Tag Archives: testing

Editorial Peddles School Privatization Agenda

16 Jul

The San Diego Union editor deserves the bunkum efficiency award for packing so much baloney in a scant four paragraphs. The first sentence of the editorial headlined “Still more bad faith from state ED board” says:

“The State Board of Education’s defining characteristic is its ardent defense of an education establishment more worried about the interests of teachers than students.”

It is true that the education establishment in California does listen to input from teachers and their unions, however, today the establishment is dominated by billionaires like Reed Hasting and Carrie Walton Penner. There are many other establishment powerhouses like the California Charter School Association (CCSA), representatives of the education testing industry and education technology profiteers.

As your newspaper reported, by May, 2016, the CCSA was spending heavily to win seats on the San Diego County Board of Education:

“The political arm of the California Charter Schools Association has spent $220,000 so far on the San Diego County Board of Education election this year, following a difficult period for the independently operated campuses in the region — one that’s been marked by unsuccessful appeals and a string of legal challenges.”

After the recent LA school board election, the LA Times wrote in an article titled “How L.A.’s school board election became the most expensive in U.S. history,”

“It’s an oversimplification to say the outcome was all about money, but charters spent more ($9.7 million compared with $5.2 million), and their candidates finished first in both races on Tuesday’s ballot.”

Clearly these forces for privatizing public schools in California are a significant part of the education establishment. They are anti-teachers’ unions, pro testing and have huge political clout. Governor Jerry Brown, who started two charter schools himself, has vetoed every piece of legislation that proposed any increased accountability on charter schools.

To say the establishment is “more worried about the interests of teachers than students,” is wrong. Or is it just a purposeful lie?

The interests of teachers and students are very similar and neither is getting a fair deal. Teachers and students are in the same overcrowded rooms, using the same facilities and have the same half-hour lunches. No one cares more for the welfare of students and understands more about good teaching than California’s professional educators.

The first paragraph concludes:

“This is once again on display with the state board’s response to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the 2015 federal law that replaced the 2002 No Child Left Behind measure and governs how school systems that receive federal funds must operate. While the new law is much less strict than the old one, it still mandates that schools must be taken over by state governments if they are at the bottom 5 percent of statewide assessments, graduate less than two-thirds of students or have ethnic groups with consistently weak test results.” (bolding added)

Here, I am ready to join with my conservative friends and call for the abolition of the United States Department of Education. Schools should be in the control of parents, teachers and students in the local community. The federal government has no business dictating school policy and especially dictating policy that is a known failure.

In 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to rapidly turn around 5,000 of the nation’s lowest performing schools. It was called the Scholastic School Improvement Grant program (SIG). Today, there is consensus among researchers that SIG was a complete failure. A study by Tina Trujillo, University of California, Berkeley and Michelle Renée, Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University stated one its conclusions:

“Conceptually, one of the most frequent critiques of these studies was that they relied on a single measure of effectiveness standardized test scores. While relying on standardized test scores was methodologically problematic because it falsely assumed that the assessments were valid and reliable, doing so as the sole measure of effectiveness also led to narrow conceptions of student success and the purposes of education ignoring the social, civic, and broader academic aspects of schooling. … Student scores on standardized tests are far too narrow to be the sole indicators of school success in the democratic model of schooling.”

For three-decades, states have been taking over local schools. Unfortunately, we have a three-decade record of failure. Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize tells the story of Newark New Jersey’s thirty-years with state run schools including how they squandered a $100,000,000 gift from Mark Zuckerberg. In Newark, the teachers were never the problem and neither was tenure or the union. It was always corrupt politicians and grinding poverty creating traumatized children. The state only made it worse when it disenfranchised local citizens.

Detroit is another horrifying example of the complete failure of a state led turn around. A Michigan state officials, Barbra Byrd Bennett, is now serving time for taking kick-backs  and the schools are worse off. After two decades of state control we read in the New York Times,

“Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.

“Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produce a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.”

The editor at the Union should be praising not denigrating the State Board of Education for trying to do the right thing in a tough spot. You should be pointing out how the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is terrible legislation that is more about selling technology, mandating testing and privatizing schools than it is about improving education.

As I wrote to Diane Feinstein, ESSA continues the testing mandate and spends large amounts of money promoting dubious technology initiatives such as “personalized learning” and “blended learning.” If these are truly good ideas they will be adopted without federal coercion. Every student in America is required to take a big standardized test in grades 3 – 8 and grade 11.

The big standardized test is useless. It tells us nothing about the quality of teachers or schools. Peter Greene known for his wonderful education blog, “Curmudgucation”, responded to an essay by Morgan Polikoff (USC Rossier), a long-time Big Standardized Test supporter:

“Polikoff’s problem remains– the BS Tests are junk that provide junk data and damage schools in the process. Accountability is a good idea, but the standards-based high-stakes tests that we’ve been subjected to for the past more-than-ten years are junk, and they do not provide a useful, reliable, or valid measure of school quality– not even sort of. Nor have they helped– not even incrementally.”

Like the way that ESSA supports social impact bonds which profit bankers and 1:1 initiatives which profit the technology industry; mandated testing is fueling the testing industry. These bad ideas are being used to transform tax money meant to benefit students into revenue streams for corporations.

These are the kind of corrupt purposes you should denounce instead of school leaders who are trying to finesse this horrible federal law and our thoroughly unqualified Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

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Instead, you tacitly support high stakes testing as a way of evaluating schools. You legitimize the federal government and the state of California taking over San Diego’s schools. How big government of you.

Your editorial continues:

“But the State Board of Education is instead on track to approve vague, mushy Every Student Succeeds standards by the U.S. Education Department’s September deadline that appear designed to impede accountability, not guarantee it.”

In May, your paper editorialized with the headline, “Board of Education is missing mark on college readiness.” The lead paragraph said:

“An unsatisfactory process is expected to come to a disappointing conclusion Wednesday when the State Board of Education grudgingly adopts measures to gauge student progress — forced to do so to ensure California receives federal education aid.”

That editorial also emphasized:

But it still requires that schools be taken over by state governments if they graduate less than two-thirds of their students, are at the bottom 5 percent of statewide assessments or have ethnic groups that have consistently weak test results. Under the proposal before the State Board of Education, beginning in fall 2017, schools will be evaluated on high school graduation rates; student results in English and math Common Core tests; gains made by English-language learners; and student suspension rates. Test scores in third-grade reading and eighth-grade math would be given additional emphasis.” (bolding added)

When coercing states to accept Common Core, Arne Duncan said state standards had to prepare students for “college and career readiness.” It was completely up to the states, but the department of education told them that Bill Gates’ Common Core satisfied “college and career ready.” It was a statement based on nothing; no research or historical evidence. In fact, California’s previous standards are widely viewed as better standards than common core.

A core problem is that standards based education is bad education. Along with the common core, the NGSS science standards are bad standards. Most states are moving away from them. So, I am ready to join you in beating up California’s education leaders for adopting bad education policies like NGSS and Common Core. They richly deserve the flogging.

However, it looks like you advocate these education standards and are for standardized testing as the only criteria for measuring schools and holding them accountable. That is just ignorance.

We have a wonderful method for holding schools accountable and giving them a constant path of improvement. In California, it is the Wester Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accrediting process. I have been through several WASC reviews and they are thorough and rigorous. A team of professional educators comes to the school and spends a week looking at everything and interviews as many stake holders as possible. Their report comes back with expectations to be met. This is real accountability performed by professionals that know education and can help. Testing is expensive and  worse than useless; it is misleading and destructive.

Your third paragraph says,

“Now The New York Times reports Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rejected such attempts to game the federal law by other states, upending expectations that she would defer to local control.”

In an interview by EdWeek, the Senator who led the writing of ESSA and is also a former US Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, was not impressed. The interviewer writes,

‘”I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully,’ Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, said in an interview. ‘The heart of the entire law … was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.’

“The technical, but important back story: Alexander was referring to a feedback letter Botel sent to Delaware on its ESSA plan, telling the state that it hadn’t been ‘ambitious’ enough in setting long-term goals for student achievement, sparking wonky outrage inside the Beltway and beyond.

“The education chairman noted in an interview that ESSA includes language specifically prohibiting the U.S. secretary of education from telling states what their goals can or can’t be—and that 85 senators voted to approve the new law.”

You end with;

“Will this lead to the board to do the right thing and adopt meaningful standards? There is no reason for optimism — because the board has a very different definition of what is the right thing to do than Californians who care about public schools.”

Common Core and NGSS standards and standardized testing are about monetizing schools and privatizing them. It appears that promoting that path is what you mean by “Californians who care about public schools.” Please realize that you and your fellow travelers are working to destroy a great public trust and a main pillar of democratic freedoms for “a few pieces of silver.”

Credit Recovery Farce Generates Spectacular Graduation Rates

8 Jun

A miracle has occurred. America’s high school graduation rates peaked at about 77% in 1970 and then drifted down for almost four decades to 69% in 2007. Astoundingly, even with increased graduation requirements rates have shot up.

Many school districts in California now require all students to meet course requirements for entering the University of California system to graduate from high School. That is a dramatic increase in academic rigor. Yet, in 2016, over 83% of California’s freshman cohort graduated on time. In 2012, 81% of the freshman cohort in America graduated on time. These record setting numbers are the result of knuckleheaded political policy, cheating and credit recovery.

What is Credit Recovery and Where did it Come from?

In the 1990’s politicians like Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush were pushing for standards in education and accountability measures. Jeb Bush’s infamous school grading system called for 25% of a high school’s grade to be based on graduation rates. Bill Clinton wrote in 1998,

“We have worked to raise academic standards, promote accountability, and provide greater competition and choice within the public schools, including support for a dramatic increase in charter schools.”

“We know that all students can learn to high standards, and that every school can succeed if it has clear instructional goals and high expectations for all of its students; ….”

Donald T. Campbell’s 1976 paper presented a theory about social change that is now widely revered as Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Exactly as the Social Scientist, Campbell, postulated, this national push to increase the standards of school rigor and to use social indicators (graduation rates and high stakes testing) to evaluate schools has introduced distortion and corruption.

How were school leaders going to protect their institutions and their own jobs from the ravages of horribly shortsighted and uninformed education policy? The solution was obvious; teach to the test and find a way to raise graduation rates.

To the rescue, came both the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with many other lesser contributors. They perceived it was time for advancing the privatization of public education and accelerating the adoption of technology in education. Credit recovery was a perfect vehicle.

A mouthpiece for these foundations, the Education Commission of the States, explains:

“Credit recovery is an alternative to course repetition for students who have previously failed a course needed for high school graduation. Programs may be offered via computer software, online instruction (including through a state’s virtual high school or a local virtual school) or teacher-guided instruction (small group or one-on-one), and are typically targeted at the standards in which students were deficient, rather than all standards in the original course.

“Programs should be self-paced and competency-based ….”

Another organization significantly financed by Walton and Gates iNACOL (International Association for k-12 Online Learning) promotes a virulent form of computer based education known as CBE. I discussed CBE in a previous post: “CBE is basically outcome based education moved to digital space. Outcome based education was the new 1990’s name given to a previously failed strategy known as mastery education (AKA ‘seats and sheets’).” The fundamental theory of CBE is that education can be reduced to discrete pieces of knowledge. It’s bad theory.

iNACOL also weighed in on credit recovery:

“Our country has been trying to address the graduation crisis in many ways.”

“Today, one of the root issues is the older students who are missing a significant number of credits do not have the time to sit in class again, thus competency-based programs are a better option.”

Echoing the unsubstantiated “Nation at Risk” iNACOL does not see foolish policy or growing poverty leading to stagnate or falling graduation rates. It sees a CRISIS!

With credit recovery students are able to gain graduation credits in as short a time as a day. According to several teacher friends who have taught teacher led credit recovery, there is no real instruction, just filling in packets (“seats and sheets”). I have heard many students say, “I don’t care if I fail, I’ll do credit recovery.” Why not? It’s easier.

How Fraudulent is Online Credit Recovery?

At the high school where I taught this year, I overheard a pair of administrators speaking in hushed tones about the fraud going on in the learning center. In our district, there are twelve learning centers which are technically separate schools. They provide online credit recovery for students who have not earned enough credits. The discussion was about seeing students using smartphones to answer the test questions provided by Apex Learning. The fact that this behavior was being tolerated was what galled them.

As is made clear in a recent series of eight article about credit recovery published by Slate Magazine, cheating on credit recovery is not unique at all.

Zoë Kirsch wrote in her Slate article, The New Diploma Mills:

“Almost 90 percent of school districts use some form of credit recovery, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (the center doesn’t distinguish between online and other forms). And data cited by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade group, shows that at least 75 percent of districts use some form of online learning. So, we can say this about online credit recovery: It’s pretty big.”

Kirch’s article also reports that in Nashville, graduation rates increased from 70 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2015 following the introduction of online credit recovery. Even more stunning, in Los Angeles the graduation rate grew from 54 percent to 75 percent in a single year when credit recovery was introduced in 2015.

A supervisor of credit recovery at East Gadsden High in Florida was informed that some students there were paying one another to do online coursework. When she reported it to the district, an administrator there told her to “leave it alone.” “There’s some things you can’t fix.”

The article “Fast. Isolating. Superficial.” by Stephen Smiley shares,

“She [Elizabeth Bieze, the guidance counselor who oversees the virtual lab at Sullivan High School Chicago] adds that it’s not atypical for students to recover credits for yearlong classes in under a week. ‘They do really well in the pretest, they get to skip a bunch of stuff, and they just take the final exam,’ she says. ‘It has helped our graduation rate immensely.’”

Stephen also found this:

“‘Anyone wanna do a math credit recovery for me I’ll pay you,’ read one tweet posted by a student in Erie, Pennsylvania, in August. ‘If anyone wants to go online and do my chemistry credit recovery I’d be more than happy to give you my username and password,’ wrote another student in Arkansas. Naturally, online learning companies like Edgenuity and Apex insist that most don’t actually follow through and that the chatter is mostly empty boasting.

“That may be so, but I didn’t have too much trouble finding students online who insisted they had cheated without being caught. One of them, Joseph, who is a 17-year-old senior at a Long Island high school in New York, said his online English class was uninspiring, so he paid a buddy $200 to complete it.”

Stephen also wrote a second article for Slate, “I Am an Online Credit Recovery Dropout.” In it he describes a personal experience of taking a few online courses. Stephen concluded,

“But I also came to appreciate what many students had told me about virtual learning: Compared with regular school, there’s less interaction with teachers, fewer opportunities for creative expression, and little chance to bounce around ideas with classmates. While online learning clearly has some strengths (programs can be tailored to individual needs, for instance), it’s hard to get away from an overarching conclusion: The experience as a whole can be pretty boring and lonely.”

Why is Credit Recovery Flourishing?

Francesca Berardi wrote “Take These Students, Please” about online credit recovery in Chicago. Surprising to me, it turns out that former basketball star Magic Johnson is a significant participant in the industry. Francesca notes,

“During Emanuel’s administration, Magic Johnson has become a major player in Chicago’s education world: Bridgescape operates five programs across the city, serving more than 850 students, and as the Chicago Tribune reported, in March 2015 another of Johnson’s companies, SodexoMAGIC, received an $80 million contract to take over janitorial services for several Chicago Public School buildings. Following the contract, Johnson donated $250,000 to Emanuel’s campaign for re-election.

“Not surprisingly, last September, Emanuel announced that in just five years the high school graduation rate had jumped from roughly 50 percent to 73.5 percent.”

‘’’The district is giving high school diplomas for programs that are nowhere near comparable to regular high schools,’ said Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association and a fierce critic of Emanuel’s administration.”

Zoë Kirsch and Stephen Smiley teamed up to write “Why Bad Online Courses Are Still Taught in Schools.” The article opens with this story from Florida:

“Last year, the Florida Department of Education rejected the company Online Education Ventures, which failed to provide descriptions of its virtual courses in science, social studies, and English (it provided descriptions of the math courses, but they didn’t meet state standards). A year earlier, the state disqualified Mosaica Online because the company didn’t show it could provide timely information about its courses. And it said no to Odysseyware, since it failed to outline student anti-discrimination policies or show how its products could meet the needs of students with disabilities.

“But here’s the rub: Those companies are still allowed to sell their products to schools in Florida. Public school districts can still use public money to educate students with discredited products like Online Education Ventures.’”

“The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has made expanding online learning—unfettered and in all of its forms—one of its priorities. … ALEC has quietly but effectively helped mostly Republican lawmakers pass the kinds of laws the online learning companies want—laws that, for instance, require all graduating high school students to complete at least one virtual class.”

According to Zoe and Stephen, no states are doing a good job of regulating online learning and credit recovery. “As it happens, one of the most rigorous judges of online credit recovery classes is the NCAA. The NCAA’s standard is higher than what any state government requires for its students.”

Some Conclusions and Recommendations

Credit recovery has introduced a corruption into public education.

Online learning is only better than no other alternative. It is lifeless and dull. Some people claim there are ways to make it better, but I seriously doubt that it will ever match a classroom with a teacher to stimulate supervised dialog as a learning vehicle.

The push for credit recovery is a blatant scheme to impose privatized online learning.

Until this corruption has been eradicated, diplomas that are awarded based on credit recovery should have a reduced status to legitimately earned high school diplomas. That will at least reduce the incentive to “get it in credit recovery.”

Of all the increased academic requirements, the requirement for advanced mathematics to graduate from high schools is the most counterproductive. Most college graduates will never have a reason to make a binomial expansion or mathematically describe a conic section. Roll back these stupid requirements. Every student is not going to Berkeley.

Notes:

The five Slate Magazine articles I cited above are more on point for my article but these three articles cited below are also valuable reads.

Bottom of the Class By Francesca Berardi and Zoë Kirsch highlights some of the worst online companies.

Online Education Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating By Sarah Carr discusses some ways online learning can be done well.

Just Take It Again By Stephen Smiley describes how some of the online design makes it easy but not authentic.

Education Reform Musing

14 Feb

I have done a lot of whining about “corporate education reform” and the “test and punish” theory of education reform and “standards based” top down education. I am in full agreement with the conclusion Kristina Rizga reached after her four years’ study of Mission High in San Francisco, “The more time I spent in classrooms, the more I began to realize that most remedies that politicians and education reform experts were promoting as solutions for fixing schools were wrong.”

However, I am tired of being Debbie Downer. So, I will share my thoughts on a positive path of improvement for education in America.

Democracy and Local Control

Never let foreigners decide how and what should be taught in your kid’s school. By foreigners, I mean anyone that has never been in the school and lives more than 50 miles away.

Reed Hastings of Netflix was such a heartfelt liberal that he even joined the Peace Corps. He taught mathematics in Africa. Yet, in 2000, this once liberal crusader used his vast wealth to lift the cap on charter schools in California. Today he may be even more infamous for telling the California Charter Schools Association that elected school boards are anachronisms and should be replaced by non-profits running charter schools.

This is the problem with the uber-wealthy and their political assets controlling education. As statistics expert Gene Glass wrote “success in business has proven to them that their circle of competence knows no bounds.” It is my firm belief that the wisdom of the masses expressed through democratic processes is far superior to the dictates of any one of us including political titans and the billionaires.

In 1891, at the NEA gathering in Toronto Canada, Francis W. Parker of Chicago representing the Cook County Normal School declared:

“The soul seeking peace and comfort under the dominance and permanence of fixed ideals shrinks with dismay from the inevitable blunders, stupidity, ignorance and calamities that invariably accompany all democratic growth. The short road of centralization seems to reach in a day that which takes years to accomplish under the patient waiting for that slow dawning of intelligence which leads to right action on the part of democratic communities.

“Our foreign critics mistake variety and honest individual striving for chaos. That which has its birth in the desires and intelligence of the people, and is applied by the will of the people, becomes an organic, permanent factor in the progress of civilization of that people. It is rooted and grounded upon the people-“Vox POTTI. Vox dei.” But that which is imposed upon a people by any authority below heaven breaks into atoms when the intelligence and power of a people can reach and control it.

Centralized power may be a necessity for infancy, but manhood sheds it off for the strong wings of freedom.

In 1916, John Dewey wrote in his book Education and Democracy,

“An aim must, then, be flexible; it must be capable of alteration to meet circumstances. An end established externally to the process of action is always rigid. Being inserted or imposed from without, it is not supposed to have a working relationship to the concrete conditions of the situation.”

It is not just writers from Mother Jones or 19th and early 20th century American educators who warn of the deleterious effects associated with centralized power and ridged standards. The famed Japanese Buddhist philosopher and educator, Daisaku Ikeda writes in his book Soka Education:

“I have in the past called for the principle of the separation of powers to be expanded to give education a status and independence equal to that accorded the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Because education is a profound endeavor that shapes the individuals of future generations, it should be completely independent of political interference.”

Throughout his long illustrious career Mr. Ikeda has developed friendships and established what Peter Greene calls “thinky tanks.” In the book mentioned above, Ikeda quotes Columbia University’s Professor Robert Thurman’s answer to a question he received at the Ikeda founded Boston Research Center for the 21st Century. He was asked how he views the role of education in society. Thurman 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?”

The former Rector of the National University of Cordoba, Argentina, Francisco J. Delich is a friend who Ikeda wrote about in his book, Unforgettable Friends. Ikeda imparted:

“Having been driven from the lectern by the government in the past [1976-1983], Dr. Delich is very deeply and personally aware of the evil of allowing government to control education. He wants to build a society in which political leaders respect educators. Education, he believes, is the very foundation of the nation.”

Rizga, Parker, Dewey, Ikeda, Thurman and Delich contravene the thinking of the billionaire class who believe schools should be centrally commanded like the monopolistic enterprises by which they were enriched. People of great moral purpose believe in democratic processes. They understand it is impossible for capitals of power to satisfactorily meet the educational needs of any community by imposition. Democratic processes based locally is the true foundation for developing education. In America, the heart of that development is the board managed public school.

Democratize Schools

 At the school, the power of principals should be reduced and the power teacher department leaders increased. Instead of running schools like a factory with a central figure in charge, schools should be run by committees made up of educators, students, community members and administrators. Many schools in California already have a faculty advisory committees made up of teachers and administrators. They also have school site councils consisting of students, parents and teachers. These groups should run the school.

Today, the only path for advancement available to educators is to leave the classroom and become an administrator. Instead of losing our best teachers to management, pay department heads more and utilize their expertise to improve teaching.

It is unrealistic to expect any one individual (the principal) to be an expert in all disciplines. Make the department chairs the curriculum experts. Add requirements to their position like a master’s degree and ten years of experience. The selection of the department head should remain the purview of the department staff.

Administrators should run school functions like facilities, registration, discipline enforcement, etc. The policies that they administer would be developed by the faculty advisory committee and the school site council.

In other words, let’s democratize our schools and respect all voices including students. District managers should be just that. They should be there to take care of budgets and personnel matters. Schools should not be subservient to districts. Quite the opposite; the district is there to serve the school. We need to get rid of the American ideology that posits a fabled superstar leader. Rather we need to embrace democratic action.

Curriculum

The concept of standards based education was motivated by the undeniable fact that good curriculum is a requirement for outstanding education. Unfortunately, this is the path to authoritarian top down control with its associated negative outcomes. I have written about some of these negative outcomes here.

Today, many states have adopted two sets of terrible education standards which I wrote about here, here, here and here. In a nutshell, standards do not really fit the needs of any schools and they are enforced by authoritarian means based on pseudo-science.

Standards based testing is totally useless for measuring anything other than the economic health of the community being tested. Standards based test cannot evaluate schools, teaching or student learning. As soon as high stakes are tied to them, they become a complete fraud.

We have the best trained teaching force in the history of America. Our teachers are fully capable of designing the curriculum for their schools. Strong department teacher leaders working collaboratively will produce much better curriculum tailored to that community for less money. Because the teachers who developed the curriculum believe in it and are personally invested in its success, they will do a better job of delivering it.

Reality Versus Marketing

Betsy DeVos who is completely unqualified by experience or training has just been confirmed as Secretary of Education. However, this is nothing new. Arne Duncan was also confirmed as Secretary of Education and he was completely unqualified by experience or training. Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walmart heirs wield great influence over our present increasingly autocratic education system and none of them have the kind of experience or training that their level of influence requires. This is our present reality.

Bill Gates has made silly claims like experience, advanced degrees and class size are not that important to teaching and learning. Just yesterday, I read this post, “The Rise of Crony Appointees and the Inexpert Ruling Class” by Professor Paul Thomas of Furman University, Greenville SC. He observed that “Education and education policy have been a playground for Innovators! who have no historical context or real experience in day-to-day teaching and learning.”

Public education is not a business. It’s an environment in which human beings grow intellectually, physically and socially. There is no product and it’s not really a service. Education is unique and trying to fit it into a business box may have seemed like a reasonable idea, but it didn’t work. Business leaders make poor education leaders because they do not have education expertise.

The truth is that expertise based on training and experience are crucial for any endeavor. A deep problem in some charter school chains is they were founded by people who rejected education expertise, scholarship and training. I give details about these schools in this post. There are many possible motives for our current odd propensity as a society to reject professionalism in education and pursue fool’s gold, but whatever the excuse we are harming America.

Yes there are failing schools in America. The cause for that failure are racial segregation, poverty, misguided political policies, racism and graft especially by politicians. The schools in Oklahoma City that John Thompson described fell into their miserable state because of top down mandates and lack of funding. Schools in Newark were the victim of decades of graft.

The failure of all of these schools would have been avoided if professional educators and parents were the dominant voices in the operation of schools.

The cost of testing and technology has drained enormous (unknowable?) amounts of money out of America’s classrooms. In his massive study of the rise and fall of civilizations, the great historian Arnold Toynbee observed in his A Study of History, “The bread of universal education is no sooner cast upon the waters than a shoal of sharks arises from the depths and devours the children’s bread under the educator’s very eyes.”

We are spending enough money to have splendid houses of learning from coast to coast but education monies are being squandered by politicians and business elites. Squandered on impractical or even harmful ideas like “personalized learning” (a kid at a screen running a program provided by Reed Hastings) or “blended learning” (fraudulent schools in the strip mall giving graduation credits for spending time at a computer) and endless testing. The last thing kids in the 21st century need is more screen time.

To create truly great schools, democratize them, limit technology and use teacher generated assessments.  Stop the money drain and use those resources and good sense to:

  1. Reduce class sizes
  2. Increase teacher pay and teacher education requirements
  3. Value experience
  4. Respect and unleash the vast amount of talent on the staff of every school in America.
  5. Believe in democracy.

Rizga’s Mission High Informs

26 Jan

What is authentic quality education? Reading books by teachers like John Thompson and Ciedie Aechs provides significant insight as they take us inside their schools. Kristina Rizga, a journalist who was imbedded within San Francisco’s Mission High, makes another wonderful contribution to this understanding. For four years, she sat in classes, interviewed students, teachers and administrators. At the same time she studied the pedagogical process with the guidance of friends like Larry Cuban. Her book, Mission High, significantly contributes to the comprehension of sound education.

Solutions for Fixing Schools Are Wrong

In the book’s preface, she declares, “The more time I spent in classrooms, the more I began to realize that most remedies that politicians and education reform experts were promoting as solutions for fixing schools were wrong.” For multiple decades, classroom teachers have been awakening to that same realization. This time it was an outsider who spent enough time to see how misguided test and punish education policies are; to see how misguided standardized approaches to education are.

Echoing Rizga’s point, The National Education Policy Center recently published a tome entitled, Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms. This following statement is in the introduction.

“Despite this legislative commitment to public schools, our lawmakers have largely eroded ESEA’s [Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965] original intent. Moving from assistance to ever increasing regulation, states gravitated toward test-based reforms in the minimum basic skills movement in the 1970s. A watershed event occurred in 1983 with the report, A Nation at Risk, which was predicated on international economic competitiveness and rankings on test scores. The report was succeeded by Goals 2000, the first federal Act to require states to develop standards-based test goals and measure progress toward them. The stringent and reductionist No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 then followed on its heels. At each step, our educational policies became more test-based, top-down, prescriptive, narrow and punitive, and federal support to build the most struggling schools’ capacity for improvement faded.”

In the author’s notes, Kristina reveals what being imbedded meant, how she worked and the kind of relationships she developed.

“In 2010 I started sitting in on the classrooms of Robert Roth, the first teacher I picked, observing him and his interactions with students. I spent about two years coming regularly to Roth’s classes, sometimes going to every class for weeks. Then I spent one year, on and off, in Hsu’s class and about six months, on and off, in McKamey’s and Anders’s classes. The classes were so intellectually engaging – more than most of the courses I took as an undergrad at UC Berkeley – that I often had to remind myself that I’m not a student. I also spent a great deal of time in at least thirty other classrooms at Mission and other schools, observing various teachers and different pedagogical approaches.”

Conquest by “Administrative Progressives”

Rizga’s book tells the story of four students, three teachers and the principal, Eric Guthertz. Interspersed within these individual stories are pedagogical analysis, observed outcomes and research citations.

Alfie Kohn quoted the education historian, Ellen Lagemann, in his book The Schools Our Children Deserve, “One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes the Edward K. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”

Rizga makes a similar point. She defines two groups of progressive reformers,

“Most historians identify two major strands in the Progressive education movement: ‘Administrative Progressives,’ who focused on the top-down organizational reforms to create ‘efficient’ schools to produce productive workers, and ‘Child-centered Progressives,’ who prioritized transforming learning and teaching at the classroom level to make schools more intellectually and emotionally engaging for students.”

In 1904, the famous “Child-centered Progressive,” John Dewey, left the Chicago Laboratory School. He was replaced by “Administrative Progressive,” Charles Judd. It was symbolic; Dewey was out and “Administrative Progressives” were in.

Today, we might say that educators are out and the Democrats for Education Reform are in. Billionaires’ opinions about how to do school swamp professional research. Community schools are no longer the purview of elected school board. Today’s school boards are being reduced to nothing more than vessels required to carry out federal and state mandates.

Misguided and Racist Reform

Rizga posits that in order to “scientifically” sort students into tracked systems, a reform that is still with us today, was instituted: IQ testing and standardized achievement tests. She shares the dark history of their inception:

“As author Anya Kamenetz eloquently documents, some of the creators of these early tests were racists, driven by ideology about the roots of inequality more than science, and were using these tests as ‘scientific’ tools to argue that intelligence and merit were fixed, genetically inherited qualities. One of the creators of the IQ tests, Lewis Terman, the chair of psychology at Stanford University, argued that the low test scores of ‘negroes,’ ‘Spanish-Indians,’ and Mexicans were racial characteristics, and he was a proponent of forced sterilization.”

Rizga cites the work of, Yong Zhao, now at the University of Kansas and an expert in education of testing, “He observes that despite America’s mediocre performance on international tests since the 1960’s, it still files more patents and wins more Nobel Prizes than any other country in the world.” “Zhao who went to school in China and worked there as a teacher, notes that the problem of ‘high test scores but low ability’ (gaofen dineng) is a widely recognized issue in Chinese society, …” A study, Zhao cites, discovered that the highest scoring students in their province on China’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination do not appear on any other lists of distinction such as prominent scientists, entrepreneurs, scholars, or engineers.

Through her account of students, teachers and administer, Rizga shows the debilitating effect of the top-down approach to education reform based on standardized testing. She describes how teachers and administrators struggled valiantly to mitigate the negative effects of modern “test and punish” school reform and its negative impact on students already burdened by poverty, language issues and other detriments.

Mission High Exists in Every Community

Mission High like all schools is unique. For various reasons many Mission students arrive at the school behind most students at their grade level. Mission has been threatened with closure, but the administration and teachers refuse to narrow the pedagogy. They continue to expose students to rigorous intellectually challenging material. Their students thrive. In fact, Mission teachers will tell you that the rigor and challenge is why students are engaged and growing. Rizga concurs, “Many schools respond by pushing low-income students into remedial classes and away from the intellectually challenging ones that most students I interviewed told me motivate them to come to school more than any other variable.”

While reading Mission High, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Mission Highs in which I have worked. Rizga’s description of Mission paints a picture of talented dedicated educators successfully slaying dragons for the sake of the children they have come to love.

I have worked in two high schools (Mar Vista High School and Southwest High School) that remind me of Mission High. And just like Mission both of these schools have immensely talented people dedicated to education who continue to walk into their buildings and fight every day to be able to give the students they have come to love great education.

Both Mar Vista and Southwest were forced to send letters home informing parents that the federal government had determined that these schools were “failing schools.” Parents were given the option to send their children to a not failing school in a better zip code. Very few parents transferred their children, because they saw what was happening in their community schools and knew these were good schools. However, many parents who had never had an experience with the schools did bus their children to that “good school” in a “good” zip code.

I have also worked in two middle schools in poorer neighborhoods and experienced the same mix of talent and dedication. One of those schools (Mar Vista Middle School) actually had half of the staff fired and the school reconstituted as Mar Vista Academy. A disruption that brought no positive change, but harmed both teachers and students. Disruption as an education policy is an “Alice through the looking glass” reform. It is crazy.

America has never had such a highly trained and effective teaching staff as today. If the “Administrative Progressives” would get out of the rode and the billionaire reformers would give educators the respect they deserve, schools in America would flourish as never before and once again be the bedrocks of American democracy.

Rizga’s Description of the Teachers

In the Epilogue, Rizga describes what she observed about the teachers, a description that completely accords with my own experience and observation of teaching.

“Mission High teachers never complained to me about being overworked, but that toll is obvious to any visitor who spends significant time with them in and out of school. Every teacher I met frequently worked more hours than anyone I have met in the white-collar world – journalism, tech, law, corporate, and nonprofit. For more than a decade, McKamey woke up at 5:00 a.m., got to school by 6:30 a.m., left school at 4:30 p.m. for a dance class, then worked almost every evening and every Sunday. Every teacher I knew often met with his or her colleagues to plan lessons on Saturdays or Sundays, unpaid, because they didn’t always have enough time to do it during the workweek, when they teach five classes, need to read and grade hundreds of assignments each week, and must plan the next lesson. Many teachers met with students after school and on the weekends, unpaid. The most effective educators, like Roth and McKamey, had twenty-five years of teaching under their belts, but how can we expect a new generation of teachers to work such hours and stay in the profession for decades? No wonder close to half of teachers leave the profession before they acquire five years of experience.”

Kristina Rizga’s Mission High makes a positive contribution to understanding what good teaching is and why top-down standardized management is a fatal error.

About ‘The Prize’

21 Dec

Dale Russakoff’s book details the epic fail of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100,000,000 gift which was matched by another $100,000,000 from several other philanthropic organizations and individuals. Intended to fix the poorly performing schools of Newark, New Jersey it failed by every conceivable benchmark. It’s a story of feckless politicians, arrogant reformers and amazing teachers. It tells of the unmitigated degradation of the urban center of a once great American city and the difficulties facing Newark’s educators charged with the impossible task of righting that urban decline in their classrooms.

Russakoff wrote this in her conclusion:

“For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else, beyond the people whose children and grandchildren desperately needed to learn and compete for a future. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to create a national “proof point” in Newark. There was less focus on Newark as its own complex ecosystem that reformers needed to understand before trying to save it. Two hundred million dollars and almost five years later, there was at least as much rancor as reform.” (page 209)

Clearly standardized test scores are a poor measure of school quality. Stuart S. Yeh presented this paper on value added measures (VAM) of teacher and school quality based on testing and concluded “VAM is not reliable.” There are several more peer reviewed papers like this and a warning from the American Statistical Association against the use of VAM to evaluate schools and teachers. Nevertheless, the basic meterstick for top-down reform is the standardized test which inevitably leads to GIGO (garbage in; garbage out).

Not surprisingly reform based on standardized testing and reformer arrogance meant the $200 million brought regression not improvement. Dale reported, “…, throughout the district, proficiency had declined in both literacy and math in every tested grade on the state standardized test since 2011, the year before Anderson arrived.” Anderson is Cami Anderson the former Joel Klein deputy from New York City brought in to lead Newark’s reform. This evaluation is of course somewhat unfair because it is based on the misguided but favored tool of “corporate education reformers”.

Corporate Education Reform

Stan Karp writing in the Washington Post defines “corporate education reform” and  lists a set of policy agendas associated:

“Corporate education reform” refers to a specific set of policy proposals currently driving education policy at the state and federal level.  These proposals include:

*increased test-based evaluation of students, teachers, and schools of education

*elimination or weakening of tenure and seniority rights

*an end to pay for experience or advanced degrees

*closing schools deemed low performing and their replacement by publicly funded, but privately run charters

*replacing governance by local school boards with various forms of mayoral and state takeover or private management

*vouchers and tax credit subsidies for private school tuition

*increases in class size, sometimes tied to the firing of 5-10% of the teaching staff

*implementation of Common Core standards and something called “college and career readiness” as a standard for high school graduation:”

The reform that Zuckerberg, Booker and Christie were bringing to Newark included this entire list except for vouchers and tax credit subsidies for private school tuition which were on the horizon. In addition, they instituted another piece of long favored but widely discredit reform – merit pay. On this point Russakoff states:

 “… teachers consistently tell researchers that, given the choice, they would opt for a good principal and supportive working conditions over merit pay. Indeed, research had found no correlation between merit pay and student achievement, although reformers and venture philanthropists were fighting hard to make it a staple of new teacher contracts.” (page 193)

 Feckless Politicians

Newark was one of America’s premier cities prior to World War II, however, a culture of political corruption featuring patronage jobs became dominate in the city. The biggest slice of patronage became the Newark Public School system. Control of the schools became known as “the prize.” By the start of the 1960’s this corrupt political system was firmly and culturally established. Russakoff depicted the history:

“Although black residents were approaching a majority in the city, they were politically powerless to force local officials to address evidence of police brutality, substandard housing, or collapsing public education. An Italian American political machine, which became dominant in the early 1960s, displacing Irish bosses, tightly controlled city hall and the schools, along with patronage jobs, contracts, and – it was well known – lucrative kickbacks from organized crime. Former U.S. representative Hugh Addonizio, the mayor at the time, famously explained his motivation for leaving the prestige of Congress to run such an impoverished city: “There’s no money in Washington, but you can make a million bucks as mayor of Newark.” (page 17)

Finally, on July 12, 1967, Newark exploded into six days of rioting. In the following election Kenneth Gibson became the first black mayor of a northeastern city. He defeated Addonizio who was on trial for extortion and later convicted. Gibson and his successor Sharpe James became convicted felons as well. Cory Booker was the first Newark mayor in forty-four years not be indicted.

April 13, 1995, the Newark Public schools were taken over by the state of New Jersey. Curiously, according to the New York Times article, judge Stephen G. Weiss “said today that his main reason for ordering a takeover was that too many Newark schoolchildren failed statewide tests.”

A belief in democratic processes leads one to look askance at moves by states and cities to usurp the powers of local elected school boards. And baseless standardized tests should never be accepted as the excuse to close schools. However, in the face of extreme malfeasance, common sense dictates action to protect citizens. Russakoff tells of just such documented corruption leading to dangerous conditions for children:

“In 1994, state Department of Education investigators cited gross mismanagement, corruption, and instructional failure throughout the Newark district, even as school board members treated themselves to public cars, tropical junkets, and expensive meals. The investigators found rat infestation, asbestos, and high levels of lead paint in a rented building being used as an elementary school. The school board was negotiating to buy the building, worth about $120,000, for $2.7 million. It turned out to be owned, through a sham company, by two school principals prominent in Italian American politics. They were indicted on multiple charges and later acquitted.” (page 19)

Unfortunately over the next 20-years, the state had made no real progress in changing the school system from being employer of last resort to an educational system first and foremost. The central office was still bloated and contracts were still based on patronage.

In rode Cory Booker, a high school football star who went on to play tight-end for Stanford University. He was the scion of black professionals and grew-up in suburbia. Booker was a Rhodes scholar and attended Yale Law. He had a magnetic personality and his Yale classmates like Secretary of Education, John King and Connecticut Governor, Danial Malloy knew he was destined for big things.

Cory went to Newark to build his resume. He was a master of self-promotion and a gifted salesman. Best of all, he was just the kind of leader investors and philanthropists were hoping for. He was an articulate black man who was as at home in board rooms. Booker was someone with whom they could deal. Russakoff says that “Booker was a valuable asset for the almost universally white, rich, Republican voucher movement, which along with the charter movement introduced him to some of his major political donors.” (page 11)

The Prize begins with the story of the clandestine meeting between Booker and the former US attorney from the Newark area, Chris Christie. It was during their drive through Christie’s childhood neighborhood that Christie and Booker made a secret agreement to reform Newark’s schools.

They realized their plan would not be well received in Newark but their hubris was so great that they were completely convinced of their own righteousness; eschewing democratic principal for authoritarian control. Russakoff makes the decision vivid:

“Early in the summer of 2010, months after their nighttime ride, Booker presented Christie with a proposal, stamped ‘Confidential Draft,’ titled ‘Newark Public Schools – A Reform Plan.’ It called for imposing reform from the top down, warning that a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. ‘Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,’ the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to ‘make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.’ The plan called for an ‘infusion of philanthropic support’ to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations, build sophisticated data accountability systems, and weaken tenure and seniority protections. Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending. Christie approved the plan, and Booker began pitching it to major donors.” (page 20)

My grandfather ran sheep at a place called Warm-Springs, just up the canyon from the Hemingway compound near the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. When I was a child, my grandfather and I ran into Earnest Hemingway in a local Ketchum, Idaho barber shop. It was here that Cory Booker’s growing national fame got him a ticket to the “invitation-only extravaganza of deal-making and schmoozing for media moguls and investors.” (page 22) It was here that Booker convinced Zuckerberg to make the $100 million-dollar donation. Russakoff describes the scene:

“Booker and Zuckerberg met at a buffet dinner one night on the deck of Herbert Allen’s Sun Valley townhouse, overlooking a golf course and stream. They shared a table with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and media executive Michael Eisner, among others. Afterward, Zuckerberg invited Booker on a walk and explained that he was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education, where his money could make the difference and create a national model. Booker responded with a pitch that showcased what made him such a dazzling fundraiser.” (page 24)

Within a few years, the two central political figures who instigated the reform of Newark’s schools had moved on leaving behind a mess. Chris Christie was intent on running for president and Cory Booker decided on the US Senate. Their ambition far out overshadowed any commitment to Newark and its schools.

Some Lessons and Observations

Charter schools are not necessarily bad. The descriptions of efforts made at both charter schools and Cami Anderson’s Renew Schools (which were reconstituted district schools) are impressive. However, if the decision has been taken to blow up the district and start over a partially privatized system is an error. The cost of education per child increases significantly when financing two public systems. The outcome will be that the district will lose more money than their fixed costs will be reduced. At the same time, they will become the dumping ground for problem children and expensive students that the privatized system shuns. This is exactly what has led to the demise of Detroit’s schools and Newark appears to be on the same path.

Democratically constituted systems will never be successfully reformed by authoritarian means.

In Newark, the teachers were never the problem and neither was tenure or the union. It was always corrupt politicians and grinding poverty creating traumatized children. Yes, schools need to be improved, but they are not social agencies equipped to solve the profound social problems leading to poor academic performance. At close observation, it is obvious that the public-school teachers in Newark were heroes who should have been the touchstone for school improvement.

Closing public schools and privatizing education is a mistake. Fix our schools; don’t undermine them.

Consultants are like vultures. If they are being relied upon, then your financial bones are being picked. Let me end with one more quote from The Prize:

“The going rate for consultants in Newark and elsewhere on the East Coast was $1,000 a day, and their pay comprised more than $20 million of the $200 million in philanthropy spent or committed in Newark. ‘Everyone’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read,’ observed Vivian Cox Fraser, president of the Urban League of Essex County, where Newark is located.” (page 71)

Two thumbs up for The Prize.

A Teacher’s Tale – Illuminates

12 Dec

John Thompson is an historian and a legislative analyst who found his calling – educator. His A Teacher’s Tale is provocative, interesting and a story only someone who had lived with and loved the oppressed black children of Oklahoma City could tell. It is a peek into a side of public education that is ugly and it illuminates the causes of that ugliness. It changed my perspective.

I grew up in a small town in rural Idaho (Glenn’s Ferry, population 1200). Actually, I lived until age 13 on a ranch outside of King Hill, Idaho, an unincorporated village of 99 people. Glenn’s Ferry Unified School District had schools in Glenn’s Ferry, King Hill and Hammett (another unincorporated town). Even with the three communities and the regions farms and ranches combined the four-year Glenn’s Ferry High School had less than 200 students. The truth is that our teachers were not great educators but they were great people who had our respect.

The Viet Nam war and the US Navy brought me to San Diego in 1968. My experience here with schools was not really that different in that people complained about the public schools, but like my little rural schools they were competently run at least in terms of safety and general decorum. Violence and unreasonable defiance were never a big issue even at schools in struggling neighborhoods. A student could go to these public schools and succeed splendidly. Great success stories growing out of poorly thought of San Diego neighborhoods have been common place for decades.

I share my background to illustrate an issue with getting education reform right. We are all like the proverbial blind men who are describing an elephant. Some of us feel the ears, some of us feel the trunk, etcetera. Almost all of us have experience in public school however because public education is such a vast and varied enterprise our vision is limited. My experience said that public schools were safe institutions run by professionals and that they had state bureaucracies insuring competent ethical operations. A Teacher’s Tale counters this view powerfully.

Thompson entered the classroom in 1993. At the time, there was a determined movement to improve Oklahoma City schools. John’s experience working in politics and his ethic of community engagement pushed him into the center of local reform efforts. This book tells the story how his work and that of many others was significantly undermined and even reversed by forces outside of the city.

In 1999, John committed to “a bipartisan district-wide school reform effort known as MAPS for Kids.” He helped draft a student achievement plan for the school system and helped sell the plan during an election to raise taxes and to fund system-wide instructional reforms. (page 202)

He describes how NCLB undermined MAPS:

“MAPS for Kids called for a balanced approach that emphasized improved classroom instruction and a holistic community-wide effort to offer the same high-quality education to low income students that affluent parents expect for their own children. NCLB, however, promoted the theory that the answers to the legacies of generational poverty could simply be found in the classroom. For that reason, efforts to address out-of-school factors were placed on the back burner as the OKCPS complied with the federal law.

“In the early years of MAPS and NCLB, efforts to improve instruction were undermined somewhat as the district tried to negotiate between the data-informed policies promised by local reformers and the data-driven approach favored by proponents of the federal law. For several years, the district was torn between the mixed messages of MAPS, which supported the use of diagnostic assessments as interpreted by educators, and the site-based management for empowering of teachers and principals, and of NCLB high-stakes testing and top-down governance, which overrode the judgments of professionals.”

John relates some absolutely horrific stories of student violence and fear. He describes how in 2006, in the aftermath of the school choice movement, John Marshall and Centennial high schools spiraled out of control. John had experienced large classes including students with reputations for being disruptive but this was different. He says, “I had never had such ‘toxic concentrations of poverty,’ where so many children simply could not control their behavior.” (Page 30)

John relates several stories of absolutely special children who were struggling to grow up in neighborhoods infested with Crips and Bloods. He tells of helping a student overcome a lack of reading skills and become motivated to educate himself only to be murdered. It was a frightful and repeated experience for the educators at John Marshall and Centennial High.

In the book, John presents convincing evidence that taking disciplinary control policies away from local administrators and teachers directly contributed to violence, terrible attendance and safety issues. He describes packs of out of control gang affiliated students roaming hallways instead of attending classes, while site administrators were not allowed by state bureaucracies to take the kind of effective action needed to create positive and safe learning environments. The evidence presented supporting this observation is powerful.

In addition to the evidence from his Oklahoma experience, John sited evidence from Chicago:

“Marshall would soon learn the hard way why the Consortium on Chicago School Research, in Organizing Schools for Improvement, Identified the intertwined factors of discipline and attendance as prime reasons why troubled schools fail to improve. When the consortium looked deeply into stalled reforms, its “most powerful single finding” was the relationship between attendance problems and the failure to manage disciplinary issues. Moreover, the consortium “found virtually no chance of improving attendance in schools that lacked safety and order” and “where instruction alignment was weak or predominantly basic skills oriented.” In other words, discipline, attendance, and effort to provide more effective instruction were interrelated in Chicago schools as in our Marshall.” (Page 356)

My impression is that Thompson is liberal minded and likely a Democrat. However, I like his open-minded approach and willingness to work with conservatives. His work with the group that created the MAPS for Kids school reform agenda was clearly a bipartisan effort by liberals and conservatives coming to consensus for the benefit of students. John’s book demonstrates that most conservatives care for their schools and want to fix problems rather than destroy schools or privatize them. It shows that conservatives and liberals can develop unity and consensus about how to run their schools. However, big moneyed interests and outsiders tend to wreak havoc.

One of the many examples of this was the famous historian David McCullough criticizing NCLB mandates for “narrowing the scope of the curriculum and promulgating a growing suspicion of teachers.” John continued:

“Before NCLB-type testing, few educators would have disagreed with him. Pedagogies that previously would be considered essential for teaching students to flourish in the modern world would struggle to survive the contemporary school reform movement.” (Page 164)

Referring to data-driven accountability and the need for disruptive change to shake up the “status-quo”, John writes:

“The charge was to produce rapid ‘transformational change’ in outcomes at challenging schools like Marshall in Oklahoma City. This accountability-driven reform was imposed, unfortunately, by advocates of disruptive change who typically had little knowledge of high-poverty K-12 schools. Inner city schools need more disruption like we need another gang war.” (Page 83)

Seeing community schools as an essential building block of a healthy society, John criticizes the no-excuses mentality that refuses to look at community health when designing approaches to improve schools. He observes:

“Community schools, however, are the tough-minded solution. Teacher-driven reforms like Rhee’s policies have yet to demonstrate much success, and now that billions of dollars have been invested in computer systems to keep track of teacher quality, they are no longer inexpensive. If nothing else, NCLB has prompted a golden age of educational research that has shown why test-driven accountability has failed. The time has come for a new generation of holistic reforms building on social science and the power of our diverse communities.”

The last five or six election cycles and school reform have spotlighted a nation divided. This division is the great obstacle facing America. We must find a way to respect each other’s opinions and discuss them with an open mind. John demonstrates by his activities in Oklahoma City that conservatives and liberals can reach common cause and make good policy, but we must stop demonizing each other. Everyone loves their children and we all want good education for them. That is a good starting point for dialog.

In the conclusion section of this book John makes this salient point:

“Due process is no more political than any other legal issue, which means that politics is pervasive in it. Government by fiat is no less political than grassroots organizing. The effort to impose technocratic solutions in order to avoid the messy politics of instruction is just as political as any other autocratic regime.”

A Teacher’s Tale is a valuable book from which anyone interested in public education or education in general will learn something.

Education and the Commercial Mindset

21 Oct

Samuel E. Abrams has created a masterpiece of research and reason illuminating the successes and failures of the forces favoring privatization of public education. His new book published by Harvard University Press is Education and the Commercial Mindset.

Starting with Chris Whittle and his infamous Channel One on TV and the ill-fated Edison Education, Abrams documents the triumphs and failures of profit based education. He shares the thinking and biographies of key characters working to privatize education and includes voices warning about the unsavory consequences of this agenda; not only in America, but worldwide.

Evidence of Valuable Education Reform Policies

My big take-away from this book was solidified in the last two chapters that discussed privatization efforts in Europe and South America. It explains why both Chile and Sweden have begun undoing their privatized systems. Abrams wrote:

“Much as many Chileans at the same time were protesting their nation’s long-standing system of for-profit school management, initiated in 1981, Swedish critics started to raise their voices in opposition. The Chilean adversaries would soon prevail, with President Michele Bachelet declaring in January 2015 that her government would phase out for-profit school management.

“Basic to the UR [the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company] series was a crisis of faith in Swedish education known as ‘PISA shock.’ Of all OECD nations, only Sweden had seen scores on the triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) successively drop with each administration of the exam since its introduction in 2000.” (Page 275)

The one country in Scandinavia that plotted its own course, Finland, has a very similar population distribution as its neighbors yet on PISA its scores are significantly better. Finland also achieved about the same result differential when compared to the United States. Here is a chart I reproduced from the book (Page 287):

pisa-results-graphic

To address a chronic teacher shortage – especially in science classes – Norway, Denmark and Sweden have all introduced Teach for America type programs. Now there is a Teach for Norway, a Teach for Denmark and a Teach for Sweden. On the contrary, Finland sets itself ”apart from not only Sweden but also Denmark and Norway as the only Nordic nation requiring all teachers to have a master’s degree before taking over a classroom.” (Page 280) The Finn’s significantly boosted teacher pay to equality with other professions and reduced class sizes. There is no teacher shortage in Finland.

Where Norway, Sweden and Denmark have embraced standardized testing of certain critical classes like language and mathematics, Finland has chosen to monitor its schools using sampling techniques similar to the NEAP testing in the United States. In addition, Finland samples all classes including music and art.

The Finns also have a different attitude toward who should be leading education than their Nordic neighbors or the United States. Abrams reports, “Of the many officials I interviewed at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, the FNBE, FINEEC, and the Helsinki Department of Education, all had been teachers for at least four years and several had taught more than ten.” (Page 289)

If the intention is great education and not merely profiting from tax payers or creating education on the cheap, then the Finish results indicate three important policy principles to consider:

1) Put highly trained well paid teachers in every classroom.

2) Respect the professional judgment of educators and have them lead education.

3) Significantly reduce class sizes.

For Profit Education and Modern Reform Efforts

In the spring of 1991, George Bush announced his America 2000 education agenda and the New America Schools Development Corporation (NASDC). NASDC was defined as “a private-sector research and development fund of at least $150 million to generate innovation in education.” (Page 20) Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill was named as its first chairman. The Regan administration published “A Nation at Risk”, which was written by leaders in the business community and NASDC was clearly a business community driven entity charged with fixing America’s “failing” public schools. Abrams described the committee:

“O’Neill was soon after replaced by Thomas Kean, president of Drew University and former Republican governor of New Jersey. Kean’s fifteen fellow board members comprised some of most powerful people in American business, including Louis Gerstner, chairman of RJR Nabisco; Frank Shrontz, chairman of Boeing; Lee Raymond, president of Exxon; James R. Jones, chairman and CEO of the American Stock Exchange; John Ong, chairman of BF Goodrich; and Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the National Football League. Their mission was to lead the way in breaking the mold of conventional schooling.” (page 21)

America had turned its back on professional educators and put its faith in these powerful CEO’s to remediate all that was believed plaguing public schools. A few years latter Diane Ravitch would derisively label this CEO led reform effort “corporate education reform.”

Concurrent with Bush’s America 2000, Chris Whittle had sold his Channel One and was putting together a for profit education organization called the Edison Project. Whittle was the consummate salesman. “In a coup that made the front page of the New York Times on May 26, 1992, Whittle lured Benno Schmidt from the presidency of Yale University and thereby brought the Edison Project national attention and clout overnight.” (Page 27) As Abrams documents, Whittle and Schmidt made grandiose claims regarding the future of the Edison Project:

“Despite this lack of experience in K-12 education, Schmidt, along Whittle, spoke with conviction about what ailed it and what should be done. They contended that no cause in the United States was as pressing as K-12 education and no remedy as promising as for-profit management. In the front-page article in the New York Times announcing Schmidt’s decision to leave Yale to lead Edison, Schmidt and Whittle forecasted that Edison could have a revolutionary impact. Whittle placed the company’s mission in the context of the Cold War and employed the language of historical inevitability: ‘You have to have a West Berlin for East Berlin to fall, and what we’re really doing here is building West Berlin.’ Schmidt added: ‘The reason this hasn’t been done before is that this thing is a matter of D-Day dimensions. Only someone with a high tolerance for risk would even be willing to contemplate it.’ Schmidt predicted, ‘If this venture succeeds, there’s nothing that could be done, aside from changing human nature that could be more constructive for our society.’” (Page 28)

Toward Edison’s Failure

Abrams obviously spent a lot of time not only researching but visiting various facilities and interviewing key actors in the story of privatized education in America. It is fascinating to learn how many of the leaders in the Edison Project have continued the quest to privatize America’s schools. I think two episodes involving Edison are particularly illustrative of privatized failure; one in Baltimore and the other in Philadelphia.

Citizens in middle and working class neighborhoods were not interested in replacing their public schools with for profit schools. However, blighted neighborhoods like those in Baltimore which became the locations for HBO’s The Wire, were fertile markets for Edison. In March of 2000, the Maryland School Board identified seven Baltimore primary schools that were not performing well and they selected Edison to run four of those elementary schools. The other three schools continued under the supervision of the local school district.

The bottom line was Edison came in with some really good people and made many facilities upgrades, but the three schools that stayed in the public system outperformed the Edison schools on language arts and math testing. When the only metric for good education is testing data, it signaled the eventual end for Edison in Baltimore.

In 2000, Tom Ridge paid Edison $2.7 million dollars to study Philadelphia’s schools and make recommendations. Abrams writes about the reaction to this contract:

“Even Brandon Dobell, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston who was bullish on Edison, expressed disapproval of the arrangement. Along with Howard M. Block, an analyst at Bank of America Securities, Dobell took the consulting contract to mean that Edison would end up running a cluster of the city’s schools and, on that account, forecasted greater earning potential for the company. A report Dobell coauthored termed the contract ‘a strong endorsement for the Edison value proposition – perhaps the strongest we have seen thus far in Edison’s lifetime.’ Indeed, Edison’s stock spiked 6 percent on the day of the announcement of the contract. Yet Dobell saw the conflict of interest inherent in commissioning a study from a company that stood likely to recommend its own services. ‘This contract is a bit strange,’ Dobell said to a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. ‘It is kind of like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.’” (Page 104)

Eventually, after much political upheaval, Edison was awarded 23 Philadelphia schools. While Abrams details many issues faced by Edison, it was the intractable problems plaguing public schools; poverty, lack of funding and bad education policy dictated from above that were beyond Edison’s ability to conquer.

I am reminded of a story I heard from a New Orleans resident about why parents there initially embraced the charter movement. As a young woman, going to underfunded schools in the black community, she had been in middle school classes with 55 students. Furthermore, the administration would only allow teachers to run the classroom fan for 10 minutes every hour. It was oppressively hot and students would watch the clock like a hawk so they got the fan on immediately when it was time. After Katrina, political leaders said they were going to put money into schools in her neighborhood. That was new and sounded good.

Pennsylvania finances its schools almost exclusively with property taxes. In urban Philadelphia, property values are low and poverty is high. In 2000-2001, Philadelphia spent $7,944 per student on schools. The five school districts along the Main Line of the region’s commuter rail system, which services suburbanites living northwest of Philadelphia spent $11,421 per student. Even though Edison got some extra funding they could not overcome this double whammy that has also vexed the public schools system. Education on the cheap, does not work; especially in blighted neighborhoods.

In 2013, Edison ceased to exist. The bulk of EdisonLearning was sold to a supplementary educational services company in Camden, New Jersey, called Catapult Learning.

Abrams also does a thorough job of documenting the rise of the charter school industry, especially the no-excuses charters. It is fascinating to see how many young executives at Edison became key leaders in the charter school industry or went to work for foundations like the Fisher Foundation which support charter schools.

Both the for profit education initiative and charter school development were led by people with no deep education experience or theoretical knowledge. For example the famous KIPP charter school chain was started by two “Teach for a Minute Boys” with no education background and only two years elementary school teaching experience.

Abrams presents convincing arguments that KIPP and other no-excuses charter systems cannot possibly be scaled up to educate all American children. These systems have a history of burning out teachers and they rely on public schools to take in the children they expel or council out.

For people interested in public education, Education and the Commercial Mindset is an important asset. The privatization movement has been fueled by a misunderstanding of effect and cause. Public schools were struggling, not due to misguided pedagogy or “bad teachers”, but from bad policy and an unwillingness to adequately fund education in poor communities. The top down and misguided federally driven remedies and for profit cannibalism have only made the problem worse.