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School Choice and White Supremacy like Two Peas in a Pod

9 Aug

By Thomas Ultican 8/9/2020

In Overturning Brown, Steve Suitts provides overwhelming evidence for the segregationist legacy of “school choice.” He shows that “Brown v Board” has been effectively gutted and “choice proved to be the white supremacists’ most potent strategy to defeat it. In the 21st century, that same strategy is being wielded to maintain segregation while destroying the separation of church and state.

(Note: In this article references to “Overturning Brown” given as Suitts page#)

Defeating Brown

On May 17 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Chief Justice Earl Warren stated, “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” He added it is “inherently unequal” and plaintiffs were “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”

A large portion of the United States was not intensely affected by the ruling but in the Deep South, the response was hostility and a determination to fight. Southern politicians organized a “massive resistance” movement. In Jackson Mississippi, the editor of the Jackson Daily news declared, “This is a fight for white supremacy” (Suitts 31).

Governors and state legislators established commissions or committees “to develop options for preserving segregation.” (Suitts 18)

Wallace and Connor

People like Mississippi Senator James Eastland, Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor and Alabama Governor George Wallace are well remembered for their egregious support of “white supremacy.”

Eastland who served in the US Senate for 30-years stated, “I have no prejudice in my heart, but the white race is the superior race and the Negro race an inferior race and the races must be kept separate by law.”

Bull Connor employed Birmingham firemen and policemen using water hoses and police dogs against African-American demonstrators. It was after his arrest during those demonstrations that Martin Luther King wrote his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. He stated in the missive, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

In 1958, John Patterson, bested George Wallace for Governor of Alabama. Patterson, a proven segregationist and former Alabama attorney general, had attempted to put the NAACP out of business through a series of harassing lawsuits. The loss prompted Wallace to vow, “No other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” (Suitts 26)

In 1963, Wallace won the Alabama Governor’s office. In his inaugural address, he attacked governmental overreach in Washington DC and “the illegal 14th amendment.” That is the amendment to the constitution that guarantees all citizens “equal protection under the law.” It was the central argument under-girding the Supreme Court’s “Brown” decision. In the address written by soon to be Klan leader Asa Carter (Suitts 26), Wallace famously called for “segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.”

These infamous segregationists were not decisive in stopping what they called the “forced mixing” of students in school. It was the committees and commissions with their schemes for school choice leading to “virtual segregation” that effectively frustrated “Brown”.

Soon after the “Brown” decision, Alabama’s Boutwell Committee reported their plan which aimed for “virtual segregation.” The report decried “forced integration” claiming it would lead to “violence, disorder, and tension for the state and its children.” (Suitts 20)

The primary intellectual force behind the plan was a corporate attorney in Birmingham, Forney Johnston. He was a staunch segregationist who represented Alabama’s Big Mules:” coal, railroads, wealthy industrialists and investors. (Suitts 19)

The Boutwell plan posited four basic strategies for stopping compulsory “mixing” of races in schools. The key to the plan was school choice and not mentioning race as a reason for not admitting a student. The four main points:

  • Eliminate all prohibitions against the operation of mixed schools.
  • Remove from the state constitution any suggestion that there is a right of education and an obligation of the state to fund public school children. The state is to promote education in a manner and extent consistent with available resources, and the willingness and ability of the individual students.
  • Give local school officials the power to refuse admission to individuals or groups whose scholastic deficiencies would compel undue lowering of school standards.
  • Provide vouchers and other tax funds for both black and white children. (Suitts 21)

The plan called for a school choice system that enabled children “to attend all-White schools, all-Black schools, or desegregated schools in a state-financed system of public and private schools.” They called it the “Freedom of Choice Plan.”

The editor of the Montgomery Adviser called it “manicured Kluxism.” The plan was ratified by 61% of Alabama voters in 1956. (Suitts 22)

Southern segregationists often “condemned integration as the work of communists.” (Suitts 32) Adopting the language of University of Chicago libertarian economist Milton Friedman, they began denouncing the “monopoly of government schools” calling them “socialism in its purest form.” (Suitts 59)

By 1965, most voucher programs adopted in Southern states had been declared unconstitutional including indirect expenditures such as tax credits. (Suitts 49) Sill it is estimated that by the 1980s in the eleven states of the former Confederacy as much as 75% of private school white students were virtually segregated. (Suitts 64)

Cornell’s Professor Noliwe Rooks noted in Cutting School that using the federal government’s economic power finally broke the back of state-sanctioned segregation in the South. Rooks shared, “By 1973, almost 90 percent of southern schoolchildren attended integrated schools.”

Re-segregating America’s Schools

When nominating Ronald Reagan in 1984, the Republican Party platform stated its opposition to busing for desegregation, support of private school tuition tax credits and vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools. It was the first time a major political party had called for vouchers.

In his acceptance speech, President Regan asserted, “We must continue the advance by supporting discipline in our schools, vouchers that give parents freedom of choice; and we must give back to our children their lost right to acknowledge God in their classrooms.” (Suitts 72)

Steve Suitts observed:

“…, the southern states’ first plan for defeating court-ordered desegregation, the one that Johnston and Boutwell devised in 1954 in Alabama, is exactly what today’s advocates and supporters of vouchers seek to implement: no compulsory ‘race-mixing’ in schools and no mention of any intent to discriminate. What could be more American than the freedom of parents to choose their children’s school – private or public – with public financial support? (Suitts 91)

Segregation by caste and segregation by class are the two common types of segregation. Caste segregation is by skin tone and class segregation is by economics.

With class segregation, it is perfectly acceptable for a few Black and Brown students to be in a school with a majority of White students if their parents hold the requisite wealth. Both types of segregation are harmful to all students.

The 1975 Supreme Court decision, Milliken versus Bradley, struck down inter-district remedies to segregation. Professor Jack Schneider of the University of Massachusetts claims this decision was the “beginning of the end of school desegregation.” He stated, “In determining that school districts could not be compelled to integrate students across their borders, Milliken dramatically narrowed the promise of the 1954 Brown v. Board case.”

In his Milliken dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall stated, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

Public School Enrollment by Race Graphic

Brookings Chart Shows Growing Pluralism in American Schools

A paper from the Brookings Institute says, “School districts and metro areas that were released from court-ordered desegregation plans during the 1990s and 2000s showed a marked trend towards greater segregation, especially in the South.”

On the subject of desegregation trends, a Civil Right Project report from UCLA added,

“These trends began to reverse after a 1991 Supreme Court decision made it easier for school districts and courts to dismantle desegregation plans. Most major plans have been eliminated for years now, despite increasingly powerful evidence on the importance of desegregated schools.” (Emphasis Added)

In the 2002 Supreme Court ruling Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the court ruled that publicly funded vouchers could be used to send children to religious schools providing that certain constitutional prerequisites were met. The divided court’s 5-4 decision allowed for taxpayers being forced by state law to send their dollars to religious schools.

In the Espinosa decision handed down this year, the Supreme Court again split 5-4 along what looks more like political lines than lines of legal judgment. Their decision means that if a state gives money to any private schools it cannot refuse money to religious schools.

Last week leaders of the Catholic Church in America penned an opinion piece championing a federal bailout. Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Gómez called for help with their fiscal problems. They stated,

“The most effective and immediate way to accomplish this is to fund scholarship assistance this summer to families who are economically disadvantaged and need such support. The scholarships would be used at Catholic or other non-government elementary or secondary schools. This approach would be similar to providing Pell grants that can be used at any institution of higher education, including religious institutions.”

In her fascinating book The Good News Club, Katherine Stewart quotes President Ulysses S. Grant’s diametrically opposite advice from that of the Catholic Church leaders. He said in 1876,

“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”

Last fall, the Urban Institute studied where school segregation occurs. They concluded, “Holding school size constant, private and charter schools tend to have higher average contributions to segregation than traditional public schools.”

In the 1990s, charter schools first appeared. Since then, they have been significantly contributing to the re-segregation of America’s K-12 schools. A Brookings Institute study of segregation in schools reported,

“Charter schools are more segregated than TPS [traditional public school] at national, state, and metro levels. Black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. At the national level, 70 percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools (which enroll 90-100 percent of students from under-represented minority backgrounds), or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools.”

The growth of both charter schools and private schools has engendered growing segregation among America’s school children. This trend portends a divided inefficient society.

Professors Linda R. Tropp and Suchi Saxena along with many other sociologists and educators have conducted research identifying the clear benefit of and need for school integration. They state, “New social science research demonstrates the importance of fostering sustained interracial contact between youth in order to prepare them to thrive in a multiracial society.”

A research brief by Professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley of Virginia Commonwealth University states,

“What is clear, however, is that racially diverse schools are not linked to negative academic outcomes for white students. And in a number of subjects, like math and science, diverse educational settings are consistently linked to higher test scores for whites. One analysis of 59 social science articles related to school composition effects on mathematics outcomes found, for instance, that math out-comes were higher at every grade level for students from all racial and SES backgrounds who attended racially and socioeconomically integrated schools.”

Conclusions

Steve Suitts book Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement is strongly recommended for anyone interested in American education history or school policy.

To reverse the re-segregation of schools in America, stopping public school privatization is necessary.

The separation of church and state must be reestablished.

Infamous John Deasy Resigned under Suspicious Circumstances Again

29 Jul

By Thomas Ultican 7/29/2020

April 21, the Stockton Unified School District (SUSD) board accepted John Deasy’s letter of resignation effective June 15, 2020. His quitting mid-contract marked the third straight superintendent position he ended in a similar fashion. All three time, the resignation came with ethical charges and legal suspicions.

Stockton, California, was a gold rush town established in 1849. Situated 75 miles down the San Joaquin River from the Golden Gate Bridge at the north end of the San Joaquin valley, it is the farthest inland deep water port in California. Several waterfront scenes for the movie “On the Waterfront” were shot there.

Brando on the Waterfront

Brando “On the Waterfront” in Stockton 1954

Stockton is a small city of about 315,000 people and one of America’s most diverse. The demographic makeup is 42.1% Hispanic, 21.6% Asian, 20.8% White and 11.8 % Black. The city has a more than a 20% poverty rate; however, SUSD reports that 82% of their students live in poverty. The district enrolls 40,000 students into 54 schools.

Why Deasy resigned is not clear. Upon his resignation the 209 Times reported,

“Controversial superintendent John Deasy is out of Stockton Unified School District effective June 15th after agreeing to resign tonight amidst an investigation sources tell us into his actions and possible conflict of interests regarding a contract between board trustee Lange Luntao and the organization he is director of on behalf of Mayor Michael Tubbs, Reinvent Stockton Foundation.”

Bob Highfill of Record Net observed that there has been a 4-3 split on the school board for some time, which was reflected in the 4-3 decision to accept Deasy’s resignation. Board member Scot McBrian said that until this year he had been happy with Deasy’s work.

However, recently Deasy pushed for a $2 million waiver of development fees for a low-income housing project within the district. The reduction in fees to the school district was part of a project being pushed by Stockton Mayor Tubbs. When he did not get the required votes, an angered Deasy reworded the proposal and submitted it again. It was voted down again 4-3.

McBrian also mentioned problematic issues with the unions, the addition of six charter schools and a simultaneous roll-out of English and math curricula objected to by a number of teachers. Controversies surrounding the superintendent were mounting at the time of his resignation.

A 209 Times investigative article delved into the push to privatize public schools in Stockton and the three board member allies Deasy had helping him:

    1. “SUSD Trustee AngelAnne Flores is a current employee of Aspire Charter Schools in Stockton, and is part of a public alliance and voting block along with Lange Luntao and Candelaria Vargas. 
    2. “Lange Luntao is not only the best friend of Mayor Michael Tubbs …, but also simultaneously an SUSD Trustee and the Executive Director of Reinvent Stockton Foundation which is also the “Stockton Schools Initiative” and “Stockton Scholarship”. The Reinvent Stockton Foundation also has a contract with SUSD to farm data of students as well as promote their “stockton scholarships” scheme. 
    3. “Candelaria Vargas, is married to Max Vargas who is the personal assistant for Mayor Tubbs who endorsed and pushed for all three of these Trustees to be elected.

“All three of these SUSD Trustees are not only part of the “Reinvent” network, but are also members of an organization called School Board Partners that are seeking to push a Wall Street inspired “Portfolio” model of big corporate charter schools under the guise of “reform”, in “urban” cities across America including Stockton.”

In 2018, when billionaires John Arnold and Reed Hastings put up $100 million each to found The City Fund, other organizations they support were repurposed. Education Cities was divided into two new school choice promoting organizations, the above mentioned School Board Partners and Community Engagement Partners.

DoWopDonDon Shalvey (twitter handle @doWopDon), who joined with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to found Aspire Charter Schools in 1998, has been working to enhance charter school penetration in Stockton. Today, Aspire is one of three charter schools looking to expand in Stockton. Shalvey left his post as the Gates Foundation Deputy Director of Education Programs, to lead the A+ non-profit organization in Stockton supporting Charter School growth.

As part of their investigation, the 209 Times reviewed and published emails between Shalvey, Deasy and others. They concluded, “What was hidden from the SUSD Board Members was the intimate relationship and secret communications the Superintendent had with Mr. Shalvey and his associates, which led to the fast-tracking of 6 Charter School petitions in SUSD, which were all amazingly approved via Consent Agenda – eliminating any discussion or input from the public.”

Deasy and Tubbs

John Deasy and the Mayor Providing Local Political Support

Mayor Michael Tubbs, a youthful African-American politician, was extremely angered by Deasy’s departure and blamed the four member faction that opposes his personal agenda. Tubbs stated,

“Given the gravity of the circumstances, there should be a serious discussion about whether Mendez and McBrian should be recalled, which I would be in favor of. I’ve heard from community members that are interested in considering a recall and I would be in 100% in favor of that. Our kids deserve nothing less than the best.”

There is a recall the school board effort underway in Stockton.

The obvious question is does Mayor Tubbs realize he has adopted the education agenda of US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the very conservative Walton Family Foundation and the ultra-conservative libertarian mogul Charles Koch? Does Tubbs understand that he has embraced education policies Cornell’s Professor of African-American studies, Noliwe Rooks, derisively labels “segrenomics”; the profiting from selling education to segregated poor communities?

A Legacy of Controversy and Ethical Issues

In 2004, reporter Juliet McShannon writing for the Lookout News in Santa Monica, California noted, “Controversy seems to follow John Deasy.” At the time he had been leading Santa Monica Unified School district for almost three years.

Deasy came to Santa Monica after a five year stint as Superintendent of Coventry School District in Rhode Island. At the relatively small district of 6000 students, Deasy obtained one of the first small school development grants given out by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He also made national news when he launched a “pay for performance” initiative with Coventry teachers.

Standardized testing became his main metric for evaluating teachers, and he terminated the contracts of a number of teachers who did not meet his expectations.

In April 2001, Deasy abruptly resigned from Coventry effective June 1 to take the superintendent’s job in Santa Monica. He left behind financial problems and a small district that did not have time to find a new leader for the 2001-02 school year.

In 2006, Deasy graduated from Eli Broad’s superintendent’s training academy, which trains its candidates in a market-based data driven methodology. Billionaire Eli Broad is well known for his determination to privatize public education.

Deasy left Santa Monica to become superintendent of the very large Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland, the largest majority African-American county in the United States. This would be the first of three straight superintendents’ positions he would resign under suspicious circumstances.

When he arrived in Maryland, Deasy immediately started promoting charter schools and a teacher “pay for performance” agenda.

There was buzz in the area. Baltimore had Andres Alonzo firing teachers and closing schools and just a few miles the other way Michelle Rhee was promising to “fix” Washington DC’s schools by firing teachers and principals. These three superintendents were given the undeserved label “reformers.” It has become clear that they were just “disrupters.”

After two years on the job in Maryland, Deasy resigned.

That October 2008, the Baltimore Sun’s Liz Bowie speculated, “John Deasy is denying there’s any connection, but many people in the education community will continue to wonder whether the Prince George’s County superintendent would be moving on if there hadn’t been a dust-up in the past several weeks over how he got his doctoral degree.”

Bowie reported that “Deasy had been awarded a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Lousville in 2004 although he had only completed nine credits, or about a semester, there.” She also noted that Deasy had given his advisor, Robert Felner, a $125,000 contract from Santa Monica Unified and that Felner’s group received a total $375,000.

On September 29, 2008, a press release stated “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced today that Dr. John E. Deasy has been named deputy director of its education division within its United States Program.”

Two years later, with a big push from Eli Broad and the LA Mayor he politically supported, Antonio Villaraigosa, Deasy was hired as Deputy Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). In January, 2011, he was named Superintendent.

At the time, other billionaire groups were also spending to influence the district. The LA-based Wasserman Foundation gave a $4.4 million grant, another $1.2 million came from the Walton Family Foundation, and smaller grants came from the Ford and Hewlett foundations to pay the salaries of more than a dozen key senior staffers in the district.

The staffers were working to advance the market-based data driven school reform agenda, charter schools, testing and competition.

Controversy came to LAUSD soon after Deasy took charge. When he walked into a classroom at Washington Preparatory High School being led by substitute teacher Patrena Shankling, he got into a dispute with her over the quality of the lesson plan and fired her on the spot. When a school teacher was implicated in an ugly sex scandal at Miramonte Elementary school, Deasy removed the entire staff from janitor to principal completely ignoring due process but gaining tough-guy headlines.

Deasy pushed charter school expansion and implementation of education technology. Two technology agendas appear to have led to his demise as Superintendent. He rolled out a completely incompetent student digital data system. It failed at scheduling students for classes, recording attendance and inputting grades; it was a disaster. But his I-pad fiasco was worse because it brought legal charges and an investigation by the FBI.

There were many things wrong with the $1.3 billion plan to put I-pads in the hands of every student but the suspicion that the bidding had been rigged put Deasy in legal jeopardy. Emails showed that he had been in negotiations with Apple and curriculum provider Pearson before any competitive bidding process started.

Interim Superintendent Ramon Corzine noted the bidding process had been plagued by “too many innuendoes [and] rumors.”

Deasy resigned before the legal investigation by the FBI and LA County District attorney got under way. This time the Broad Academy stepped in to hire him as “superintendent-in-residence.” That was in 2015.

In 2018, Deasy was off to be Superintendent in Stockton, resigning this year with ethical and legal malfeasance charges mounting.

Reopening Schools Issues and Evidence

21 Jul

By Thomas Ultican 7/21/2020

The President of the United States and his Secretary of Education have demanded schools open with in-person classes five days a week. Many parents are not confident their children will be safe and significant numbers of teachers are profoundly frightened. How does the rhetoric square with credible scientific evidence concerning the Covid-19 pandemic?

President Trump has tweeted,

“In Germany, Denmark, Norway,  Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”

Michelle Goldberg of the NY Times wrote, “… with their crude attempts at coercion, they’ve politicized school reopening just as Trump politicized mask-wearing and hydroxychloroquine.”

Goldberg goes on to cite American Federation of Teacher President, Randi Weingarten, as saying the administration just made reopening schools more difficult. Randi described Trumps threats to withhold school funding as “empty, but the distrust they have caused is not.”

Weingarten also reported hearing from many teachers who are concerned that reopening would be done rashly.

In an USA Today opinion piece, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the President of America’s largest teachers’ union, charged, “… the Trump administration’s plan is appallingly reckless.” She also points out that the vast majorities of American schools have not returned to their 2008 funding levels and have lain off more than 300,000 employees.

Garcia argues that the Covid-19 induced revenue crisis is making opening schools safely impossible during the accelerating contagion.

Officials within the Trump administration are confidently claiming opening schools can be done safely. At a White House conference on reopening schools, Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services stated, “We can get back to school safely.” Regarding concerns that many schools do not meet Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidance, he stated, “CDC guidance is guidance and no-one should use it not to reopen schools.”

At the same conference, the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Dr. Sally Goza, said AAP “strongly advocates schools open safely.” She stated that “children are less likely to be infected” and “less likely to spread the virus.”

Goza contends that it is critically important for students to be physically present as long as safety measures can be maintained. She added that schools need more resources.

President Trump’s top economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, recently stated, “If we don’t reopen the schools that would be a setback to a true economic recovery.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says “It’s not a matter of if schools should reopen, it’s simply a matter of how.”

The Department of Education under DeVos’s leadership is pushing back against charges that they are politicizing school opening. A released statement said, “if anyone is politicizing this issue it’s the unions, who are Democrats’ operatives, who are fear-mongering and denying the science that says it’s safe and better for kids’ overall health to be back in school.”

Republican state administrations in Iowa and Florida have mandated that all schools in their states reopen 5-days a week with in person instruction.

In California, Democratic Governor, Gavin Newsom has ordered all schools in counties on the coronavirus “watch list” to open online only. That covers about 80% of the students in the nation’s most populous state.

The Washington Post’s Matt Viser reports that Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden has called for flexibility with reopening schools. Biden asserts, “If we do this wrong, we will put lives at risk and set our economy and our country back.”

Viser sums up Biden’s just released plan,

“Biden urged caution, saying that each district should make its own decisions based on local conditions, and that schools in areas with high infection rates should not reopen too soon. He also called on Congress to pass new emergency funding to help the schools.”

These confusing claims and counterclaims motivate looking into the best evidence the scientific community can provide.

What the Evidence Shows

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that “science should not stay in the way of school reopening.” She cited a Journal of the American Medical Association pediatrics study that found the risk of critical illness from Covid-19 for children is far less than the seasonal flu.

She stated, “The science is on our side here.” And added that states need to “simply follow the science” and open schools.

However, McEnany, did not make it clear that the study she cited involved just 48 children treated in U.S. and Canadian intensive care units. It is true that most were not critically ill but 18 needed ventilator treatment and two died.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, has noted that several studies from Europe and Asia have suggested that young children are less likely to get infected and to spread the virus. However, he says like the study McEnany cited, those studies are mostly small and flawed.

There is a new study that Dr. Jha describes as “one of the best studies we’ve had to date on this issue.”

The CDC has posted the study, Contact Tracing during Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, South Korea, 2020”, to its website. This large scale study looked at 59,073 contacts traced from 5,706 covid-19 confirmed patients between January 20 and March 27, 2020.

Korean Study Table 2

Korean Study Data Table Indexed by Patient Age

The important point in this table is that infants do transmit covid-19 but at a lower rate (between 1.3% and 13.7%). However, middle school and high school aged children transmitted the disease at a rate equal to all of the older groupings.

In the paper’s literature study, the authors observe, “… a recent report from Shenzhen, China, showed that the proportion of infected children increased during the outbreak from 2% to 13%, suggesting the importance of school closure.”

Schools have been reopening in various countries since this spring. A key characteristic that countries reopening schools took into consideration was virus transmission rates. Solid testing regimes and contract testing were believed essential.

The following table used reopening transmission rates data from a post by Dr. Nan Fulcher and Justin Parmenter plus the transmission rates for July 17th which were derived using the John Hopkins University Covid-19 Dashboard and Worldometer population data.

Covid Per 10,000 Foreign table

All of the counties in the table above with the exception of Israel have maintained low transmission rates while opening schools. In the Israeli case, The University of Washington Department of Global Health reports,

“Two weeks after school re-opening, COVID-19 outbreaks were observed in classrooms, including 130 cases in one school alone. By June 3, there were 200 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 244 positive SARS-CoV-2 tests among students and staff across multiple schools.”

“Due to the crowded nature of the schools system, physical distancing of students within schools has not been widely adopted and control measures have focused on closing schools with reported cases, extensive testing, and quarantine of students and staff with a potential SARS-CoV-2 exposure.”

In his push to reopen schools, President Trump claims that many countries reopened school with no problem. That seems to be mostly true, however, it omits saying many counties did have issues. New Century Foundation Fellow, Connor Williams notes,

Aside from some early public-health setbacks, France has been able to keep schools open. But other communities have not been so lucky. Israel reclosed some schools after a spike in covid-19 cases. Beijing recently shuttered its schools again as the pandemic returned.”

While it does seem possible to safely reopen schools based on the experience of countries around the globe, the United States faces two major unresolved obstacles; facilities need upgrading and transmission rates need to be controlled.

The following Covid-19 transmission rates were calculated using data from Wikipedia’s 2020 population estimates and the John Hopkins Covid-19 Dashboard.

Covid Per 10,000 table

In addition to this data showing that in most states the Covid-19 transmission rates are ghastly, school facilities on average are in terrible shape.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine just issued guidance for reopening schools. The Academies chair for the study, Enriqueta Bond, stated, “One of the shocks to me is that over 50 percent of the school buildings are awful.”

New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli shared in a report on the Academies’ guidance, “Some 54 percent of public school districts need to update or replace facilities in their school buildings, and 41 percent should replace heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems in at least half of their schools, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office.”

The Academies guidance says the cost of retrofits will total approximately $1.8 million for a school district with eight school buildings and around 3,200 students.

The evidence shows that most of America is not ready to reopen schools. The retrofits have not been started and the needed financing has not been approved. Transmission rates are out of control.

The Conclusion of Professionals

New York public school teacher, Christine Vaccaro, published an opinion piece in USA Today. Her ending statement is prescient:

“Abandoned by any semblance of national leadership during a raging pandemic, students, teachers and staff are being told to jump into the deep end and return to school buildings. They will be risking their lives and their families’ lives, and endangering their communities to do so. All the precious time and resources spent to implement hybrid models and social distancing protocols will be washed away with the building’s first positive COVID-19 case. Then it will be a hard pivot back home, using the same scattershot remote learning practices developed in an emergency.

“That is why the smartest, most practical strategy is marshaling energy and dollars into developing as robust and equitable a remote learning plan as possible. This is far from ideal. We know remote teaching is not even remotely teaching. But it will save lives, offer the most consistent education for our children this fall — and provide a solid foundation on which to build a stronger hybrid model, later in the year.”

New Century Foundation Fellow, Connor Williams, ended his article succinctly,

It’s time to face the central fact of a pandemic: There’s no way to pretend our way around flattening the curve. Until we actually stop the virus’s spread, efforts to reopen schools in most communities will fail.”

Don’t Sacrifice Teachers and Students to a Neoliberal God

8 Jul

By Thomas Ultican 7/8/2020

The US is not ready to open schools. We blew it. Let’s face reality squarely and quit making outcomes in our country even worse.

New York’s Michael Flanagan Ed. D. wrote,

“The pressure to reopen schools, and return to work, will continue to intensify, no matter how many new cases of Covid-19 there are each day, and the numbers are growing. Businesses, politicians and even health professionals are in the process of trying to convince us that sending our kids back to school will be safe.”

As if to prove Flanagan’s claim, Harvard’s “Education Next” published a Frederick Hess interview with Jeb Bush where he repeatedly emphasized,

“First and foremost, schools have to open with the health and safety of our students and teachers being paramount. But they have to open, or we will have huge economic, health, and social challenges.”

Not to be outdone by “low energy Jeb”, the President of the United States employed his normal elegance when tweeting,

“Schools in our country should be opened ASAP. Much very good information now available.”

Republican Congressmen, Jim Banks of Indiana and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, have introduced the Reopen Our Schools Act. Congressman Banks declared,

“Reopening our schools is the lynchpin to reopening our economy. Many parents rely on their kids going to school so they can go to work. To get our society up and running again, we need our children back in school.”

The Economist claims schools should be the first economic institutions to reopen and added,

“Those who work at home are less productive if distracted by loud wails and the eerie silence that portends jam being spread on the sofa. Those who work outside the home cannot do so unless someone minds their offspring.”

These neoliberal forces are promoting the idea that teachers and children must be thrust into an unsafe environment so the world’s economic engines can continue providing decent return on investment. Make no mistake, face to face teaching during this pandemic without proper conditions is fraught with danger.

Political leaders know that so they are racing to pass legislation indemnifying schools from legal liability.  In California, Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, and his coauthor State Senator Susan Rubio, D-LA, introduced AB1384 to shield schools. O’Donnell made this ludicrous statement,

“We need to do everything we can to protect the students, and the schools. My bill will indemnify school districts as long as they follow all the state and local health directives. We still want school districts to use best practices when it comes to student safety.”

In May, Mitch McConnell announced that the US Senate was taking up legislation to protect schools from lawsuits. He stated, “Can you image the nightmare that could unfold this fall when K-12 kids are still at home, when colleges and universities are still not open?”

When it comes to political malfeasance, Florida is determined not to be outdone. Richard Corcoran, Commissioner of Education, is the former Speaker of the House and a charter school owner.  On Monday, he released an order stating, “Upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students …”

The forced school reopening amounts to a conscription putting teachers, students and families at risk. Florida trails only New York and California in confirmed Covid-19 cases and Miami-Dade County is a national leader in cases. At this time, Covid-19 cases in the state are spiking to new record levels.

Obviously, Commissioner Corcoran’s order ignores health and safety. It is driven solely by a neoliberal ideology valuing commercial enterprise above human life.

Could-a Should-a Would-a

If the United States had acted decisively in late February and shut down businesses, instituted robust testing, contact tracing and social distancing, we probably could safely open schools now. It is also likely that more than 120,000 victims of the virus would be alive today.

Even in March when it became clear to everyone but a fringe element that we had a huge problem, a united response led by the federal government would have put us in position to reopen in-school education.

Instead of a united effort to effectively meet the Sars-CoV-2 crisis, we experienced politicization and demagoguery.

By the end of March, California had an effective shutdown in place with almost universal cooperation. Then ultra-conservative media started agitating against the shut down.

Purported healthcare professionals like neurosurgeon, Russell Blaylock, started discouraging mask wearing as did the discredited Irish scientist Delores Cahill.

In late April, The Conservative Daily Post reported on claims by two Bakersfield, California emergency room doctors, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi. These doctors from Accelerated Urgent Care claimed that the nationwide lockdown policies are not an appropriate reaction to the “China-originated novel coronavirus” and were causing other healthcare problems to be ignored.

Kristi Noem, the Republican Governor of South Dakota, publically opposed CDC health guidelines saying, “I believe in our freedoms.” This happened just days after the President of the United States took to twitter and attacked the Democratic governors of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, calling for their states to be liberated.

Trump Liberate tweet

Attack on Governor Gretchen Whitmer for Implementing CDC Guidelines in her State

This constant degrading of the public response to Covid-19 led to more people joining in protest against state policies. Soon conservative groups were demanding that schools be reopened immediately.

LA Times Open Schools Gaphic

This Los Angeles Times Picture was taken in Orange County May 9, 2020

Because our response to the novel coronavirus was undermined, states do not meet the safety criteria for opening schools.

The Whitehouse has created an opening America website with proposed state or regional gating criteria.  They include:

“Downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) reported within a 14-day period AND Downward trajectory of covid-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period”

“Ability to quickly set up safe and efficient screening and testing sites for symptomatic individuals and trace contacts of COVID+ results”

“Ensure sentinel surveillance sites are screening for asymptomatic cases and contacts for COVID+ results are traced (sites operate at locations that serve older individuals, lower-income Americans, racial minorities, and Native Americans)”

“Ability to quickly and independently supply sufficient Personal Protective Equipment and critical medical equipment to handle dramatic surge in need”

America’s schools do not meet these “gating criteria.” Covid-19 infections in the United States are accelerating, so out of control that testing with contact tracing is not possible. The following Johns Hopkins graphic makes it clear that this situation will not ameliorate quickly.

Johns Hopkins World Comparison

The Johns Hopkins Graph is Normalized to Daily Cases per Million

Teachers and Students Will Not Be Safe

Neil Demause of Fairness & Accuracy Reporting wrote on July 3rd about opening businesses. He shared,

“Infectious disease experts say that offices can be the perfect petri dishes for viral spread, involving gatherings of a large number of people, indoors, for a long time, with recirculated air. As one study (Business Insider4/28/20) of a coronavirus outbreak at a Seoul call center showed, the virus can quickly spread across an entire floor, especially in a modern open-plan office.”

It is easy to extrapolate the Korean call center to the local 3rd grade classroom.

Dartmouth Immunologist Erin Bromage states, “We know that at least 44% of all infections–and the majority of community-acquired transmissions–occur from people without any symptoms (asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people).” Professor Bromage also notes, “Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures.”

Pennsylvania educator Steven Singer observed, “And even if young people are mostly asymptomatic, chances are good they’ll spread this thing to the rest of us.” The paper Steven cited also states, “Although  clinical  manifestations  of  children’s  COVID-19  cases  were generally less severe than those of adults’ patients, young children, particularly infants, were vulnerable to infection.”

On Monday, The Daily Mail reported, “As many as half of coronavirus patients with NO symptoms may silently suffer ‘disturbing’ lung damage that leaves them oxygen-deprived without knowing it, study finds.”

Education professionals have been publishing concerns recently.

Rutgers University’s Mark Weber Ed. D. posted “How Schools Work: A Practical Guide for Policymakers During a Pandemic.” His list is not exhaustive but it gives the laymen an idea of the practicalities involved with doing school. It includes:

“The typical American school cannot accommodate social distancing of their student population for the duration of the school day.”

“Children, especially young children, cannot be expected to stay six feet away from everyone else during an entire school day.”

“Children cannot be expected to wear masks of any kind for the duration of a school day.”

The author and special education expert, Nancy Bailey, recently posted, 22 Reasons Why Schools Should NOT Reopen in the Fall.Among the 22 were:

“2. How Will the Flu and Covid-19 Tango?… Last January, before Covid-19 became well known, 27 children had died of the flu. What will the dance of these two illnesses look like in the fall?”

“8. Cost for Safety: The Council of State Chief School Officers estimate that schools will need $245 billion to safely reopen.”

“18. School Restrooms: … School bathroom conditions have always been a source of concern.”

“19. Teacher Qualifications: There are not enough teachers for smaller classes for social distancing. Experienced older teachers may not want to get sick. Will schools hire a glut of teachers without qualifications?”

Oakland, California high school history teacher and union organizer, Harley Litzelman, published “Teachers: Refuse to Return to Campus.”  He addressed among other issues, the likely large loss of teachers to the ill-fated open-schools-on-campus-now policy. Litzelman shared,

“A USA TODAY/Ipsos poll found that one in five teachers say they are unlikely to return to campus next year, signaling a tsunami of resignations. Chicago middle school teacher Belinda Mckinney-Childrey told ChalkBeat that “I can’t chance my health to go back. I love my job, I love what I do, but when push comes to shove, I think the majority of us will be like ‘I think we’re going to retire.’” Also, this is personal; my fiancée has serious asthma. She’s the best middle school English teacher I know, but she won’t teach next year if she’s forced to return to campus.”

Merrie Najimy, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, participated in a televised interview about her objection to Governor Baker’s plans to reopen schools. She was asked about the American Association of Pediatrics call for schools to open “as soon as possible.” Aren’t they aligned with Governor Baker’s position? Najimy pointed out, “The AAP does not have practical experience in school and … they are not absolutists.”

Steven Singer posted, “Do NOT Play Russian Roulette with Our Lives – No In-Person Schooling During a Pandemic.” In the article, Steven declares, “Reopening schools to in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic is tantamount to Russian Roulette with the lives of students, teachers and families.”

On Monday, education writer, Jenifer Berkshire, tweeted, “The school reopening fight just gets crazier – and more politically confusing. In growing # of states GOP now saying ‘open the schools or else’”

Community leaders, religious leaders and schools will need to work together for a solution to child care. There are many unused recreation centers, school facilities, libraries and church facilities available. Forcing children and teachers into an unsafe situation is not the only way to solve the child care dilemma.

In order to reopen schools safely, there are two non-negotiable imperatives. First, the rampaging virus must be brought under control through testing and robust contact tracing. Second, the US Senate must send schools $245 billion dollars to pay for the social distancing logistics, supplies, staff and transportation enhancements required.

Since there is no way to meet the first requirement and it is unlikely the Republican led Senate will meet the second. Let us quit pretending and concentrate our efforts on creating enhanced distance learning this fall.

Fraud at Sweetwater; Maybe but Unlikely

1 Jul

By Thomas Ultican 7/1/2020

For the past week, local San Diego TV and Print media have been filled with damning headlines like the NBC affiliate’s, Audit of Sweetwater Union High School District Finds Evidence of Fraud” or the online publication Voice of San Diego’s “Audit Finds Sweetwater Officials Deliberately Manipulated Finances.” Every local news outlet published the story with some version of these headlines.

On Monday June 23, the Fiscal Crisis Management Assist Team (FCMAT) presented the results of its long awaited audit of Sweetwater Union High School District’s (SUHSD) finances. The report authors state,

“Based on the findings in this report, there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that fraud, misappropriation of funds and/or assets, or other illegal fiscal practices may have occurred in the specific areas reviewed.”

How Did SUHSD Arrive Here?

For Sweetwater, this is really a continuation of the course set by corrupt leadership a decade earlier. It is also emblematic of the financial stress all California school districts are facing. Kristen Taketa reporting for the San Diego Union noted in November 2018:

At least 10 districts in the county are projecting that they will not be able to meet their financial commitments next school year, including Chula Vista Elementary, Jamul-Dulzura Union, Mountain Empire Unified, Oceanside Unified, San Diego Unified, San Marcos Unified, San Ysidro, Sweetwater and Vista Unified. More districts won’t be able to meet their financial commitments after next year.

Three factors are mainly responsible for these growing financial stresses. The state has mandated a more than doubling of teacher retirement payments from 8.1% to 18.4% without providing extra assets. Special education costs have been soaring and enrollment has been shrinking due to an increase in state funded privately operated schools.

enrollment-graphs

The Drop in Attendance Accounts for a $20 Million Drop in Revenue

In April of 2014, four of the five Sweetwater board members (Jim Cartmill, Bertha Lopez, Pearl Quinones and Arlie Ricasa) plus Superintendent Jesus Gandara pled guilty to corruption charges and resigned. The fifth member of the five person board, John McCann left the board to run for a seat on the Chula Vista city council.

Cartmill and Lopez pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of accepting gifts over the state limit. Quinones, Ricasa and Gandara were charged with felonies. Arlie Ricasa pled guilty receiving probation and a fine. Gandara was sentenced to 7-months jail time and fined $7,994.

Pearl Quinones also pled guilty and stated “I would have fought it to the very end if I had been able to afford to keep fighting it.” She received a three-year probation with the felony being reduced to a misdemeanor.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis called this a “pay-for-play” scheme stating,

“For years, public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes in exchange for their votes on multi-million dollar construction projects. This case is outrageous and shameful.”

In my opinion, Gandara was out of control and deserved the outcome. On the other hand, the school board members’ biggest mistake might have been being careless while the district attorney was planning to run for mayor.

I was politically opposed to the four indicted board members but never believed they were selling their votes and still don’t. I believe they did put the school district and the community first. Dumanis painted them with Superintendent Gandara’s malfeasance.

It is true that they all accepted a small number of free dinners and tickets to local sporting events and did not report some of them correctly. DA Dumanis over-charged them with misdemeanors and felonies that forced their resignations from the board. She could have more appropriately cited them with infractions which would have brought fines, however, the DA valued headlines over justice.

An entirely new five member school board was elected in November, 2014. After completing the school year with interim-superintendents, the board selected Karen Janney to be the new permanent Superintendent of SUHSD. That June 8, 2015 decision was a hailed by the board, the community and the teachers union.

In a 2019 interview, teacher’s union President Gene Chavira said he felt Janney made two critical errors. She rejected the expense of having a forensic audit performed on the district’s finances and she did not listen to board members and labor leaders when they encouraged her to bring in an outside leader for the finance department.

Janney had been a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in the district. She evidently had formed a strong relationship with Karen Michel and wanted her to be the district’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

Michel and her number two, Douglas Martens, retired in June of 2018. There last official act was delivering the budget for school year 2018-19. The budget was approved by the board on June 25th and sent to the County Office of Education (COE) for final approval.

Jenny Salkeld was hired to replace Michel as CFO. In early September, Salkeld discovered a $20 million negative discrepancy in the budget and reported it to the Sweetwater leadership team which forwarded her report to the COE.

The County immediately disapproved of the SUHSD budget and brought in the Fiscal Crisis Management Assist Team (FCMAT) to investigate Sweetwater’s finances.

The FCMAT Audit

Audit Team

CEO Michael Fine and the Four Women Who Performed the SUHSD Extraordinary Audit

FCMAT was created and signed into law in 1991 by Governor Pete Wilson. The Kern County Superintendent of Schools office was selected as the administrative and fiscal agent for FCMAT. It is not a government entity but does receive financial support from the state.

FCMAT is organized as a non-profit. The purpose of FCMAT was to provide districts experiencing budget issues with professional leadership. However, they have developed a reputation for being more about helping political allies than struggling school districts.

The County’s official rejection of the 2018-19 budget was a trigger bringing in FCMAT to conduct a Fiscal Health Risk Analysis. On December 17th, 2018, the Analysis results were presented to Sweetwater’s board by FCMAT CEO Michael Fine. The Voice of San Diego reported,

“FCMAT’s chief executive officer Michael Fine told board members that 302 entries in the district’s accounting system were doctored to create the impression the district had more money than it really did. ‘That my friends and colleagues, is a cover-up,’ …”

Although Michael Fine’s charge of “cover-up” appears mistaken according to the new audit, it does point to a central problem that led to a bad budget. The audit revised the 302 “negative budget entry” count to 220 and explained the origin of these often inadequately documented inputs.

The auditors reported that SUHSD began the budgeting process by rolling the 2017-18 budget into the beginning template for the 2018-19 budget. This was not viewed as unusual, but projections concerning changing budget demands then needed to be inserted into the budget model and that was not satisfactorily done.

FCMAT states, “Interviews with staff … indicate that the district was not utilizing data from a position control system to project salaries and benefit obligations.”

Apparently the suspicious entries were the budget being updated based on actual costs when they arrived. These entries were suspicious because they were not documented in accordance with the California School Accounting Manuel.

I worked in SUHSD from 2002 – 2017 and these findings seem to confirm my own impression of unprofessionalism in the district office. It didn’t appear corrupt but there was little concern with meeting deadlines, crossing t’s and dotting i’s.

In the audit, FCMAT questioned delays in posting payroll transactions. They wondered if these delays were purposeful for hiding the understatement of salaries and benefits in the budget. They concluded it was not, but does give more evidence of the lack of professionalism in the financial department.

In the report, FCMAT says Superintendent Karen Janney, CFO Karen Michel, Director of Financial Services Douglas Martens and Financial Consultant Adam Bauer may be guilty of financial fraud over the February 2018 bond deal. However, much of the damning evidence comes down to the fact that they followed Bauer’s advice about the best path to guarantee a good bond rating.

Laws and methods had changed since the last time Sweetwater did a bond deal. It is difficult to understand why SUHSD not following previous processes with fidelity was considered suspicious.

FCMAT also claims Sweetwater officials should have known that the drop in ending revenue between 2016 and 2017 from $36,285,098 to $21,469,748 indicated deteriorating financial conditions. This was also part of FCMAT’s evidence for Sweetwater knowingly misleading the bond markets about the district’s financial health.

The “extraordinary audit” was triggered by FCMAT’s declaration in December 2018 of possible fraud and cover up. By agreement with the county the audit was quite limited and focused almost exclusively on the 2017-18 budget year and SUHSD internal budgeting processes.

By comparison, a forensic audit of SUHSD is estimated to cost as much as $2,000,000; the county cost for this “extraordinary audit” was estimated at $50,700.

The auditors did not look at data from previous years.

Going Forward

The audit was delivered Monday, 6/23/2020. The document reminds the district’s board, “Within 15 days of receipt of the report, the governing board is required to notify the county superintendent of its proposed actions regarding the county superintendent’s recommendations.”

Board member Paula Hall indicated this would not be a problem since they have already instituted many of the FCMAT suggestions. She also expressed how pleased she was with CFO Jenny Salkeld’s professionalism. Hall believes the district now has strong leadership in finance.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed the state budget on Monday, June 29th. Now Salkeld’s team needs to finish the 2020-21 budget and present it to the board.

Wednesday the 25th, the Sweetwater board met in a virtual executive session and put Karen Janney on paid administrative leave by a vote of 4-1. A board member said that in the uncertain legal climate they felt this move was needed to protect both the district and Janney.

The board also voted to lay off 223 employees and selected Dr. Moises Aguirre to serve as acting Superintendent.

Aguirre must now pick up the ball and continue the planning for opening school on August 3rd.

Dr. Aguirre faces the challenge of how to safely open schools in the Sars-CoV-2 era if that is even possible. If not, he and the Sweetwater team must find a way to make distance learning work for all 36,000 students.

My best guess is that there was no intentional fraud or purposeful financial misleading in SUHSD. It looks like there was a significant budget creation error that collided with state created structural deficits. I do not expect any prosecutions.

If meaningful changes are not made to California school financing, there are going to be many more districts running into these same structural deficits with no good solutions.

Reopening Schools and Debunking Demagoguery

21 Jun

By Thomas Ultican 6/21/2020

Education professionals throughout America are feverishly engaged in preparing for the first school year in the unprecedented Sars-Cov-2 era. Simultaneously, demagogues are pushing an often uninformed agenda.

For example, congressmen Jim Banks of Indiana and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin have introduced legislation to force all schools to open with in-person classes by September or else lose federal funding.

At the same time McKinsey and Company, the 74 and other school privatization friendly groups are loudly proclaiming that an education gap disaster will devastate Black and Brown children if we do not reopen brick and mortar schools immediately.

Education Leaders are Getting Ready for Fall

Across California and the whole of the US, parents, students, teachers and administrators are involved in intense school reopening discussions with less than two months to go in some cases. County Health Departments in both Los Angeles and San Diego have indicated that masks will be mandatory for all students and school personnel.

California’s second largest school district, San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), and other districts plan in-person, online and “hybrid” learning options. However, SDUSD will need an infusion of federal dollars to operate for the full year. Board President, John Lee Evans, says without financial help they will be forced to revert to all online learning in the winter semester.

On June 18th, Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, Calafornia held a virtual meeting for all stakeholders to lay out plans for starting school on August 3rd. It will include distance learning through August 28th and then implements students on campus in three phases. The initial transition to on campus learning limits the number of students to 10% of the student body at any one time. This would be ramped up to 20% and then eventually 50% of students would be allowed on campus at one time.

Districts are busy stockpiling surgical face masks and placing future orders. They are also ordering infrared thermometers, specialized cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

This kind of reopening planning is happening everywhere in America as the new school year approaches.

Perspective of the Pros in the Field

With school teachers facing a new school year, five veteran educators from San Diego County were interviewed. When all school campuses closed on March 13, these teachers participated in distance learning for the final three months of the school year.

They all felt that because of the hold harmless policies their districts embraced, the three months were not representative of what is possible. These five educators all taught at the high school level and when their students realized grades could only go up many students completely disengaged.

There was a large difference in engagement correlated with age. The more mature students were more engaged.

Student performance was related to type and level of classes. An AP physics teacher saw 90% attendance and felt most of his students did okay but not as well as his previous in person classes. He commented that, “some students seem to need the social environment in the classroom and became lost.”

On the other hand, the special education teacher co-teaching entry level math and English classes saw attendances of 25%-30%. As soon as his students found out about hold harmless, only a minority of students who were trying to raise their grades participated.

The Spanish teacher with 170 students on her rolls reports that 150 checked in but only about 40 who were trying to raise their grade actually engaged.

An AP literature teacher said that all of his AP students stayed with him until the AP exam but his one English 12 class, with the few exceptions of those who needed to raise their grades, basically checked out on March 13.

The literature teacher also mentioned that he felt like 100% distance learning was undermining his in-person credibility. Students communicate about their teachers and pass on who are the good teachers, whose classes are fun and who is interesting. They give each other tips on how to best navigate a certain teacher’s class. In cyber space, student-to-student communication is limited and it is almost impossible for a teacher to express their personality; be humorous, subtly sarcastic or employ irony.

The English and AP psychology teacher said after shifting to distance learning she thought she had found “nirvana.” Working from home, no commuting, grading was easy and then she started teaching a summer school session with 45 students who are re-taking a class they failed. She says, “Now, I am dealing with a different student population, the workload is overwhelming and students fake being in class.” She misses face to face classes.

The oldest teacher interviewed said if the fall reopening safety precautions were not robust, he might quit. One teacher was concerned about the possibility of bringing the virus home to her 85-years-old mother and another expressed mild concern about the implications of having been asthmatic as a child. The two youngest teachers expressed no concern about risk to their own health.

All five teachers were in favor of some form of hybrid model this fall. That would entail meeting all of their students on a weekly basis and conducting most lessons using distance learning principles. They seemed quite confident that this could be a successful model given the circumstances. Learning would still be at a high level but the social engagement teenagers need for mental health would be undermined.

Echelon Insights at the Harvard Kennedy School recently queried parents about their concerns regarding education and Covid-19. Weekly surveys (April 27 – May 25) of 500 K-12 parents were conducted. It seems the San Diego teachers and American parents have aligned beliefs about the need for safety and the promise of strong learning.

Parent-surveyParent-survey Continue Learning

Parents are more concerned about safety than getting school opened as fast as possible and it appears they believe their child will continue learning.

Schools Must Reopen Immediately!!!

The headline on a June 1st article by McKinsey and Company screams, “COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.” The sub-title says, “New evidence shows that the shutdowns caused by COVID-19 could exacerbate existing achievement gaps.”

Much of the McKinsey article is based on the theoretical work of Erik Hanushek and Paul E. Peterson who have made careers out of creating biased studies designed to promote privatization of public education and undermine teacher professionalism. In addition, McKinsey relies heavily on information developed by Curriculum Associates the owners of I-Ready and data from NWEA the Portland based testing publisher that sells MAP testing.

Sounding very much like the authors of the infamous A Nation at Risk”, McKinsey claims:

“All told, we estimate that the average K–12 student in the United States could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings (in constant 2020 dollars), or the equivalent of a year of full-time work, solely as a result of COVID-19–related learning losses.”

“Furthermore, if other countries mitigate the impact of lost learning and the United States does not, this will harm US competitiveness. By 2040, most of the current K–12 cohort will be in the workforce. We estimate a GDP loss of $173 billion to $271 billion a year—a 0.8 to 1.3 percent hit (Exhibit 5).”

Exibit 5 GDP Harmed

Exhibit 5 – What Magic Algorithms Produced this Fantasy?

At the billionaire created publication, The 74, a June 9th article ran under the heading, “New Research Predicts Steep COVID Learning Losses Will Widen Already Dramatic Achievement Gaps Within Classrooms.” The widening is supposed to happen because of poor parenting, lack of resources at home and learning gaps expanding during school closures.

They also make the senseless claim, “But now, especially without spring exams to guide them, schools will have no idea on day one of the 2020-21 school year what the array of needs in each class is.”

It should be noted that most teachers do their own student evaluations because they find the standardized testing data almost useless even if it is available when needed.

Republican Congressmen Jim Banks of Indiana and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin have introduced the Reopen Our Schools Act. Congressman Banks stated,

“Reopening our schools is the lynchpin to reopening our economy. Many parents rely on their kids going to school so they can go to work. To get our society up and running again, we need our children back in school.”

Congressman Tiffany who joined congress this May added,

“These open-ended school shutdowns have set students back, made it harder for teachers to teach, and pushed parents to the breaking point. It’s time to reopen America and get back to school.”

In their announcement the congressmen referenced a Wall Street Journal report claiming remote learning this spring “didn’t work.” Like McKinsey and The 74, the Wall Street Journal references projections made in a May 27 paper by NWEA.

The Northwest Evaluation Association was founded in 1977 when a group of researchers and testing directors met at the Jolly Roger restaurant in Chehalis, Washington. The participants were unhappy with current standardized testing in the United States because it was the same test everywhere and unaligned with curriculum. They chose the small town of Chehalis because it was half way between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington where most of the members lived. Today, the organization is known as NWEA.

NWEA is another education service business that abuses the non-profit federal tax laws. In 2018, they sold over $148,000,000 in testing services and their tax document shows sixteen people with salaries ranging from $200,000 to $513,172.

NWEA publishes MAP testing which tests mathematics and English three times each school year; fall, winter and spring. The tests are not aligned to one class level so they are only partially aligned with state curricular standards. That is in part why teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School boycotted MAP testing contending, “the MAP is not worth the time and energy it takes to give.”

Using data from approximately 350,000 students who took MAP tests in school years 2017-18 and 2018-19, analysts at NWEA created a report based on projections that guessed at what the negative education effects from the school shut downs would be.

NWEA is known to have first rate psychometricians, however their expertise cannot make up for the noisy data known to exist with education testing or the fact that the growth models they use has never been satisfactorily validated or that their parabolic data fits might be inappropriate.

NWEA’s paper is well documented but still little more than a guess about education results made by people who are not professional educators. This is hardly the basis for insisting that we recklessly endanger the health of students, teachers and families by opening schools without making safety the number one priority.

Conclusion

The hybrid model for opening schools appears to be the best pandemic alternative. Students attend schools that are employing best health practices once a week. The rest of the week they participate in distance learning.

It has been widely espoused that poorer children do not have adequate equipment and connections for distance learning. However, most school districts have been providing devices and it should be possible for schools to setup socially distanced homework centers for students who don’t have available internet connections. For example, high school gymnasiums could easily accommodate 70 students safely distanced.

The reality is that we are facing a highly contagious virus to which human beings have no defense. This means that some cultural norms are not possible. Formerly in addition to academics, schools also were effectively daycare centers. In this environment, they cannot safely perform that function. Businesses, parents, schools and communities must work together to mitigate this unmet need.

Extra-curricular activities like sports, chorus, band and club meetings are not possible. That is a harsh consequence of the pandemic.

However, if professional educators and schools are supported, there is every reason to believe student learning can safely continue at a high rate, academic gaps will not increase and intellectual development will remain on track.

Eckhart Tolle Meets John Dewey

20 May

By Thomas Ultican 5/20/2020

Professor Michael J. Hynes new book Staying Grounded; 12 Principles for Transforming School Leader Effectiveness inspired this title. I have an aversion to self-help writings and new-age philosophy. After reading two chapters, that is exactly how I saw this book. It made me wonder why my friend Diane Ravitch recommended it. After reading a few more chapters, I got it. There is a lot to like. If the principles taught in this book were widely embraced, it would be a boon to education everywhere.

Staying Grounded Picture

In the introduction Hynes tells the reader that he will reveal his ideas concerning the purpose of schooling and how to ensure that each child reveals their potential. He opens by recommending the “philosophy that recognizes the fact that all children are different and meet them where they are.”

This a great starting point but it runs squarely into the devilish nature of standards based education. At the beginning of the new millennia, the cruel standards based philosophy began dominating classrooms. It was heartbreaking to observe students who although learning; were not learning fast enough. Instead of being encouraged while their intellectual abilities grew, they were crushed and taught to hate learning. That definitely was not meeting “them where they are.”

The book started naturally enough with principle one. It opened by quoting the Buddha, “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.” The point was that a busy administrator needed some regular self care. Buddhist philosophy is known as the inner path. Principle one was all about entering the inner path. It ends with another of the Buddha’s admired philosophical points, “When things change inside you … things change around you.”

Principle two continued imparting more new age philosophy to fix the budding administrator’s attitude. The reader is assured attitude is more important than aptitude in the life of a successful school leader. A positive attitude is held up as key. Hynes notes, “90% of the people you complain to don’t care and the other 10% are glad you have the problem.” An amusing and insightful quote, but it still only obliquely addressed education philosophy and leadership.

Principle three, “It’s All About Relationships” brought a big change to the tenor and usefulness of the book. In a vignette, a Deputy Superintendent named Julio V. Delgado shared, “Like many administrators, I was chasing scores, looking for a magic curriculum to close the achievement gap, and best of all, looking at what other districts were doing so I could replicate it ‘back home.’” He recognized a fundamental error in his approach and concluded, “It’s the connections and relationships we make and foster among others, that lead us to success and serve as the ultimate model for children as they develop.”

In the organization of each chapter the principle is stated, personal stories are shared by various school leaders interspersed with explanations of the principle. There are descriptions of the principles benefit to all stake holders – leaders, teachers, parents and students. The conclusion is practical guidance for how to implement the principle. Starting with principle three this section becomes specific and challenges the budding school leader with concrete suggestions. This is where I started seeing the great value in what Professor Hynes was sharing.

What is the Purpose of Education?

This is a question of central importance to the development of our culture and civilization. Professor Hynes addresses it by stating,

“It is important to recognize that other people, including many of your fellow educators, administrators, and our students’ parents might have a different point of view concerning what education should be all about. That’s okay! What’s important is that you define in your own words, your purpose of what education is to you.”

In responding to the question, I decided to look a little at what Hynes and others have written. Hynes quoted James Harvey, the President of the National Superintendents Roundtable, “K-12 education should prepare students for life – for college, for work, for living within a family and within a community, and for participating effectively in the democratic process.” Although future employment is needed for most young people, Harvey believes K-12 education is more than just job training.

Hynes also looked back to the great humanist Eleanor Roosevelt’s thoughts on the issue. In 1930, she wrote,

“Perhaps because there are so many books and the branches of knowledge in which we can learn facts are so multitudinous today, we begin to hear more frequently that the function of education is to give children a desire to learn and to teach them how to use their minds and where to go to acquire facts when their curiosity is aroused. Even more all-embracing than this is the statement made not long ago, before a group of English headmasters, by the Archbishop of York, that ‘the true purpose of education is to produce citizens.’”

“But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective-informed and intelligent citizens, and, secondly, bring about the realization that we are all responsible for the trend of thought and the action of our times.”

There is a danger lurking in Roosevelt’s view. While production of good citizens is an admirable goal, there is a dystopian risk of reinforcing the utilitarian view of human life. When she was writing these words, the Japanese and German education systems were focused on producing a certain type of personality reduced to a subordinate position and viewed as a means to other ends.

Daisaku Ikeda, the Buddhist teacher and founder of Soka schools, writes that Japan is suffering “the consequences of making education subordinate to bureaucratic and political agendas under the control of the Ministry of Education.” With the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act, the US abandoned the philosophy of local control and embraced the concept of a powerful bureaucracy steering education. As a society, we turned our backs on two centuries of steadily improving free universal public education and adopted a system vulnerable to political agendas.

That 2002 decision was a huge backwards step for “a society that serves the essential needs of education.” Columbia University’s Professor Robert Thurman, in an interview at Boston’s Ikeda Center, responded to the question, “How do you view the role of education in society…?” He replied,

“I think the question should rather be, What is the role of society in education? Because in my view education is the purpose of human life. It’s not that the purpose of education is to fit out humans to go and produce something.”

In his book Democracy and Education, John Dewey stated,

“Discipline, culture, social efficiency, personal refinement, improvement of character are but phases of the growth of capacity nobly to share in such a balanced experience. And education is not a mere means to such a life. Education is such a life. To maintain capacity for such education is the essence of morals. For conscious life is a continual beginning afresh.”

Dewey’s contemporary in Japan, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, wrote,

“What is the purpose of national education? Rather than devise complex theoretical interpretations, it is better to start by looking to the lovely child who sits on your knee and ask yourself: What can I do to assure that this child will be able to lead the happiest life possible?”

The purpose of education is to create the space for people to fully manifest their abilities and express their inner essence while going through the natural stages of human development. In accord with Dewey, I believe, “To maintain capacity for such education is the essence of morals.” As Makiguchi said, assure that students can “lead the happiest life possible.”

Create a Better Education Structure

The rest of Michael Hynes book is filled with ideas for improving leadership skills in education. He advices superintendents to substitute teach and goes into great detail about how to derive the maximum benefit from the experience. Hynes spends four pages discussing shadowing students. He describes how to do it and its benefits. Hynes addresses many if not most of the issues a budding administrator needs to excel at in order to be a positive change maker. Administrators adopting Hynes 12-principles will benefit not only themselves but also their schools, students and communities.

However, this book can also be seen as dealing with the unfortunate outcomes of the authoritarian structural flaw innate to schools. The central figure (principal or superintendent) have the predominance of power in a system where administrators rule. Under this organization the only path to professional advancement is leaving the classroom to become an administrator.

I suggest changing this undemocratic autocratic scheme by employing democratic principles of governance that shares power between students, teachers and administrators.

Create an educator’s track the leads to advancement as a master teacher, department leader and curriculum expert. Teaching assignments and professional evaluations would fall under the responsibilities of this group. They would hold sway over new hires to their department.

When it came to school policies and final curricular decisions, students would be consulted and their input would have real significance.

Administrators would be responsible for facilities, daily discipline issues and communicating with parents.

The three groups would meet regularly and continually engage in dialog to reach consensus on all school issues.

Conclusion

Michael Hynes’s Staying Grounded is a good read filled with many wonderful concepts for improving school operations. I recommend the book.

Finally, I really liked this quote Hynes shared from Aristotle,

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

CREDO’s New Study Biased against Public Schools

14 May

By Thomas Ultican 5/14/2020

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) started releasing the results of its new Cities Study Project in mid-2019. It is not a coincidence that the cities chosen for the study have long been targeted for public school privatization. The ten cities selected are: Indianapolis; Baton Rouge; Camden; Kansas City; Memphis; New Orleans; Oakland; St. Louis; San Antonio; and Washington DC. This CREDO study is even more opaque and biased than its previous efforts.

Who is CREDO?

Hanushek and Raymond

Husband and Wife Team Who Founded CREDO

In the early 1980s, Margaret (Macke) Raymond was completing a lengthy graduate school agenda at the University of Rochester, a relatively small private university in Rochester, New York. She garnered an MS of public policy in 1980, a community medicine MS in 1982, an MA of political science in 1983 and finished with a PhD in political science in 1985. From 1985 to 2000 she ran Raymond Consulting and worked a few years in the telecommunications industry.

At that same time, Eric Hanushek was Professor of Economics and Political Science at Rochester University. The former Air Force cadet had earned a doctorate of Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968. It was Hanushek’s 1981 paper “Throwing Money at Schools” that put him on the watch list of right leaning philanthropies and institutions. In his notice making missive he stated,

“The conventional wisdom about public schools is that they face serious problems in terms of performance and that improving schools requires additional money. However, the available evidence suggests that there is no relationship between expenditures and the achievement of students and that such traditional remedies as reducing class sizes or hiring better trained teachers are unlikely to improve matters.”

In a 1981 Ed Week commentary referencing this paper, Hanushek points to SAT testing as the gold standard for judging school performance. In complete accordance with the old aphorism, “to a man with a hammer all problems look like a nail,” Hanushek brags, “Advanced statistical techniques are employed to disentangle the influences on achievement of schools and teachers from those of other factors such as family backgrounds and student abilities.”

A 1999 announcement from Rochester University said, “The Center for Research on Education Outcomes has been established at the University of Rochester’s Wallis Institute of Political Economy…” In the same posting, it was revealed, “Two foundations have committed $1.25 million to fund a three-and one-half year initiative to address the current shortage of evaluation research in education policy matters.” CREDO never made the name of the two foundations public, but a knowledgeable academic says one of them was the Walton Family Foundation.

The announcement listed two employees of the new center, Eric Hanushek and Margaret Raymond. Hanushek was listed first but Raymond was cited as the founding Director.

CREDO moved from the University of Rochester to Stanford University’s Hoover Institute in July, 2000 which made networking in conservative circles much easier.  In CREDO’s 2nd year report, they stated that moving to the Hoover Institute brought them many new contacts including the New Schools Venture Fund, the District of Columbia Charter School Board, the Teacher Union Reform Network and others.

A description of the Hoover Institute from Source Watch says,

“The Hoover Institution is influential in the American conservative and libertarian movements, and the Institution has long been a place of scholarship for high profile conservatives with government experience. A number of fellows have connections to or positions in the Bush administration, and other Republican administrations. … Other fellows of the Institution include such high profile conservatives as Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Edwin Meese.”

Macke Raymond’s 2015 Hoover Institute Fellow’s profile says in part, “In partnership with the Walton Family Foundation and Pearson Learning Systems, Raymond is leading a national study of the effectiveness of public charter schools.” 

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has pointed out that Eric Hanushek

“… a Hoover economist was a pioneer in creating systems that evaluate teachers by student standardized tests, a method that many assessment experts say should not be used in the high-stakes ways that school reformers are using them. He is often cited in CREDO studies as a ‘principal investigator.”’

Discredited and Biased

The Forbes commentator, Peter Greene, wrote about Eric Hanushek for his popular blog Curmudgucation:

“Now when Hanushek says that teachers make a huge difference, he is obliquely referencing his own crazy-pants assertion that having a good first grade teacher will make you almost a million bucks richer over your lifetime (you can also find the same baloney being sliced by Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff). Both researchers demonstrate their complete lack of understanding of the difference between correlation and causation.”

Greene also shares the following graphic that clearly highlights the difference between correlation and causation.

Divorce caused by Margarine consumption

Does Margarine Consumption Cause Divorce?

Business writer Andrea Gabor states that CREDO studies which compare charter schools with public schools start with two key assumptions “A) That standardized-test scores are an adequate measure of school quality and B) that creaming in charter schools does not exist.”

With regards to assumption ‘A’, using standardized testing for this purpose has been shown faulty from studies dating back to the eugenics movement (which originated high stakes standardized testing) to recent works debunking them for mistaking correlation versus causation and for not being able to compensate for the problem of error.

As for assumption B, there is no doubt that most charter schools push out and avoid students that are classified as special education, language learners or discipline problems. The data proving that is in state enrollment reports wherever charter schools exist.

In the new research labled “Cities Studies Project”, the Technical Appendix says the reports uses growth models but doesn’t share which of the many growth models it uses. It also says,

“In our study, scores for all these separate tests are transformed to a common scale. All test scores have been converted to standardized scores to fit a ‘bell curve’, in order to allow for year-to-year computations of growth.”

The Education Growth Model Handbook lists seven types of growth models in general use and their requirements. Most growth models require vertical scales but that does not seem possible with CREDO’s use of multiple tests many of which are not vertically scaled. Their mathematical conversions add another locus of error. Growth models have proven to be unstable and have never been satisfactorily validated.

The research methodology used in the “Cities Studies Project” appears to be the same as that used in CREDO’s 2015 Urban Charter School Study Report on 41 Regions.” A particularly troubling practice employed then and apparently still being used is the “virtual twin” method which creates a pro-charter school bias.

Professor Andrew Maul of UC Santa-Barbara reviewed the 2015 study for the National Education Policy Center. He noted the CREDO method does not compare charter school performance to actual public schools; rather it creates mathematical simulations. Maul described the “virtual twin” schema employed to develop a “virtual control record.” He reports,

“CREDO’s approach to this estimate is the construction of a ‘Virtual Control Record’ (VCR) for each student in a charter school, obtained by averaging together up to seven students in “feeder” public schools (i.e., those schools whose students transfer to charters) with the same gender, ethnicity, English proficiency status, eligibility for subsidized meals, special education status, grade level, and a similar score from a prior year’s standardized test (within a tenth of a standard deviation) as the specified charter student.”

Maul adds, “The study’s “virtual twin” technique is insufficiently documented, and it remains unclear and puzzling why the researchers use this approach rather than the more accepted approach of propensity score matching.”

The stipulation that “virtual twins” come from “feeder schools” biases the study in favor of charter schools. Andrea Gabor explained that in practice, CREDO used less than five students transferring to a charter school as the cutoff for using a particular public school’s data. She reports that the, “study excludes public schools that do NOT send students to charters, thus introducing a bias against the best urban public schools, especially small public schools that may send few, if any, students to charters.” Gabor gave the example of two well regarded New York title-1 schools, Global Technology Preparatory and West Side Collaborative which were excluded. They are noted for scoring well on testing, but did not meet the transfer criteria yet easily matched the required demographics.

The CREDO study is singularly focused on test results as determinate of school quality and ignores other advantages of public schools. It is a well known fact that many charter school systems like IDEA and Success Academy spend an inordinate amount of time teaching to and preparing for standardized tests. To these criticisms, Professor Mark Weber of Rutgers University adds a few more observations:

“Cities Studies Project” Technical Appendix states,

“To assist the reader in interpreting the meaning of effect sizes, we include an estimate of the average number of days of learning required to achieve a particular effect size. This estimate was calculated by Dr. Eric Hanushek and Dr. Margaret Raymond based on the latest (2017) 4th and 8th grade test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).”

Converstion to Days of Learning

The CREDO Days of Learning Conversion Table from “Cities Studies Project”

This metric seems to have been created with next to nothing validating it. Mark Webber quoted the psychometrician Michael T. Kane,

“The 2015 study (p. 5) cites a paper published in Education Next (Hanushek, Peterson & Woessmann, 2012) that asserts: “On most measures of student performance, student growth is typically about 1 full std. dev. on standardized tests between 4th and 8th grade, or about 25 percent of a std. dev. from one grade to the next.” (p. 3-4) No citation, however, is given to back up this claim: it is simply stated as a received truth.”

CREDO tells us that Hanushek and Raymond did something with NAEP data from 2017 but still do not offer any justification for the conversion. It appears at best to be sloppy science and the headlines engendered from it are nothing short of propaganda.

Using CREDO Claims to Sell Privatizing Public Schools

Neerav Kingsland the Managing Partner of the City Fund posted to his Blog last July when the first results from “Cities Studies Project” arrived explaining,

“Last year, Arnold Ventures commissioned CREDO (out of Stanford University) to study the effects of charter, innovation, and traditional schools in select cities across the country.”

“Most of the cities included in the study were cities where Arnold Ventures (and now The City Fund) have partnered with local leaders to expand high-quality schools.”

“Camden’s city level effects are large.”

“In just two years, scores are up ~.15 standard deviations in math and ~.05 standard deviations in reading (compared to similar schools across the state).”

The reality is those changes are very small. Noise in the data is a better explanation than awesome charter schools for these tiny differences.

In Indianapolis, the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown, just wrote an Indy Star opinion piece stating,

“A 2019 study from Stanford University found that students who attend Innovation Network Schools achieve the equivalent of 53 additional days of learning in English and 89 additional days of learning in math each year when compared to their traditional public school peers. This equates to several years of additional learning during the span of a K-12 academic career, and the gains are largest for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.”

In the billionaire financed effort to privatize public education, CREDO has become their source for data proving things like smaller class sizes and teacher professionalism are not important. The “Cities Studies Project” commissioned by an organization intent on privatizing public schools through promoting the portfolio management scheme – The City Fund – is biased toward the privatization agenda. Rather than shining the light of scholarly work on education policy, it obscures reality with obfuscation.

Responding to the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews

5 May

By Thomas Ultican 5/5/2020

It came as a surprise when Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews reached out to me. After indicating that he was writing a book, Mathew’s said that he had just come upon my pieceA Texas Sized Destroy Public Education IDEA.He flatteringly wrote, “… your analysis is impressive and I want to include some of it in my book.” He also sent an article and a book chapter asking for comments.

In the article about IDEA, I had written,

In 2016, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post rated IDEA charter high school the most challenging in the nation. Mathews rates schools by what he calls “the Challenge Index,” which takes the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests given at a school each year and divides by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. Charter schools that shed students without replacing them now own all of the top spots in this index; not deeply meaningful.”

Jay’s message to me was very respectful with a genuine feeling of interest in my opinion; however, we do have very different views. I will endeavor to address those differences honestly and respectfully.

The chapter he sent me is focused on his “Challenge Index” and its rationale. The article was a piece he did for his Washington Post column in November about a high school teacher who teaches AP English Language arts. He explained how that teacher came to appreciate the value of expanding AP access.

Some Personal Background

I grew up on a ranch in rural Idaho with a cowman for a father, a sheepherder for a grandfather and a school teacher for a mom. She studied teaching at Albion Normal School in the southern Idaho Mountains. Coincidentally, it is the same school attended by the force behind “A Nation at Risk,” Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell.

My mother often claimed that the key difference that made public education in America superior and more democratic than any other system in the world was that in America there was no high stakes testing.

In the 1960’s, before education standards and AP curricula there was an aphorism,

“American high school students are the laziest in the world. They seldom study and spend their time playing, socializing and competing in sports. Then they graduate from high school and over the summer a miracle occurs. They arrive at college to become the world’s leading scholars.”

After an engineering career in Silicon Valley as a researcher in the disc drive industry, I decided to become a teacher. During my fifteen years in the classroom, I taught advanced mathematics, conceptual physics, two flavors of AP physics and AP environmental science. In the end, I have concluded that my mother was right about high stakes testing and that the aphorism about American students captures an important reality.

Most surprisingly, I now believe that AP style college level classes in high school are bad pedagogy.

Mathews and Ultican

AP, IB or Cambridge Courses are Bad Pedagogy

This will probably be viewed as heresy by many of my fellow educators. It certainly would be by Will Robertson, the AP English teacher Jay wrote about in November. In 2005, Roberson’s Corbett High School near Portland, Oregon required that every student take at least seven AP classes. Robertson wrote a lengthy memo to the administration about why it was such a mistake. After three years, he realized that the students he feared would be defeated by the AP rigor were meeting the challenge and wrote another lengthy memo admitting his error.

I contend that the challenge Robertson’s students are meeting is not appropriate for their mental health and development.

A fundamental flaw in modern education reform is the push toward inappropriate curricular pacing. Kindergarten has become the new first grade where students who should be learning through play are sitting at desks doing math and language arts work sheets.

In their recent book, Let the Children Play, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle write, “The global education race for ‘higher standards’ at lower financial costs have turned many schools to factories that try to produce standardized products efficiently on tight schedules.” Modern education reform is developmentally inappropriate. As Gloria Ladson-Billings, Distinguished Professor in Urban Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison states, “Anyone who fully understands child development knows that children’s ‘play’ is children’s ‘work.’”

This problem is infecting all levels of k-12 education. High school is not the appropriate level for college work. Young brains need to be protected from high stress during a period of rampant hormonal changes and emotional immaturity. Vicki Abeles, the director of the documentary film “Race to Nowhere”, describes in her book, Beyond Measure, the damage modern education reform is reeking on children and our culture.

When we start talking about challenging teenagers we need to make sure those challenges are appropriate for healthy development. Two quotes from Abeles’s book strongly imply that we have moved way past appropriate.

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.” 

Abeles also shared a powerful anecdote from a student named Emily:

“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.”

Last year a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented the significantly rising suicide rates for ages 15-19 in America.

AP and other similar programs are a net negative for the holistic growth of students and undermines their positive social development in the crucial teenage years. Just like kindergarten is not developmentally appropriate as the new first grade, high school is not developmentally appropriate as the new college.

Unlike genuine college courses taught by gifted professionals operating in a sphere of respected autonomy, these high school level college courses employ the enfeebled teach to the test methodology. An AP syllabus must be approved by College Board and in practice that means using an approved syllabus provided by College Board as a template. Worse yet, the entire course is centered on preparing for the end of year AP exam which is supported by a large test preparation industry.

I have read your opinion that “teaching to the test” is not a problem but we just disagree. I think it leads to lifeless uninspired classrooms.

The “Challenge Index”

Since I view college level work in high school as a negative, I obviously disagree with a system that rates schools higher if more of their students participate in these programs. However, I will respond to some of the points you make in your “Challenge Index” book chapter.

You definitely deserve credit for trying to come up with a method for evaluating schools that eliminates the standardized testing advantages schools in wealthy communities have. When reading about what you learned studying Garfield High in East Los Angeles, I appreciated the egalitarian motivation for the approach you invented. You wrote,

“I decided one way to draw attention to the issue was to rank high schools in a unconventional way that illuminated the hidden strengths I had found at Garfield. Instead of measuring them by state, SAT or ACT test scores, I assessed them by their success in getting less than stellar students into the most challenging courses and tests.”

As I was entering the classroom, the disparity in AP course offerings between schools in wealthier neighborhoods and those in poor and minority communities was a hot topic of discussion. What we were not discussing is whether AP, IB and other courses of their ilk were appropriate. It was assumed they were. As a new teacher, I was an enthusiastic advocate for my AP classes at the 90%+ minority populated high school where I taught.

The following quotes from the “Challenge Index” chapter highlights a problem facing public education. You write that after introducing the “Challenge Index,”

“Newsweek asked me to do another national Challenge Index list in 2000 and again in 2003. In 2005 the magazine decided to make it an annual feature, calling it “America’s Best High Schools.” It assigned two researchers to help me collect information. In 2009 the list got more than 20 million page views.”

“Principals and superintendents at a few public schools, mostly in affluent parts of New England, told me they did not want to participate. They said their schools were not accurately represented by such a simple ratio, just one number. I explained to them why this was a useful tool for parents choosing schools and policy makers analyzing achievement. I said it might not appeal to everyone, but newspaper readers liked it, as they did other newsworthy ratios like Wall Street’s Dow Jones Average or baseball’s Earned Run Average.”

The arithmetic behind the “Challenge Index” is a simple ratio of the number of college level tests taken at a school divided by the number of graduating seniors. It is an easily understood metric but like standardized testing it does not meaningfully evaluate schools. Education is an extremely complex system and a simple explanation may be popular but damagingly misleading.

The over-representation of charter schools in the “Challenge Index” is an arithmetic issue. Charter schools typically do not replace students who leave. By their senior year, the graduating class is often only a third the size it was in freshman year. Public schools do not see that big decline in class size so the smaller denominator for charter schools misleadingly engenders large “Challenge Index” ratios.

The No Child Left Behind rules, the Race to the Top rules and your “Challenge Index” all try to evaluate schools with a simple metric, but education is so complex that these simple metrics are counter-productive.

For many decades, states have had agencies send teams to schools for more than a week to evaluate every aspect of the school and write detailed reports. Here in California that work is done by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). I have been involved in four WASC reviews. They were conducted by teams of administrators from around the state. WASC not only did a detailed evaluation of every aspect of the school but also worked collaboratively with the school to improve its roadmap for continuous improvement.

My bottom line is that simplified indexes run in popular news magazines may sell advertising but they are misleading and do damage. Many wonderful schools were erroneously deemed failures by No Child Left Behind testing. If education leaders had looked at the accrediting agency reports instead of just the simple standardized testing results, they would have never destroyed those schools operating mostly in poor minority neighborhoods. Likewise, your “Challenge Index” with its easy to understand ratio runs the risk of promoting unhealthy education practices.

Indianapolis: Home of America’s Second Most Privatized School System

27 Apr

By Thomas Ultican 4/27/2020

With the introduction of Innovation schools in 2015, Indianapolis Public Schools quickly became the second most privatized taxpayer supported school system in America. It has zoomed past Detroit and Washington DC in the privatization sweepstakes to only trail the poster child for disaster capitalism, New Orleans. The right wing billionaire funded organization, The Mind Trust, has played a major role in this outcome.

Brown and Money

The Mind Trust CEO Brandon Brown Enjoys Flood of Billionaire Dollars

Nations 2nd Most Privatized

How terms and principles are defined is crucial. For example, Stephanie Wang of Chalkbeat paraphrases The Mind Trust CEO, Brandon Brown as saying, “There has never been a civil rights movement that hasn’t been led by the people most directly affected by the work.” Brown often couches his work in terms of fighting for civil rights, but is stripping minority communities of their democratic right to a voice in the operation of neighborhood schools really fighting for civil rights?

Professor Noliwe Rooks labels the business of profiting from high levels of racial and economic segregation “segrenomics.” Professor Rooks is an accomplished woman of color who is director of American studies at Cornell University and she definitely would not see The Mind Trust as a civil rights organization.

Another term that needs a careful definition is public school. Network for Public Education Director Carol Burris provided a thoughtful and clear explanation of what constitutes a public school in an interview with the Busted Pencils pod cast. She said there are two aspects to qualifying as a public school: (1) The school must be publicly funded and (2) the school must be governed by an elected local entity such as a district board.

In September 2019, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent, Aleesia Johnson, presented an updated facts and figures report. It showed 22,659 students in public schools with another 8,416 students in 20 Innovation schools and 1,562 students in state governed turnaround schools. By cross referencing the state list of Indianapolis charter schools with state charter school enrollment data, Indianapolis charter school enrollment was found to be 32,127 of which 2,340 were in schools designated innovation. In other words, of the 62,424 taxpayer supported students in Indianapolis only 36.3% were in schools controlled by local voters.

School Privatization Graphic

Number of Students in Various Indianapolis Taxpayer Funded Schools

In 2014, the Indiana state government responded to American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model legislation by creating innovation schools. David and Charles Koch, the main financial support behind the creation of ALEC, have a 50-year history of opposing public education. In a January news release, The Mind Trust explained, “Innovation Network Schools operate with full autonomy and are governed by independent nonprofit boards.” Like charter schools, innovation schools are governed by private boards independent of voter input. They no longer meet the definition for public schools.

An organization from Texas called Pastors for Children recently tweeted,

“If charter schools are public schools, then they should not have private boards.”

“Bring charters under local district control now.”

The same goes for innovations schools. There is no good reason that they are not under local district control but there is history.

In 1983, the Reagan era A Nation at Risk promoted the idea that public schools were failing by distorting data that showed the opposite. They touted reform based on business principles as the answer to this “failure.” In 1990, John Chubb’s and Terry Moe’s influential book stated that poor academic performance was “one of the prices Americans pay for choosing to exercise direct democratic control over their schools.” The billionaires Jon Arnold and Reed Hastings have taken this un-American and anti-democratic ideology to heart.

In 2018, Arnold and Hastings put up $100 million each to establish a new organization, The City Fund, dedicated to selling the portfolio model of school reform. Simply put, the portfolio model directs closing schools that score in the bottom 5% on standardized testing and reopening them as charter schools or innovation schools. This means that especially schools in poor and minority neighborhoods are at risk.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education on the campus at the University of Washington, created the portfolio model as a path to privatizing public education.

Last year, The City Fund gave a three year $18 million grant to The Mind Trust. They claimed it was for “Operating support and support for expansion of high quality schools in Indianapolis, IN” which means advancing the portfolio model. A sure sign that an organization is promoting public school privatization is the ubiquitous claim that it is developing “high quality schools.”

Shockingly, the Indianapolis Public School district has a Portfolio Management page on their web site.

In 2018, The Mind Trust co-founder, David Harris, quit as CEO to become a Partner at The City Fund. He is still on The Mind Trust board where he serves alongside CBS Sunday Morning Anchor, Jane Pauley.

With Harris’s resignation, a new wave of TFA developed leaders took over.

The Billionaire Created Privatization Army

Mercedes Schneider writes in her book Chronicle of Echoes, “Wendy Kopp declared that she had a force of young, predominantly-Ivy League idealists for sale, and Big Money arrived on the scene to make the purchase.” Wendy Kopp was the founder of Teach For America (TFA) and the young idealists for sale were her temp teachers who had no intention of staying in the classroom. Schneider also shared that in 2011 the Walton Family Foundation donated $49.5 million to TFA. Furthermore, Schneider listed TFA corporate donors in the $100,000 to $999,000 category as:

“Anheuser-Busch, ATT, Bank of America, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Boeing, Cargill Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, Emerson, Entergy, ExxonMobil, Fedex, Fidelity Investment, GE, Marathon Oil, Monsanto, Peabody, Prudential, State Farm, Symantec, Travelers, Wells Fargo.”

She further pointed out that all of these big money donors are members of ALEC.

Since 2010, billionaires and corporations have continued making large investments in TFA. TFA’s latest IRS filing shows $235,973,769 in contributions for the fiscal year May 2017 to May 2018. The previous year’s grants totaled to $245,190,571. Additionally this so called non-profit now has a total asset value of $366,724,130 and the average yearly income of the top 10 earners at TFA is $325,134. Founder Wendy Kopp, listed as working 10-hours per week, was paid $136,879.

The TFA Indianapolis web page says The Mind Trust played a critical role in bringing TFA to Indianapolis “and one-third of its current staff are Teach For America alums including its CEO, Brandon Brown.” The local TFA Executive Director, Amar Patel, noted, “Nearly 20 percent of schools here in Indianapolis are led by TFA alumni.”

TFA teachers are completely unqualified. Prior to taking over a classroom, TFA teachers receive just five weeks of training. Their training is test centric and employs behaviorist principles. TFA corps members study Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. He never formally studied or practiced education.

TFA corps members are typically in their early 20’s and have just completed a bachelors degree – likely in a field unrelated to what they will teach. For example, Brandon Brown taught English the fall after he earned a Bachelor’s in political science and psychology. Worst of all, TFA corps members thoroughly assimilate the neoliberal message of failing schools, inept principals and bad teachers.

Real professional educators provide proof of mastery of the course they will teach and spend a minimum of one-year in a post-graduate teacher training program.

Another organization recruited to Indianapolis by The Mind Trust is TNTP (formerly The New Teachers Project). The Mind Trust states, “TNTP’s Indianapolis Teaching Fellows program has supported 375+ Indianapolis teachers since 2007, several of whom have been school or district teachers of the year.” TNTP was created at TFA in 1997 by Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee. It was designed to be an alternative route to teacher certification and professional development.

Before the billionaire driven push to privatize public education, a “non-profit” company like TNTP would have gotten no consideration for training teachers because they were unqualified. If policy makers in New York wanted to create and alternative teacher certification path, they would have turned to an established institution like Columbia University’s Teachers College to create and manage the program. They would not have turned to a private non-profit with no track record and little experience on staff.

An April 10, 2019 press release from The Mind Trust states:

“Today, the Indiana State Board of Education approved Relay Graduate School of Education … to prepare aspiring teachers for Indiana certification through its Teaching Residency program in Indianapolis. … The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit, has raised an initial $3.5 million to support the expansion of Relay Graduate School of Education to Indiana and the launch of the Relay Teaching Residency program in Indianapolis.”

The title of the post Relay Graduate School: a Slick ‘MarketWorld’ Education Fraudsuccinctly describes this new billionaire funded scheme to further de-professionalize teaching in America. Mercedes Schneider looked at Relay in March (2018) and began her post, “Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE) is a corporate reform entity whose ‘deans’ need not possess the qualifications that deans of legitimate graduate schools possess (i.e., Ph.D.s; established professional careers in education, including publication in blind-review journals).”

Indianapolis TFA described their relationship the $15 billion Lilly Foundation started by the big-pharma founder Eli Lilly in 1937 and their relationship with Relay Graduate School:

“An instrumental player in bringing Teach For America to Indianapolis, the foundation continues to works closely with TFA to support the recruitment of a diverse pipeline of teachers for Indianapolis students.”

“Corps members new to teaching will have the opportunity to earn their teaching certification through a master’s degree at Relay Graduate School of Education, our graduate school partner. Most corps members will be able to qualify for AmeriCorps funding that covers the full cost of tuition.”

“The program culminates with a cash award of up to $2,500 for fellows to pursue their new solution.”

The Mind Trust reported on working with the Fairbanks Foundation to advance Relay Graduate School:

“The Mind Trust … is now accepting applications for the fourth cohort of Indianapolis school leaders to participate in Relay Graduate School of Education’s National Principals Academy Fellowship (NPAF), ….”

The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation has awarded The Mind Trust a $990,000 grant to help sponsor Indianapolis school leader participation for the next three years, bringing the Foundation’s total investment in the program to $1,756,000.”

With the infusion of billionaire money, The Mind Trust is not only able to offer training stipends for teachers to attend these “reform” institutes, it can now pay people to spend a year or even two to develop new innovation school plans. This year, they proposed 10 new innovation schools. CEO Brandon Brown observed,

“With the creation of the state law, we were now positioned to do the work that The Mind Trust has been wanting to do for years, working collaboratively with the district to provide great leaders with high autonomies to create great schools. Shortly after, we created the fellowship program to provide school leaders the planning time they needed. It wasn’t clear that IPS had the resources internally to do this work on their own, and we were excited to collaborate with them.”

Besides spending liberally to push school privatization efforts within the education community, The Mind Trust is also paying community members to promote their privatization ideology. Chalkbeat reported on the new parent advocacy fellowships stating, “The fellowship comes with an estimated salary of $75,000 to $90,000 per year.”

Final Observations

Brandon Brown cites a recent study by Stanford’s CREDO group to justify privatizing schools. In an IndyStar op-ed, Brown stated, “A 2019 study from Stanford University found that students who attend Innovation Network Schools achieve the equivalent of 53 additional days of learning in English and 89 additional days of learning in math each year when compared to their traditional public school peers.”

The study referred to here is the CREDO Cities Studies Project in which CREDO applied an undisclosed growth model to Indiana testing data. CREDO is the only scholarly organization that gives any credence to the days of learning metric. Although the study comes from a purportedly scholarly institution, it has never been submitted for peer review. The use of growth models have never been proven reliable and CREDO is known to have received much of its funding from school privatization entities. Somehow, CREDO is able to interpret 0.05 standard deviation differences in a noisy study as equating to three months of learning. It’s hogwash.

Why are billionaires spending so much to undermine professionalism in public education? It is probably not altruism. More likely, they want to reduce the biggest cost associated with education; teacher’s salaries. In the antebellum south, plantation owners preached anti-tax ideology because they owned the most and paid the most. Today’s billionaires aren’t much different. Most of them won’t put their children in public schools and really don’t value high quality public education. It seems the big motivation is to reduce tax burdens and simultaneously create new education industries.