There are few public school systems in America that have been more harmed by what Diane Ravich aptly dubbed “corporate education reform” than those in Denver, Colorado. Ciedie Aech tells the story of a professional educator working in the horrific and unstable environment that developed with the extra-legal federal take-over of public schools. In reality, this is a heart wrenching story, but Aech’s sarcastic humor turns it into a delight. Any teacher in America’s public k-12 system who reads “Why is you always got to be trippin” will immediately recognize many scenes Ciedie delightfully paints while telling this dreadful story.
About the Title
“One day when noise from unsupervised students caught my attention, I stepped into the hallway to find a group of boys throwing friendly punches outside a neighboring classroom.
“‘Gentlemen!’ I stated reactively, clearing my throat. Happy to ignore extraneous interference, the boys continued their game. ‘Gentlemen!’ I said again, this time a little more loudly. Straightening, the boys stopped to look my way. ‘Okay, let’s go,’ I directed. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be in class?’ ‘Aw, Miss,’ two or three grumbled as the small group broke up and began to move away. Pulling at chronically sagging pants while smoothing intricately braided hair, a tall, thin young man hung back.
“As a student who had attended one of my afternoon classes for more than six months, he knew me well. Watching his friends now amble unhurriedly down the hall, he turned to look at me in plaintive wonder. ‘Aw, Miss,’ he protested. ‘Why is you always got to be trippin’?’
‘“Why is I always got to be trippin’? …
“If you don’t take pains to hold them together? If you don’t step in, over and over (and then over again) to pull them circuitously inward towards success – sometimes with no other help than the full power of your will? They struggle, they flounder; they deflate and fall apart. Desperately they count upon the people in their lives who make the effort to ‘trip.’”
Background for the Story
If you are a fan of privatizing public schools and corporate education reform, Denver is your cup of tea. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute (one of those “think-tanks” that like the New York Times reports is more like a tax free lobbying firm than an honest evaluator of education policy) rated Denver Public Schools (DPS) the third best school choice system in the United States behind only New Orleans and Washington DC.
In the summer of 2005, Michael Bennet, who had spent the previous 2 years with his fellow Wesleyan alum, John Hickenlooper as chief of the mayor’s staff was appointed Superintendent of DPS. He previously earned a law degree at Yale and was editor of the Yale Law Journal. Prior to working for the mayor and future governor of Colorado, Bennet spent six years as the managing director of the Anschutz Investment Company. However, he had no training or experience as an educator or in education administration.
Two years before Bennet departed to become Colorado’s junior United States Senator, he hired another lawyer with no education background (other than tutoring English in Hong Kong) to be chief operating officer of DPS, Tom Boasberg. Before coming to Denver, Boasberg did a stint at the FCC, then went into the corporate world. When Bennet departed Boasberg who is now a member of Jeb Bush’s Chief for Change was elevated to Superintendent of DPS. Boasberg did obtain an administration credential from the unaccredited Broad Academy in 2009.
Then there is State Senator Michael Johnston another instant education expert from TFA. He is credited with writing the law that requires Colorado teachers to be evaluated by the discredited value added method based on standardized testing. He seems to be yet another elitist from Yale out to destroy public schools (Bennet, Booker, Malloy, King, etc.). The following from Mercedes Schneider paints a clear picture of the modern education privatizing tool:
“In his NCTQ bio, Johnston presents himself as, ‘the founder and former principal of MESA (Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts), a 7-12 Gates funded small high school in north Denver.’ It is increasingly common practice for former TFAers to become instant leaders and entrepreneurs, opening and leading schools without a solid educational foundation but with funding (in the case of Johnston’s school, Gates money). Johnston is a TFAer from Yale, and TFA really likes Yale. His Yale bachelors degree is in a generic major (philosophy); so, like many former TFAers ‘on the climb,’ Johnston made a quick stop to the Broad-financed Harvard Graduate School of Education for one of those educational policy masters degrees TFAers are increasingly fond of brandishing. And make no mistake: Harvard educational policy is all about data driven assessment of supposed “teacher effectiveness.” The Harvard Center for Educational Policy Research is funded by a cadre of now-all-too-familiar reformer foundations, including Broad, Gates, Joyce, and Rodel.”
Just a few miles up highway 36 from Denver is Broomfield, Colorado home of the Walton family established and supervised, Charter School Growth Fund. Carrie Walton Penner, sits on the board of the foundation and Carrie’s husband, Greg Penner, is a director of this non-profit venture capital fund that invests in charter schools. Annie Walton Proietti, niece of Carrie, works for a KIPP school in Denver. KIPP is a system to which the Walton family has donated millions of dollars.
How Ciedie Viewed the Beginning of the Harm
“Proffered up by an unmistakably concerned and oft-professed-liberal activist, this emphatic assertion was accorded an immediate defense through an even yet more logical rationale: ‘I wouldn’t send my children there.’
“Progressive declarations like this one, coming as they did from privileged-class and generally non-minority but avowed open-minded citizens, oh, they just made so much sense – to other privileged-class and generally non-minority but compassionately troubled advocates. Holding test scores high, progressive thinkers waved what they argued to be incontrovertible truth. What had to be done? What was undoubtedly required? Was the immediate “non-negotiable” reformation of our nation’s lowest-income, lowest-scoring schools.”
Ciedie points out:
“When, in the name of a ‘benevolent’ intervention, you assertively malign, label, invade and destabilize those schools where, due to the wide array of issues attached to poverty and cultural disconnect, only around 40 percent of students graduate and move on to find success at a college – ultimately what you are doing in the name of your unprecedented ‘compassion?’ Is making sure that even this small but steady percent of minority students cannot progress and successfully integrate into society.”
Soon after the reform invasion, she noticed:
“With great determination, good educators closed their eyes. Industriously, good teachers taught themselves in an imitation of financially motivated “fixer” administrators; with great tenacity, good teachers refused a direct look at the deregulated chaos now dancing with impunity around an ever realigning array of testing and penalty practices. Hearing, and subsequently spouting, only a cautious reflection of the shallow district, state and federal dogma, good teachers offered up only a passively guarded support for the belligerent doctrine of accountability – a progressively more retaliatory doctrine which, year after year, continued to hold to the incontrovertible fact that: All of those unacceptable test scores?
“Were forevermore, always and only, the product of bad teachers.”
About all the money for reform, Ciedie perceived:
“So. When big money gets thrown around under the socially responsible guise of helping less powerful and politically disenfranchised citizens – benevolently offering that helpful leg up, so to speak; well, it’s a funny but historical trend that quite often this particular kind of money?
“Somehow, sort of, gets redirected.”
In one vignette Ciedie is chatting with a fellow educator. It really hit home with me, because I too teach in a “failing school” with 70% free and reduced lunch and 20% language learners. It was like my personal experience:
“One year, a few days into my Thanksgiving Break, I met up with a friend – a teaching peer who, for the past twenty years, had been employed inside a high-scoring, long-term-stably-administrated secondary school located in the suburbs of a neighboring district. When our conversation predictably turned to issues of education, it immediately became clear that, in the modern age of a low-income school accountability, what we, as public school educators, had each experienced? Diverged dramatically.
“It felt, in fact, a little like discussing educational practices as they existed here on Earth… and somewhere way out in the far reaches of the universe. On Jupiter, maybe. At one point, we paused to count up the non-teaching/nonstudent-contact days we had each had so far that fall.
“She counted two.
“I counted seventeen.”
I loved the following observation because I have been living it for fifteen years:
“Well, now: here’s a little secret. I suppose this could be confidential. I apologize if I’m letting the cat out of the bag.
“But: More inner-city, low-income-school teachers actually, with a full intention, chose to walk into those complicated buildings; chose to work, day after day, inside those low-income, culturally-complex schools; chose to spend year upon year standing right there in front of those so many assertively labeled “difficult” children because they wanted to – than you might think.
“Oh, man. Crazy, huh?”
Ciedie asked the obvious question:
“Why was it, the question kept rising up over the years. Well, why was it that those schools most quickly and aggressively labeled as “drop-out factories” – schools slated for closure or an endless chain of reforms, schools forced through the fatal destabilization of restructure and redesign, schools branded publicly as being underused failures, schools negatively marked with the highly publicized letter grade of an F – well, why was it that such a large percent of these schools (shoot, pretty much all of them) had traditionally served as a home to non-dominant-culture, non-privileged-class, minority students?”
Bell the Cat
A wonderful allegory, that illustrates the folly of corporate education reform:
“Opening our scene, we move in upon a small group of administratively enterprising mice; a group of mice who have had it up to here with the never-ending litany of mouse citizen complaints about a Big Bad Cat: an omnipresent feline willing to wreak ongoing havoc upon poor, defenseless mice. Mouse-world constituents have made it more than clear: They will no longer tolerate such an unremitting harassment. Hence, the intentional meeting of mousey governmental minds.
‘“If only we knew when the cat was coming,’ sighs one contemplative legislator.
“‘A bell,’ offers another: ‘What if a bell was placed around the neck of the cat?’
‘“Yes, yes, a bell!’ A multitude of voices now loudly and animatedly agrees. Ah, the cheers; oh the excitement; and then, my, oh my, the adamantly mandated and heavily earmarked rodent legislation. A bell it shall be. An imperatively necessary warning bell to be placed preemptively around the neck of the cat. What a small, helpless rodent’s dream come true!
“Oh – but then.
“Even with so many well-meaning and supportively exuberant legislators behind this exceptional plan; despite the brashly exacting orders which have been written into massively inflexible laws – well, gosh, as it turns out? Once these proudly enthusiastic little mice have calmed down; once each mouse has taken the time to get a direct look at reality – well, each legislator realizes that not one politician has thought of, nor painstakingly offered up, a true-life proposal for getting that excitingly legislated bell onto the neck of the cat.”
Then Ciedie goes on to make many statements like this:
“However, in modern days; in magically modern days dedicated to the pursuit and procurement of suddenly available and minimally regulated bell-the-cat funding disbursals? Complicatedly diverse school boards comprised of multiple, non-political, equity-minded citizens – citizens who found it necessary to not only listen to, but act upon, the concerns voiced by frustrated educators, students, parents and old-school administrators:
“Well, school boards like these? Really got in the way.”
Which leads to another observation:
“In truly compassionate days bent to the no-waiting miracles of a test-based accountability, it was not simply the mayor, now, but the mayor’s self-proclaimed Superhero Superintendent (two imperial monarchs willing to work side-by-side as an incontrovertible royalty) who both said so. Laboring hand-in-hand; uttering statements as a team – mutually these two powerful leaders could make it unambiguously clear: Both, they now claimed? Were unquestionably on board; both were ready to do whatever was necessary; both were willing, even, to spend an unparalleled amount of that governmental and/or philanthropic funding in their effort to prove just how bad the so many low-income schools placed under their royal jurisdiction: Really were.”
“In days of a statistical liability, it has become increasingly possible to find “public” school districts where the children of not only the superintendent but every member of the school board attend private schools.”
Ciedie enlightens us to what good teacher are;
“Good teachers; well, good teachers, and oh surely this was obvious – even glaringly self-apparent in the fast pace of magical days devoted to a truer national compassion: Good teachers?
“Were young. Oh, very, very young.”
About the TFA influx:
“Despite their designated unreliability; despite, even, their surely ungrateful lack of loyalty for stoically sticking around and “taking” the abuses created by an ever-shifting, funding-lucrative reform – huge numbers of these oft-labeled undependable Teach-For-A-Minute girls (and oh, yes, a lesser number of surely just as undependable Teach-For-A-Minute boys) were now being ever more massively produced.”
A Very Sad Ending for Ciedie and Denver
“I was very assertively and unceremoniously sent home.
“Having no useful case against me save my age, my too often and too liberally expressed opinions, and, most annoyingly, my unhelpful ability to see directly through our district’s more than-a-decade-long loyalty to the implementation of community confusing smoke screens – taking advantage of a union-allowed option for a preemptive and, in days of a faster-and-faster-no-due-process-necessary modern-day evaluation, no concrete evidence required perp-walking/keys-confiscated/no-school-contact-allowed administrative leave – the district commandeered an abruptly unanticipated and overwhelmingly painful mid-year separation from my students, offering neither them nor any of my teaching peers an explanation as, strategically, they installed a brand-new never-taught-before replacement.”
A recent report by The Progressive Policy Institute (another of those tax-free lobbying firms masquerading as a “think-tank”) extols these reforms and brushes over the fact that their own data shows that the racial gaps in Denver’s schools have widened over the last decade.
In a rebuttal, Terrenda White of the University of Colorado, Boulder stated that the report utilized unreliable methods to establish cause and effect relationships. White also pointed out “widening gaps in achievement should have (but did not) temper the report’s call for aggressively expanding school choice as the best strategy for equalizing opportunity.”