Tag Archives: School Closing

Past Time for a Charter School Moratorium in California

8 Feb

In December 2015, elected officials and education professionals in Orange County, California joined a growing number of voices across our state calling for a charter school expansion moratorium:

“So today, we are asking Orange County residents to stand with our children and call for an immediate temporary moratorium on charter schools at all levels until there is transparency and accountability on par with public schools.”

 Michael Matsuda, Superintendent, Anaheim Union High School District

Al Jabbar, Board member, Anaheim Union High School District

Annemarie Randle-Trejo, Board member, Anaheim Union High School District

Brian O’ Neal, Board member, Anaheim Union High School District

Anna Piercy, Board member, Anaheim Union High School District

Kathy Smith, Board member, Anaheim Union High School District

 

In their joint declaration, they pointed to concerns about lack of transparency in the use of money by publicly supported charter schools. They also worried that charter schools laws do not sufficiently protect students; stating this example, “The USA though, because of lax charter laws that favor privatization, is the only country in the world that allows public taxpayer money to fund schools operated by foreign nationals.”

 

To this last point, in January, a notice in the San Diego Union about Magnolia Public Schools piqued my interest enough to investigate. To my surprise, I found that Magnolia Public Schools were part of the Gulen charter school empire, the schools governed by the Turkish Imam, Fethullah Gulen. I found that California already has eleven of these schools including one here in my hometown, San Diego.

 

A Little Charter School History

 

In 1974 Ray Budde, who taught educational administration at the University of Massachusetts, presented the Society for General Systems Research some ideas for the reorganization of school districts in a paper he titled “Education by Charter”.

 

Ted Kolderie, one of the original designers of the nation’s first charter school law in Minnesota tells us:

 

“Ray Budde’s proposal was actually for a restructuring of the district: for moving from ‘a four-level line and staff organization’ to ‘a two-level form in which groups of teachers would receive educational charters directly from the school board’ and would carry the responsibility for instruction.”

 

Budde’s idea did not go anywhere for almost a decade and then came “Nation at Risk.”

 

President Regan’s Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, formed a “blue ribbon” committee of businessmen and other luminaries to produce a report on education in America. The committee included Nobel Prize winning chemist, Glenn Seaborg who had been the chairman of the atomic energy commission under three presidents. Seaborg was certainly a brilliant man but you would probably not hire him to be your dentist. It was the same with the rest of the commission, they were not experienced or trained educators.

 

Their report, “Nation at Risk”, asserted that America’s schools were so profoundly failing that the future of the nation was literally at risk. Normally a report of this scope and importance would be peer reviewed and its claims investigated before a government agency would make it an official product. It was, in fact, factually erroneous but its unsupported claims have plagued public schools and educators ever since the US Department of Education published it.

 

It was in this environment, that Albert Shankar, President of the American Federation of Teachers started promoting Budde’s charter school idea. A speech he gave in Minnesota in 1988 started the wheels into motion for the first in the nation charter school law that was enacted in 1991. A year later, 1992, California enacted its version of a charter school law.

 

In a 2012 article about the 20th anniversary of the California charter school law Bonnie Eslinger of the San Jose Mercury News wrote:

 

“One year after California became the second state in the nation in 1992 to pave the way for taxpayer-funded charter schools, a contingent of education officials and parents from San Carlos stepped forward to join the public school reform movement.

“In its application to state officials, the group said it viewed the proposed San Carlos Charter Learning Center “as one aspect of education, the entire community serves as the campus, and the school acts as a headquarters.”

“Today, the San Carlos Charter Learning Center is the longest-running charter school in the state, according to the California Charter Schools Association, which organized a media event Tuesday at the campus to herald the 20-year anniversary of the experiment.”

 

 

California Charter Schools Expand Explosively

Since those early idealistic days of charter school innovation, the charter school movement has enjoyed rapid growth. The California Charter School Association reports this staggering set of statistics:

 

 

  • 1,230: Charter schools in California
  • 80: New charter schools opened in 2015-16 school year
  • California: State with the most charter schools and charter school students in the country
  • 581,100: Estimated number of students attending charter schools in CA as of 2015-16
  • 7%: Estimated percentage by which charter school student enrollment grew in 2015-16
  • 36,100: Estimated number of new charter school students in 2015-16
  • Los Angeles: Region with highest growth in new charter schools
  • 27: New charter schools opened in Los Angeles region
  • North Coast & Bay Area: Region with second highest growth
  • 21: New charter schools opened in North Coast and Bay Area
  • 158,000: Estimated number of students on charter school waiting lists in 2014-15
  • 32: Schools closed in 2014-15”

 

Charter School Negatives

However, everything is not totally positive with charter schools. They were originally sold as an avenue for both education innovation and a way for parents to have choice in their children’s education. Today, the best innovations in education all comes from the public school system and choice is a mirage like those 158,000 students on charter school waiting lists. A recent study by the Texas State Education committee found that in Texas while there is indeed a waiting list most of those on it are applying for a few specific charter schools and that more than one-third of all the states available charter seats go unfilled.

 

As far as school choice is concerned, the education writer Steven Singer recently wrote an article titled “Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice” in which he argues that charter schools actually limit parental choice. He noted:

 

“Most public schools are run by a school board made up of duly-elected members from the community. The school board is accountable to that community. Residents have the right to be present at votes and debates, have a right to access public documents about how tax money is being spent, etc. None of this is true at most charter or voucher schools.”

 

The Huffington Post reported in the 2012-13 school year while 109 new charter schools opened in California 28 closed that same year. Stability is well known as a key factor in healthy childhood development and charter schools have a troubled history of instability.

 

The most disturbing aspect of the charter school movement is the amount of fraud and profiteering associated. In December 2015, Bruce Baker, Rutgers University and Gary Miron, Western Michigan University studied some of the prominent ways that individuals, companies, and organizations secure financial gain and generate profit by controlling and running charter schools. They identified these four policy concerns:

 

  1. “A substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children is being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain, creating substantial inefficiencies;
  2. “Public assets are being unnecessarily transferred to private hands, at public expense, risking the future provision of “public” education;
  3. “Charter school operators are growing highly endogenous, self-serving private entities built on funds derived from lucrative management fees and rent extraction which further compromise the future provision of “public” education; and
  4. “Current disclosure requirements make it unlikely that any related legal violations, ethical concerns, or merely bad policies and practices are not realized until clever investigative reporting, whistle blowers or litigation brings them to light.”

 

Conclusion

We are privatizing the public education system built by our forefathers. It was the foundation of the great American social, economic and democratic experiment. We are doing this based on a crisis in education that never was.

 

In a brilliant article by psychometrics expert, Gene V Glass, it says, “A democratically run public education system in America is under siege. It is being attacked by greedy, union-hating corporations and billionaire boys whose success in business has proven to them that their circle of competence knows no bounds.” Let’s heed the words of real experts. It is time to put a halt to the privatization of public education long enough to see what we have wrought before we do further damage.

D.C. Schools: A Portrait of “Corporate Education Reform” Failure

21 Oct

This summer the National Academy of Sciences produced a lengthy report for the city of Washington D.C. documenting the effects of their 2007 Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA).[1] It describes a system that has adopted the “corporate education reform” approach to improving public education. The report is a powerful set of data and observations that damn this genre of reform.

What is “Corporate Education Reform”?

In 1995, Louis Gerstner, CEO of IBM, attended the National Governor’s Association meeting and made an impassioned speech about the crisis in education and the critical and immediate need for national standards in education. As Mercedes Schneider explained in her book Common Core Dilemma, this was not a well timed call to arms. Liz Chaney had just finished destroying Bill Clinton’s national history standards, which made the subject of national education standards radioactive.

Gerstner wasn’t deterred. He hosted the 1996 National Governor’s Association conference at the IBM conference facility in Palisades, New York. This conference with the exception of 1 Asian man was an all white, all male conference made up of 49 CEO’s and 40 governors.[2] There were no educators involved.

The main outcome of this conference was the Governors established their own non-profit and non-governmental corporation called Achieve Inc. Achieve was tasked with promoting and writing national education standards. Gerstner was named Achieve’s chairman. Achieve Inc. subsequently supervised the writing of both the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. While Bill Gates’ Council of Chief State School Officers owns the copyright for Common Core, Louis Gerstner’s Achieve Inc. owns the copyright for the Next Generation Science Standards. In Dilemma, Mercedes Schneider summed it up, “No need to meaningfully involve teachers in changes that Achieve, Inc. had already decided needed to be instituted.”[3]

Former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, is the first person I noticed calling this education reform movement led by super-wealthy business men with no education experience or training “corporate education reform.” It seems an appropriate appellation and as the D.C. schools report shows it is also misguided and damaging.

Key tenants of “corporate education” reform are: (1) Eliminate direct democracy (no elected school boards) (2) Evaluate teachers based on value added measures derived from standardized testing (3) privatize public education by promoting the charter school movement (4) make teaching a non-professional endeavor (5) use testing data to label public schools in poor and minority neighborhoods failures (6) use draconian turn-around models which require firing all the administration and at least 50% of a school’s staff (7) replace “failed” public schools with charter schools (8) destroy teachers unions and blame teachers and their unions for “failing” schools (9) promote standards based education and testing (10) apply merit pay schemes. This list could easily be extended.

Eliminate Local Control and Privatize

In 1995 and 1996, Bill Clinton in concert with Newt Gingrich and the Republican controlled house established charter schools in Washington D. C. and undermined the power of the elected school board. Of course the excuse was “failing” schools but that was not true. The schools might have needed some improved professional leadership, but it was the communities that were failing not the schools.

It is like the educator and commentator from Pennsylvania, Steven Singer, writes:

“Poverty is skyrocketing. It’s been on the rise for at least three decades, but since the economy collapsed in 2008, the ranks of the poor have swollen like an untreated wound left to fester and rot. …Claiming that education alone can resolve this problem is like saying all a starving person really needs is a fork and spoon. But that won’t help if he has nothing to eat!”

It is true poverty damaged students are not performing well on standards based tests, however, the Science Academy report shows that white students in the more affluent neighborhoods of D.C. are scoring above the national average. Schools in failing neighborhoods are being blamed for the fact that 73 percent of the students in D.C. live in unsafe impoverished neighborhoods.

Democracy time line

This chart from the report shows the attack on democratic processes in D.C. from finally getting democratic control over their schools in 1968 to complete loss of parental control with the passage of Public Education Reform Amendment Act. D.C. joined the other “corporate reform” cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York in establishing the mayor as czar of education significantly diminishing the effect parents and teachers have on education policy.

By 1995, D.C. schools were charging down the path of “corporate education reform” when Bill Clinton signed the D.C. school reform act introducing charter schools and establishing the charter school board. The growth of charter school privatization movement is startling with charter schools enrolling nearly 50% of D.C. students in 2015. From the report:

“… by 2014, the percentage was 44 percent. PCSB [Public Charter School Board] reports that there are approximately 100 individual charter schools, governed by 61 chartering organizations, which function as school districts, or local education agencies (LEAs). D.C. has one of the largest percentages of a city’s students enrolled in charters nationwide, and D.C. is viewed as a leader by proponents of charter schools.” Pg 31

With almost 50% of the D.C. students in charter schools governance in certain aspect of education is not possible. Originally, charter schools were supposed to be laboratories that were freed from the more stringent rules for public schools so they could try new ideas. However, when 50% of the students are in charter schools, parents, educators and administrators have no way of monitoring education practices or spending. D.C. functionally has 62 school districts. One for all the public schools and one for each of the 61 charter school management organizations that operate in private. As the report says:

“There are no standardized formats or definitions in charter schools’ budgets or audits, though the PCSB [Public Charter School Board] is making progress in this area. The adequacy study also commented on the difficulty of ascertaining charter facility costs. In addition, the charter management organizations’ accounts are not open to the public, and there have been cases of mismanagement.” (Page 72)

“Because each charter school is an independent local education agency, the charter sector did not (and does not) have any overarching strategy to improve teacher quality (or any other factor in education).” (Page 79)

This lack of accountability is costing the public schools money and at the same time there is no way to know how the charter schools are spending money especially when it comes to special education and second language learners. The structure of education in D.C. is failing special education students. From the report:

“In another DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] official’s view, the problem is that a charter school will receive all the required supplementary special education funds for a student while DCPS is still expected to provide supplements that a student requires, such as dedicated aides or home or hospital services. This official also noted that DCPS has no authority to address problems in charter schools: it can only report noncompliance to PCSB [Public Charter Schools Board] and to OSSE [Office of the State Superintendant of Education].” (Page 129)

“The U.S. Department of Education has recently reported that that D.C. is among the worst school systems in the nation in providing appropriate educational opportunities for students with disabilities, and it has the worst record of any state in the country for meeting federal special education goals.” (Page 131)

“Another city official we interviewed commented that “there is no monitoring arm for how LEAs [Local Education Agencies] serve the ELL [English Language Learners] population.” For example, this person noted, the city provides $4,200 in funds in addition to the $11,000 allocated under the uniform per student funding formula (an additional $6,000 is provided for each special education student), but there is no structure for monitoring what LEAs [Local Education Agency] do with these funds or determining whether they are addressing students’ basic needs. At the same time, charter schools have no consistent source of technical assistance or other resources, such as professional development, to help ensure that they are providing what English-language learners need. As a city official noted, “there is no way for people to know if they are doing it right.”’ (Page 133)

One of the largest problems created by the lack of cohesiveness between the charter schools and the public schools system is that students are being lost. These lost students become what Dr. Mark Naison has labeled “the Disposables.” Dr. Naison writes:

“They are the more than 90 million Americans of working age who are not in the labor force and do not have regular jobs.

“They are the millions of teenagers who dropped out or were pushed out of school in cities like Detroit and Memphis and New Orleans and Los Angeles and Chicago and have disappeared from view because the divisions between charter schools and public schools have made it impossible to develop a coherent strategy to make sure no child is lost.”

The report notes the D.C. schools have a “crisis in absenteeism” and a terrible graduation rate.

“D.C.’s public schools have had among the worst on-time graduation rates in the country. For the class of 2014, the overall rate was 61 percent, compared with the national average of 81 percent (Chandler, 2014d). For DCPS schools, the graduation rate was 58 percent—up 2 percentage points from the previous year; for the charter schools, it was 69 percent—down almost 7 points.” (Page 154)

“Nationally, for 2012-2013, the overall rate increased from 78 to 81 percent; for blacks it increased from 66 to 68 percent, and for Hispanic students it increased from 71 to 76 percent.” (Page 189)

The report also contained this nugget suggesting that charter school gains in test performance over time do not match public schools.

“The EDCORE analyses by sector also showed that, although both DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] and charter students showed improvement, the magnitude of the gains were higher for DCPS students in every year.” (Page 177)

Mayoral Control and VAM Evaluation

A central tenant of “corporate education reform” is to limit democratic processes by ending elected local school boards. Democracy is always more difficult to administer than authoritarian control from a centralized power like a mayor. Of course this means that parents and teachers will not have much of a voice (if any) in how their local school; is run, what it teaches or what its policies are. In 2007, the city of Washington D.C. completed its embrace of “corporate education reform” when the Mayor Renty assumed total control of all public schools. The report observes:

“The specific strategies that Fenty and the chancellor he appointed, Michelle Rhee, chose were prominent on the national reform agenda: an emphasis on improving human capital using recruitment, evaluation, and compensation of educators; data-driven decision making; more uniform standards across schools; and greater school-level accountability through the use of student testing and other indicators.” (Page 40)

Fenty chose a person with five weeks of Teach for America training and three years’ experience teaching first grade to be chancellor. It was an odd choice, but she was connected to the lawyer, Joel Klein, who Michael Bloomberg had selected to run New York’s schools. Mayoral control seems to always value political considerations over professional competence when selecting public school leaders. For example, in Chicago, Daly chose Duncan and in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa chose Deasy; neither man had significant professional credentials or experience in education.

The agenda chosen was straight out of the “corporate education reform” playbook. They blamed teachers and principals for poor testing and graduation results, they instituted teacher evaluations base in large part on growth models known as value added measures and they introduced merit pay for teachers and principals. Survival in the Rhee-Fenty schools would depend foremost on high stakes testing.

Education reporter, John Merrow, summed up Rhee’s tenure of just over three years running D.C.’s schools:

“Ms. Rhee made her school principals sign written guarantees of test score increases. It was “Produce or Else” for teachers too. In her new system, up to 50% of a teacher’s rating was based on test scores, allowing her to fire teachers who didn’t measure up, regardless of tenure. To date, nearly 600 teachers have been fired, most because of poor performance ratings. She also cut freely elsewhere–closing more than two-dozen schools and firing 15% of her central office staff and 90 principals.”

“For teachers, DCPS has become a revolving door. Half of all newly hired teachers (both rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is understood to be between three and five years. Veterans haven’t stuck around either. After just two years of Rhee’s reforms, 33% of all teachers on the payroll departed; after 4 years, 52% left.”

For more than 100 years, political leaders have every few years proposed merit pay as a way to motivate good performance. This idea does not have a great track record in most industries, because it undermines unity of purpose. In education, it has been a total failure laced with fraud, but this does not stop “corporate education reformers” from insisting on merit pay. Rhee’s merit pay scheme, which pays bonuses of up to $25,000, led to a cheating scandal. Merrow’s report continued:

“Some of the bloom came off the rose in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate. With subsequent tightened test security, Rhee’s dramatic test scores gains have all but disappeared. Consider Aiton Elementary: The year before Ms. Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to nearly 60% on her watch, but by 2012 both reading and math scores had plunged more than 40 percentile points.”

After two decades of adopting the “corporate education reform” agenda, the D.C. schools are damaged. Curriculum has been narrowed by hyper-focus on high stakes testing, which only accurately identifies economic conditions in the neighborhood. With just 25% of students attending their local community school and many community schools closed these once pillars of community support have been toppled. Parents have no effective place to bring grievances and experienced professional educators have been pushed out in favor of new hires, many of whom are unqualified Teach for America replacements on temporary contracts.

All this disruption and still the outcomes from the D.C. schools are some of the worst in the nation. They still have an attendance crisis and a graduation crisis. Their scores on NAEP [National Assessment of Education Progress] testing is still at the bottom of the nation. The problem is not the schools or even the misguided “corporate education reform.” The problem is rampant and unaddressed poverty in the neighborhoods of our nation’s capital. The problem has never been our public schools; it has always been poverty.

  • “National Research Council. (2015). An Evaluation of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia: Reform in a Changing Landscape. Committee for the Five-Year (2009-2013) Summative Evaluation of the District of Columbia’s Public Schools. Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.”
  • Schneider, Mercedes. Common Core Dilemma “Who Owns Our Schools?” Teacher’s College Press, New York and London, ©2015 by Teacher’s College, Columbia University.
  • Ibid.

A Response to Congressman Peters

11 Jul

I received a reply from Congressman Peters (D-California 52) this April to my message against HR-5, “The Student Success Act.” The Congressman made several assertions concerning education that I discuss here in an open response.

Opening assertions by Congressman Peters:

“In an increasingly global economy, it is critical that we make educational investments that put our students in a position to compete with the rest of the world. For years, the United States has trailed countries like China and India not only in education investments, but also in student achievement. When crafting education bills, Congress should be sure that it is taking steps to close that gap, rather than broadening it.”

This paragraph states several widely held false beliefs. First of all the United States out spends India and China on education combined. According to the worldbank and a Chinese government data report for 2012, India spent less than 4% of GDP ($2.1 trillion) or about $80 Billion; China spent 4.2% of GDP ($10.36 trillion) or about $430 Billion; and the US spent more than 5% of GDP ($17.42 trillion) or about $800 Billion on education. Our education spending almost doubles India and China’s combined spending and per child we spend many times more than either country.

Student achievement measures depend upon what you want. If the goal is creative students who can innovate and lead happy lives then our system is clearly out producing India and China. One measuring stick might be Nobel Prize winners since 1949: America had 313 laureates; India 7; and China 8. Of the 8 Chinese, the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo who won peace prizes both are considered criminals – Xiaobo is still in a Chinese prison; four are scientists who earned their degrees in the United States or Great Britain; and only the two literature recipients were educated in China. To recap, since 1949 two international and widely recognized citations for Chinese educated students compared to 313 such citations from our world’s best American education system.

It is common for business and political leaders to believe that standardized tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that is promoted by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation are reliable indicators of school quality and student achievement. For several reasons they are not. Walter Hahn from the University of Utah recently returned to Europe to investigate the changes in education since he left. He reports that about age eleven most students are tracked into either a university path or various non-university paths. Testing of the non-university track students is not typical. Same is true in Asia. We test everyone. Researchers also point to many other problems with international testing.

It is true that US students have never been top scorers on international testing, but large segments of our students are very competitive. However, focus on testing leads to bad pedagogy. Professor Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon has written extensively about the problem with hyper-focus on testing in China. He reports that the Chinese government has been trying since the 1970’s to reform its test focused education system. However, because of the culture steeped in millennia of testing is so ingrained, Chinese parents insure test preparation. It is normal in China to put children in test preparation private academies after school and on weekends.

Some of my colleagues have been paid to go to China and demonstrate teaching while Chinese delegations searching for education improvement have visited and observed at my high school, Mar Vista High School. They do not care that our federal government labels my school as “failing.” No one in China thinks they have a great education system. Professor Zhao recently wrote, “The only way China will win the global competition of the future is for the West to begin doing education the way China does.”[1]

Standards based testing is misleading. Professor Haladyna and associates conducted a highly regarded study that shows as soon as high stakes are tied to these tests, their validity is undermined. When institutions, teachers and students gain experience with high stakes tests they find ways to focus primarily on test preparation. I was even taught by a consultant at a teacher training, “if it is not on the test, it is a waste of time to teach it.”

Another example of how high stakes undermine test results is the SAT. For three decades, SAT scores have gone up, an industry has emerged to prepare students for the tests and the predictability of future success based on test results has gotten worse. The data is quite clear that high school grades with all their flaws are much more predictive of future collegiate success than SAT test results.

Your colleague Congresswomen, Susan Davis (D-California 53), asked me “how can schools be held accountable without testing?” This indicates a belief that standardized testing is a valid measure of school or teacher quality. Today, few people outside of the testing industry believe that to be the case. When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) forced high stakes testing on the nation, it did not enforce school accountability. Ironically, based on testing results, public schools were blamed for the result of poverty by the political and businessmen who were actually responsible. Kind of anti-accountability don’t you think?

To Congresswomen Davis’ question, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) testing because it does not have high stakes attached is a reliable metric. The best school accountability is performed by regional accrediting agencies which send in teams of current educators who spend a week or more evaluating each school. They interview; administrators, teachers, students, non-certified staff and parents. They visit every class room and analyze all school documents including action plans. Finally they give useful feedback with a clear idea of what they expect in the way of improvement going forward.

I bring all this up because the re-write of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been revived. Thank you for voting against the Student Success Act this July 8. I am hoping if the Orwellian named Senate version “Every Child Achieves Act” ever comes to conference you can help improve this law.

Poverty is clearly the over arching problem in education. We have great public schools with the most educated work force American education has ever witnessed, but we have out of control child poverty and it shows up as the key driver in every statistic. Here is some data from the department of education:

In 2013, approximately 21 percent of school-age children were in families living in poverty, an increase of 4% since 1990. But that poverty is much more damaging to certain ethnicities and as this table reveals it is reflected in testing results.
Ethnicity                               White          Asian         Black         Hispanic
Living in Poverty                   13%             13%          39%            32%
NAEP 8th Grade Math           294              306           263            272
NAEP 8th Grade Reading      276             280            250            255

Pretty much all of the schools that were labeled as “failing schools” by NCLB and slated for closure or “turnaround” were in high poverty areas; while no schools in upper middle class neighborhoods were touched. Having worked in both kinds of schools, I can assure you the teaching in the wealthier neighborhoods in California is not significantly better than the teaching in poorer ones. Teachers talk disparagingly about being punished for working in the wrong zip code.

STEAM initiatives and federal test and punish programs will not solve the achievement gaps among schools as long as pervasive poverty is allowed to persist. Sending education dollars to charter schools that now have a known history of disruptive financial failure and fraud will only hurt America’s students. Please get the federal government out of the business of running schools. Give the schools back to local control. NCLB was a huge mistake and we need a course correction.

In 1910, Commissioner of Education Elmer Ellsworth Brown wrote about the genius of the American system of education:

“Our educational organization answering as it does to our federal plan of government presents peculiar advantages as regards the making of a varied flexible yet inherently unified system of instruction. It is an organization not readily understood by foreigners. It offers many obstacles to the carrying out of any plans for rapid and uniform improvement. Yet the self governing character of its several members is of itself an incalculable advantage. Whatever unity is attained must be an inner unity an agreement through conviction.”

The hugely successful public education system in America has always come from the people of their own volition adopting the education ideas that best fit their own community. Soviet style command and control education undermines the great crucible of democracy that is public education and dooms the creative American spirit. Please end the disastrous experiment in federal control of education.

1) Zhao, Yong. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, © John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2014.

Unwarranted Demise of Mar Vista Middle School

27 Mar

In February, while attending a science teacher’s professional development at Mar Vista High School, I first heard the rumor that Mar Vista Middle School (MVM) was going to be closed, all of its staff dismissed and the school reopened as a charter school. Since 1961, this venerable institution has been a treasure in the poverty stricken neighborhood situated one mile north of the world’s busiest border crossing (San Diego-Tijuana). At the March 11, 2013 board meeting (Sweetwater Union High School District) the rumor was confirmed, a restructuring plan for MVM was approved. Or as one person observed, “they legally stole an asset belonging to a poor community for their own purposes.”

This is modern American school reform and truthfully speaking, no one knows what is really motivating the Sweetwater School Board. Oddly, Thomas J. Winters, the current principal of MVM, a man with only one year of experience as a principle was tasked with making the decision about which restructuring plan to select. He chose from available alternatives specified in education law “close the school and reopen it as a focus or theme schools [sic] with new staff or staff skilled in the focus area.” (1) So, a high quality staff, which in most cases had spent more than a decade providing heroic service to one of San Diego counties poorest neighborhoods, was to be relieved of their positions. They were guilty of working in a poor neighborhood! The enormity of cynical school reform for profit and self-promotion is beyond injustice.

The Elementary and Secondary Education ACT of 1965 as amended in 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) specifies that schools which fail to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for five years shall be punished and mandates a menu of remedies. MVM had failed to reach AYP from the very inception of this law bringing it the dubious record of being labeled a failure by the federal government for ten straight years. Many local residents, especially those with no direct involvement with the school, believed what they were repeatedly hearing about this “failing school” – “the problem is bad teachers unwilling to change.” Even teachers from across town who do not work with students of poverty or significant numbers of language learners suspected there must be something wrong with the MVM staff.

I worked at MVM in school year 2004-2005. It was clear to me that as motivated and competent as the staff was they were going fail unless this obviously flawed law (NCLB) was modified. Schools in communities with high poverty rates were set up for failure by this ill-conceived federal takeover of education. How is it possible to convince people that MVM is a wonderful highly effective educational institution, when a federal law is written that makes even significant growth in performance look like failure? Was disaggregation an evil plot or just bad law with unintended consequences? I don’t know, but I do know that MVM is actually a very successful school and is a significant community asset. In a just world the staff and school would have been lauded for both their efforts and achievements. These valiant educators should have been lionized as an example of what can be accomplished when selfless teachers work to fructify the weal. Instead they have been vitiated!

My personal reasoned conclusion solidified by practical experience is that standardized testing is odious. It clearly narrows curriculum and promotes soporific lessons that develop mimesis not creativity or the ability to think. That said: these same horrible tests show that the staff at MVM got the message. The teachers saw that the school’s survival depended on effectively teaching to the tests. The baseline year for NCLB testing was 2002 in which math and English are the only two categories that matter. The arbitrary level for passing was set at 16% of math students scoring proficient or better and 13.6% of English students scoring proficient or better. In 2012, AYP pass rates entered the hockey stick portion of the law (the period when pass rates go up precipitously to reach a whimsical 100% proficient or advanced by 2014). The 2012 AYP pass rates were set at 79% proficient or better for math and 78.4% proficient or better for English. The 2012 targets are so unrealistic that even Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was predicting an 82% failure rate. (2) Nevertheless, they are still being effectively utilized by questionable actors to declare schools like MVM failures and take control of them away from the local community.

From 2002 thru 2011, the overall school scores at MVM always exceeded the AYP targets. In 2011, 51% of the eight graders at MVM took Algebra with 40% scoring proficient and 44% scoring advanced on the California Star Tests (CST). The 44% advanced was the highest percentage of advanced algebra scores in the district. That year the algebra students at MVM outscored even the schools whose students were from the wealthiest families in the district. The MVM scores were amongst the top Algebra scores posted in California that year (2011). Plus, almost 50% of English language students scored advanced or proficient. This great achievement was not acknowledged! Two sub-groups did not meet AYP so MVM continued being labeled a failing school. The scores of English language learners and students with disabilities, kept MVM from achieving AYP success. Amongst English language learners only 31.8% achieved scores of proficient or advanced in English and amongst disabled students only 31.6% scored proficient or advanced in math. Both failing categories showed a huge improvement from the 2002 levels of 0% proficient or advanced in either category, but that was not good enough.

In an open letter from “Concerned and Offended Staff” to Principal Winters it stated, “Please remember that it was not the teachers at this school who have dismantled the great programs that our parents are missing. It was not the teachers who have dismantled the award winning ASAP program and raided its grant money for general use, this was done by school and district administrators.  It was not the teachers who dismantled the NOVA team of which parents spoke so highly, this was done by school site administrators. It was not teachers who ended the award winning music program that Fred Lee built and is remembered so fondly by parents and students.”(3) The music program was truly magnificent. The jazz band was consistently judged as best middle school jazz band in California. The ASAP program was a daily 3:30 PM until 6:30 PM after school program that provided tutoring and club activities. Maria Catalina, who is a NASA affiliated science teacher, had an astronomy club. Guadalupe Trejo a motivated and talented bilingual science teacher had a robotics club and Justin Ezell sponsored the Huck Fin club. The highly talented Gugenia Gurrola was working with language learners on mathematics and of course Cathy Stutzman had the most amazing tutoring sessions I have ever seen going on in her math classroom. The NOVA team was an honors program that offered enrichment for higher performing students. Unfortunately, the economic downturn of 2008 and administrative decisions led to defunding these popular and successful MVM initiatives. When the state loosened restrictions on where money could be spent, the district defunded these programs and shifted the funds to other schools to help them achieve AYP success.

Today, music teacher Fred Lee, who was pressured into leaving MVM if he wanted to continue teaching music, still works for the district in an upper-class neighborhood weaving his magic at Rancho Del Rey Middle School. In 2006-2007, MVM received a Golden Bell for its outstanding reading program which promoted recreational reading at home by providing reading strategies to both students and their parents. (4) The San Diego Union reports, “The Golden Bell Awards, now in their 33rd year, promote excellence in education in 18 categories. The awards single out programs — developed by California teachers and administrators — for innovation, sustainability, making a difference for all students, and a commitment to meeting the needs of all students.” (5) At one time, programs like this along with Mr. Lee’s music program and the NOVA team enticed many parents to send their students to MVM even though the school was labeled a failure by first the Bush administration and then the Obama administration.

In general, schools in poor neighborhoods are set up for failure under NCLB. Schools in poor neighborhoods with large percentages of language learners and disabled students have no chance to succeed. MVM was facing a demographic impossibility.

Year      Percent Disabled       Percent ELL (a)   Percent SE (b)    Percent Hispanic

2002-2003          11%                        28%                    64%                       62%

2006-2007          12%                        30%                    64%                       69%

2011-2012            13%                        44%                    76%                       75%

a-English language learners     b- Social and economically deprived (6)

It is important to note that about two-thirds of the disabled student and language learners are also socio-economically deprived. AYP accountability rules mandate that a student is not just in one category but their scores normally count in multiple categories. A failure in any one category means failing AYP. At MVM, Socio-economically deprived students are about three-fourths of both the disabled and language learners’ categories. In all, MVM had to pass 25 AYP specified categories but just two categories were the root of the failing scores for 10 years. The NCLB rules of disaggregation were originally written to protect minority students from being hidden within the statistics, but ironically those rules became a major vehicle by which poor communities have their schools closed or appropriated by private entities.

The category of language learners is particularly insidious for MVM. In neighboring Tijuana, it is common for students who have been kicked out of school to move in with a relative in San Diego to attend school. Often, these are particularly difficult children who do not perform well. Schools are also punished for doing their job too well. If a student develops strong language skills, they are reclassified and no longer counted amongst the language learners’ category. It is a genuine “Catch-22.” MVM was facing a triple whammy, high poverty rates, a high percentage of disabled students and almost half of the students were language learners. Still this school was producing high levels of achievement. Three students from MVM’s era of “failure” have won Gates Millennium scholarships; several have gone on to The US Naval Academy and many others are attending top ranked schools throughout the US including the Ivy League. Only hubris and pecuniary desire explains not protecting and cultivating this venerable institution.

In the year I was at MVM, I got to know Cathy Stutzman among others. I remember being stunned when I walked into her classroom and saw two overhead projectors going and Cathy moving between them continuing to push the tempo and teach Algebra. Moreover, every student in the room was totally engaged trying to keep up with this high energy educator. I asked Cathy, how MVM was able to achieve such amazing test results in the 2011 Algebra CST testing. Two years prior to that, I had asked another math teacher at MVM, Randolph Arciniega, who I admired and looked to as a teacher mentor, “what is new at MVM?” He briefly described how they were following Cathy’s lead because she was showing some amazing results. Cathy said she perceived that students at MVM were behind when they came to the school and also needed more introductions with Algebra concepts in seventh grade to succeed in Algebra testing the following year. She felt the lessons needed some spiraling. Cathy convinced the administration to let her loop classes and teach all seventh grade classes one year and then move with them to eighth grade in the subsequent year. She also persuaded the principal to let her add several algebra concepts to the seventh grade curriculum. By 2009, all of the math teachers at MVM were looping and teaching Cathy’s modified curriculum in seventh grade.

The amazing 2011 results occurred in the last year that MVM looped math classes. The new principal, Thomas J. Winters, who was a brand new principal as were his predecessors at MVM, stopped the looping curriculum. That decision led to a significant drop in test scores. Maybe this is some of what the “Concerned and Offended Staff” were alluding to when they wrote, “You have stated in the past that there is “no bad data” but you have proved yourself wrong by providing the DSLT [District Site Leadership Team] with only partial and biased data regarding the efforts and accomplishments of the staff of Mar Vista Middle School. We have heard from teachers who were part of the DSLT who have stated that you purposely guided the DSLT to the conclusion that it is the teachers that are keeping Mar Vista Middle School from succeeding while ignoring other important factors.” (7)

Bush’s NCLB and Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) both stress test based accountability which has lead to jejune pedagogy. The best charter schools practice problem and project based education principles which were widely spread in public schools before these two pernicious laws were enacted. The federal government has taken more and more control of schools away from local communities and instituted rules that undermine public education. In our discussion, Cathy told me, “I felt we were fighting for survival and that testing was all that mattered. I could no longer employ project based methods. I had to focus on scoring well on tests.” Near the turn of the millennium, Cathy was able through a grant to purchase a class set of graphing calculators which besides the typical uses she also employed in a mathematics art project. The students had to create a piece of art by transferring graphs of ten different functions onto paper. When the art pieces were completed they were mounted and displayed in the school’s cafeteria. She relates the story of how one of her poorer students – almost all D’s and F’s – made a really colorful and beautiful graphing creation. When Cathy looked at it she praised the student but told her that “unfortunately it is not complete because you did not list the functions on the back.” The girl said, “That’s alright – I remember them.” The girl immediately sat down and listed all ten functions perfectly from memory. Federal accountability rules now effectively ban public schools from offering this kind of engaging pedagogy.

I believe Principal Winters came to MVM intending to succeed at his first assignment as a principal. Still, it does seem eerie how perfectly the demise of MVM fits the profile of schools being closed or taken over across the nation. It is in a poor community with a large minority population and the level of professionalism amongst the teaching staff is high. In fact, under the reporting mandates of NCLB, Principal Winters reported that 100% of the teaching staff at MVM is rated as highly qualified – meaning they all have a college degree in the field that they teach, plus they each have more than a year of teacher education training. As recently as January 24, 2013 Principal Winters officially reported, “Students at Mar Vista Middle School and in the Sweetwater Union High School District are expected to master state and district standards which will prepare them to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Mar Vista Middle School provides a safe and secure learning environment that contributes to students’ academic success.” (8) Either the latest school accountability report card is misleading or the reasons for closing MVM are fabrications. MVM is a great school with a great staff, but like schools in poor and minority neighborhoods across the country the parents have modest political capital. Schools like MVM are vulnerable to modern “Carpetbaggers.” I believe that is the true reason underlying the unwarranted demise of MVM and hundreds or possibly thousands of MVM’s across this country.

(1) http://boarddocs.suhsd.k12.ca.us/Board.nsf/Public – 3/11/2012 – Superintendents Agenda Item 6.

(2) http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2011-12-15/schools-federal-standards/51949126/1

(3) Unpublished letter to Principal Winters, February 2013

(4) MVM School Accountability Report Card 2009 http://research-evaluation.sweetwaterschools.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/84/files/2012/10/SARC2009_MVM_Short.pdf

(5) http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/dec/03/seven-local-districts-among-golden-bell-award/

(6) MVM School Accountability Report Card 2009 http://research-evaluation.sweetwaterschools.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/84/files/2012/10/SARC2009_MVM_Short.pdf

(7) Unpublished letter to Principal Winters, February 2013

(8) http://research-evaluation.sweetwaterschools.org/sarcs/ – 2012-2013 SARC Mar Vista Middle School.