “We think of the years from zero to three as the critical period for brain development, but Temple University neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg underscores that adolescence is another one. ‘[T]he brain’s malleability makes adolescence a period of tremendous opportunity – and great risk,’ writes Steinberg. ‘If we expose our young people to positive, supportive environments, they flourish. But if the environments are toxic, they will suffer in powerful and enduring ways.’” (page 31)

 The book takes on many of the bad ideas in education “reform”. She spends chapter three debunking the idea that rigorous daily homework assignments and longer hours are desirable. Among the many pieces of evidence she cites that homework is out of control, harming family life and not valuable is the comparison with Finland. “One of the consistent superstars on this test [PISA], Finland, logs the least homework time – an average of less than 3-hours per week for 15-year-olds (and Finish students spend fewer days and hours each day in school than their American counterparts).” (page 76)

Chapter four is titled “Testing: Learning Beyond the Bubble.” Abeles writes: “The outcome is not, as the tests intended, a good education for all. In fact, it is nearly the opposite. Standardized tests have driven American education into a vise grip of regimentation.” (page 99)

And she makes the cogent point:

 “Policy makers made matters even worse when they attached powerful consequences to standardized test scores – teachers’ job evaluations, schools’ funding, and students’ high school diplomas and college admissions – thereby plunging the entire American education system into a stultifying culture of fear.” (page 100)

 Abeles not only debunks the value of standardized testing but provides evidence of the mental health harm high stakes testing is engendering. She cites the work of Brent Fulton, Richard Scheffler, and Stephen Hinshaw at UC Berkeley who looked into 2015 ADHD rates. They found evidence that rates shot up dramatically with the introduction of high stakes testing. (page 106)

Abeles turned to solutions in chapter 6 and here I have a small criticism. In her research for this book and other projects she became enamored with High Tech High in San Diego. The High Tech High (HTH) program and curriculum evolved from the work of Larry Rosenstock and colleagues in the New Urban High School Project, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Gary Irwin son of Qualcomm founder Jacob Irwin and Bill Gates were the main financiers of the startup of HTH. Gary Irwin is still involved with HTH as the Chair of its board of directors.

HTH uses a constructivist approach to education called problem based learning. At HTH students work with teaching teams that guide 50 students. My friend, Professor Larry Lawrence, toured HTH this March and related observing some of the same attributes Abeles notes. Students were relaxed, happy and seemingly engaged in their projects. However, Professor Lawrence soon noted that the high school only had one math class for all students. This concerned him. A student guide confessed that she did not feel challenged in her math class.

Also, public schools do not have the financial wherewithal to have only 50 students assigned to a team of teachers. This is California where we equitably provide financing for students to attend schools that have teachers serving 180 students each day in classes often exceeding 40 students.

In 2001, I was enrolled in a master’s of education program at UCSD. At the time, I was enamored with Dewey’s constructivist ideas and the problem based approach to teaching. Unfortunately, California state standards and NCLB rules made it impossible for public schools to implement or continue with these ideas.

Today, as I study problem based learning, I perceive that it is not a magic elixir for improving education. It is simply a promising idea that can be implemented along with other teaching strategies.

Not everyone is happy with the preparation of students from HTH because of their somewhat narrow approach to learning. I do not want to denigrate HTH, but some educators have complained that students from HTH are not well prepared for the college classroom. Whatever the reality is, the HTH approach is not the sole “silver bullet.”

The bottom line is that Vicki Abeles’ book is an important work that brings to light many aspects of the terrible damage being done by the test, punish and privatize era of education reform.