Monthly Archives: May 2014

Open Letter to President Obama — You Are Listening to the Wrong People

Dear Mr. President:

I am writing to you with three different roles.  First, I am the director of secondary education and secondary/special education teacher preparation at Seton Hall University where I have been on the faculty since 2002.  Second, I am a lifelong educator whose teaching experience at levels from seventh grade to graduate school courses stretches back to 1993. Finally and most importantly, sir, I am the father of two school aged children enrolled in the public schools of New York City.  All three of those roles in life have prompted me to write to you, and it is my hope that you will seriously consider what I have to say, for it is based upon my devotion to my children, my experience as a teacher and upon the data that is readily available about what is being done to schools during your administration.

With respect, Mr. President, you are listening to all the wrong people about our nation’s schools.

When you were inaugurated, many of us in education had hoped that your administration would urge Congress to roll back the detrimental aspects of the No Child Left Behind act, which had taken the previous two decades of educational failure rhetoric and placed a punishing regimen of unreasonable expectations, high stakes testing and punishment into effect that left schools and schools systems under threat of a “failure” label if they did not achieve near miraculous score gains in standardized examinations.  Instead, we got the Race to the Top program which has taken the worst elements of NCLB and made them even worse.  Your signature education initiative incentivized participating states to enroll in rushed and unproven common standards, increases the amount of high stakes testing at all levels of public education, subjects teachers to invalid measures of job performance and creates preferential treatment for charter schools that cynically manipulate data on their enrollment and achievements, sue to prevent public oversight of the public moneys they receive and whose expansion provides new investment vehicles for the very wealthy.  All of these results have rich and powerful advocates, and all of them are damaging to our nation’s public schools.

The Common Core State Standards have been described as a state led effort because of the role of the National Governors Association in their creation, but the work of a very few people is far more directly responsible for them.  David Coleman, now President of the College Board, Jason Zimba and Susan Pimentel of Student Achievement Incorporated worked with a small group of core writers that were largely representative of the testing and publishing industries to produce K-12 standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics in less than two years.  This is a staggering pace for such a complex project, and it was conducted in clear violation of highly regarded and accepted processes for the creation of standards.  Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas was a member of the validation committee that was convened, in theory, to validate the quality of the standards, but she refused to signed off on them when, by her own account, repeated efforts to have the research basis for the standards produced by the writing committees went unanswered.  Once written, the standards were rapidly adopted by states due to the incentives of Race to the Top and aggressive spending of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Diane Ravitch of New York University has repeatedly pointed out that this process was staggeringly flawed, and even more flawed than the opaque writing and promotion efforts has been the race to roll out the standards in nearly all states simultaneously with no small scale field testing and no known way for data from the implementation to be fed back to any body that is tasked with revising the standards based on such data.

Mr. Bill Gates seems enormously confident, absent any defensible evidence, that this is the correct path.  He provided funding to Student Achievement Incorporated and the National Governors Association, and has been spending lavishly since 2010 to make certain all forms of organizations continue to boost the standards.  Mr. Gates spoke this year at the Teaching and Learning Conference hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (an organization he has given grants to recently), and his defense of national standards was telling.  According to the Washington Post:

Standardization is especially important to allow for innovation in the classroom, said Gates, who used an analogy of electrical outlets.

“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

The version posted to the Gates Foundation website offers a more explanatory framing of the metaphor, but Mr. President, I hope the flaw in his thinking is evident.  Multi-state standards are not, inherently, a bad thing, primarily if used like the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a NO STAKES diagnostic tool, and Mr. Gates is correct that a variety of INDUSTRY standards have led to consumer innovations.  However, even after we accept a standard for early literacy acquisition to be age appropriate and based on research into how children learn to read, the process by which any given child meets that standard is vastly more complex than the process of attaching an electric motor to a hand blender; worse, it does not demonstrate an understanding that children develop at very varied rates, and that an age appropriate target for one child may be entirely inappropriate for a peer in the same classroom.

Even assuming that Mr. Gates is correct and that CCSS would allow teachers to innovate, Race to the Top and Mr. Gates’ own advocacy have worked to tie the CCSS to a regimen of high stakes testing the likes of which we have never seen and which are already incentivizing teachers and school districts to vastly narrow their teaching in response.  Mr. President, policy analysts refer to perverse incentives as those elements of policy that incentivize behavior in such a way that people can obtain the incentive while engaging in practices that are damaging or undesirable.  In this case, Race to the Top is the Mother of All Perverse Incentives.  Your administration required states to adopt test-based evaluation of teachers in addition to adoption of common standards.  This has resulted in states both enrolling in the CCSS testing consortia, and adopting Value Added Models (VAM) of teacher effectiveness as part of teacher assessment and retention.  Mr. President, you recently remarked that schools should not be teaching to the test even while your administration was stripping Washington State of its NCLB waiver over its desire to not use high stakes testing to evaluate teachers, but you could do little that incentivizes teaching to the test more than this.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as D.C. Schools Chancellor provides an instructive anecdote.  Despite her denials and cursory investigation, it is very clear that her “raise test scores or be fired” approach spawned widespread cheating. That behavior is not excusable, but it is evidence of how far some people placed in extraordinarily difficult circumstances will go when subject to such incentives, and it is simply inevitable that short of cheating, the use of VAMs in teacher evaluation will result in more teaching to the test.

And VAMs themselves are invalid, Mr. President.  The American Statistical Association is quite clear on this in its recent statement on the use of VAMs for teacher evaluation.

The measure of student achievement is typically a score on a standardized test, and VAMs are only as good as the data fed into them. Ideally, tests should fully measure student achievement with respect to the curriculum objectives and content standards adopted by the state, in both breadth and depth. In practice, no test meets this stringent standard, and it needs to be recognized that, at best, most VAMs predict only performance on the test and not necessarily long-range learning outcomes. Other student outcomes are predicted only to the extent that they are correlated with test scores. A teacher’s efforts to encourage students’ creativity or help colleagues improve their instruction, for example, are not explicitly recognized in VAMs…

It is unknown how full implementation of an accountability system incorporating test-based indicators, such as those derived from VAMs, will affect the actions and dispositions of teachers, principals and other educators. Perceptions of transparency, fairness and credibility will be crucial in determining the degree of success of the system as a whole in achieving its goals of improving the quality of teaching. Given the unpredictability of such complex interacting forces, it is difficult to anticipate how the education system as a whole will be affected and how the educator labor market will respond.

This is clear-cut, sir.  There are no current high stakes tests that meet the requirements of a well developed VAM, and there is no evidence about how VAMs will influence the schools in which they are deployed, but your signature education program is incentivizing them anyway.

To date, no study reliably shows that current VAMs can be used the way they are going to be used over the next few years, but that has not stopped the Gates Foundation from being front and center in this issue as well.  The Gates commissioned “Measures of Effective Teaching” study concluded that VAMs can be effectively used to evaluate teachers, but Jesse Rothstein of the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated clearly how flawed the study was, especially how it drew conclusions only weakly supported by its own data:

The results presented in the report do not support the conclusions drawn from them. This is especially troubling because the Gates Foundation has widely circulated a stand-alone policy brief (with the same title as the research report) that omits the full analysis, so even careful readers will be unaware of the weak evidentiary basis for its conclusions…

Hence, while the report’s conclusion that teachers who perform well on one measure “tend to” do well on the other is technically correct, the tendency is shockingly weak.  As discussed below (and in contrast to many media summaries of the MET study), this important result casts substantial doubt on the utility of student test score gains as a measure of teacher effectiveness.  Moreover, the focus on the stable components – which cannot be observed directly but whose properties are inferred by researchers based on comparisons between classes taught be the same teacher – inflates the correlations among measures.  Around 45% of teacher who appear based on the actually-observed scores to be at the 80th percentile on one measure are in fact below average on the other. Although this problem would decrease if information from multiple years (or multiple courses in the same year) were averaged, in realistic settings misclassification rates would remain much higher than the already high rates inferred for the stable components.

It is almost inconceivable how it is that our nation is rushing forward with a package of reforms that are being implemented at breakneck speed with such damaging potential and with so little evidence to suggest that they will do anyone any good, and with mounting evidence that they are objectively harmful.  But one thing is actually very certain: these “reforms” and their attendant policies are making some people a substantial profit.

Three years ago, education writer and consultant and former National Board Certified Teacher Nancy Flanagan noted that the rush for CCSS implementation meant that a publishing bonanza was on the horizon.   Certainly, their implementation with the coming testing requirements has been a bonanza for Pearson who landed the contract to write and implement the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)  testing consortium.  At a predicted cost of 24 dollars for a set of tests as the math and ELA testing comes on line, Pearson is guaranteed a huge new income stream from the more than 10 million students currently in PARCC states.  But Pearson is only the most public face of making money off of the reforms put in place by your administration.  Common standards and mass testing generate vast amount of data, and technology companies are starting up all intending to mine that data for profit.  This is ground that has been ploughed by Rupert Murdoch who, when he began acquiring education technology firms, identified a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting for “big breakthroughs”.  Bill Gates has also been involved in this sector, setting up the data cloud storage firm InBloom for 100 million dollars, and watching it close when parental concerns over data security and the plan to allow vendors to access the data could not be overcome.  But other firms such as Knewton intend to continue data mining and creating products based upon that analysis, and none of them, regardless of how intriguing their products might be, demonstrate sufficient care about the need to explain their services to parents, the need to allow parents and guardians to opt their children out of the data pool or the need to build real support among the people whose children are being transformed into revenue.

I am asking you as a father, sir: would this be acceptable to you?  I regret to inform you, Mr. President, that your own administration has abetted this by changing the regulations that implement the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Publishers, testing companies and technology firms are not the only ones who are reaping new windfalls from your education policies, Mr. President.  It turns out that Wall Street investors are eager to see another aspect of Race to the Top, charter school expansion, continue as rapidly as everything else, and while many of them proclaim to be fans of the charter schools’ alleged “successes” it is also clear that many of them have also figured out how to make guaranteed money from supporting charter schools.  Hedge fund billionaires can use a combination of federal tax credits to make investing in charter school construction a vehicle that can guarantee a doubled return within 7 years.  This is entirely unlike traditional school construction funding via bond issues because such bond issues are done in the open and for a public with a vote for or against the responsible school boards.  This is done entirely in private and with no oversight and precious little public knowledge.  It is little wonder then that Wall Street interests are not only investing in charter school construction, they are also organizing PACs such as Democrats for Education Reform specifically to keep state governments granting more and more charters, something else that you enabled with the provisions of Race to the Top.

You might be able to justify this, Mr. President if you could claim that charter schools are actually the solution to American education, but to make that claim you would have to ignore evidence.  Many charters are excellent schools.  Many are terrible.  But there is no evidence that the charter school segment is consistently outperforming fully public schools.  There is, however, evidence that charter schools do not educate children with disabilities at comparable levels as fully public schools.  There is evidence that charter schools do not serve students who are English Language Learners like their fully public peer schools do.  There is evidence that one of the most prominent charter operators in New York City, Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy, is not telling the truth about the number of children in poverty that she serves, the real achievements of her schools test scores, or the rate of attrition for students with disabilities and language learning issues.

These schools are not miracle factories, Mr. President, but supporting their expansion is making people money.  Your Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, once opined that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” ever for New Orleans Schools because it shook up the status quo and got people “serious” about reform.  That “reform” has meant that this week, the last public school in New Orleans has closed for good, and the city school system in entirely comprised of charter schools.  Amidst growing evidence that many prominent charter operators are not equally educating students and amidst disturbing studies about rising segregation in the charter sector, I cannot help but wonder how Secretary Duncan justifies his statement today.

No wonder teacher morale is at an all time low.

Your public voice in these issues has been a disaster for you, Mr. President.  Secretary Duncan may be the most controversial person to hold that office since its creation, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is both insensitive to teacher and parental concerns and fully vested in a false narrative about American education.  Mr. Duncan has frequently repeated to charges from corporate reformers and privatizers that American education is stagnant and that we can infer a need for their favored reforms from international testing data.  This is part of a narrative of deepening failure which thoroughly ignores how American students have never fared well on such measures and how these scores and our economic health have little connection.  Mr. Duncan has observed that he believes our teachers are not educated enough and we should be more like South Korea, despite the fact that South Korea’s educational “success” comes with high costs:  20% of family income on average spent on private “cram” classes, focus on drill and rote learning that leads to high test scores, and wide recognition that South Korean children face too much pressure, leading to an alarming youth suicide rate.  This is hardly praise worthy, sir.

Secretary Duncan’s misunderstanding extends to why people are criticizing the CCSS and other Race to the Top reforms.  I am sure that you know how he said that Common Core opponents are often “white suburban moms” who are upset to find out their children are not “as brilliant as they thought they were”.  Mr. Duncan apologized for the remark, but his insinuation that any opposition to CCSS is unreasonable betrays that he really does not understand the issue.  Mr. President, American parents, by wide margins, believe that the schools their children attend are doing very good work, and despite three decades of an unrelenting failure narrative, that percentage, over 70%, has remained stable.  What parents are saying is that Common Core, evaluating teachers by tests and the increase in high stakes testing and heavy pressure on schools to raise test scores at all costs have come too rapidly, with too little transparency, and with extreme negatives vis-a-vis how children experience school.  Mr. Duncan does not understand that as evidenced by his remarks in April with NY Commissioner John King where he called parental protests “drama and noise.”  Mr. Duncan may call the 10s of 1000s of families who have opted out of Pearson’s testing and the list of districts refusing to field test the exams “drama and noise”.  Many, myself included, call it a movement that is ignored and dismissed at peril.  I do not know if your Secretary of Education has told you that most opposition to reform comes from Glenn Beck styled cranks and spoiled suburbanites, but if he has, you have been sorely misinformed.

Mr. President, in 1999 Congress passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act, and President Clinton signed it into law.  Although the trends in mortgage lending and investment products that led to the financial crisis had begun long before 1999, the removal of regulations that prevented commercial and investment banks and insurance firms from blending their businesses greatly accelerated the damage being done to our financial industry.

Mr. President, I am afraid that history will look upon Race to the Top as your Financial Services Modernization Act, a tool crafted to be cynically misappropriated by interests with no concern for the public good.

And what is so frustrating, Mr. President, is how entirely unnecessary this judgment of history will be.  Our schools need help, sir, but it is not help that will be found by racing to implement new standards, layering on more high stakes tests, threatening teachers’ livelihoods with invalid statistical models or by turning more and more of our urban school districts over to for profit charter school corporations.  Our schools are afflicted by the same thing that afflicts our society: rising poverty and constant cuts to assistance for the poor.  16 million children in the United States live in poverty; that is 22% of all children, 38.2% of all African American children and 35% of Hispanic children.  Our schools serve communities, and our segregation by income has increased over the past 30 years, meaning that both rich and poor increasingly live in communities with people mostly of their own income level.  The Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) scores for Houston, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are all above 50, and the RISI has gone up in every region of the country since 1980.  Nationally, it is 46, an increase of 39% since 1980.

We see this when we look at our PISA scores broken down by the income characteristics of communities.  According to USC Professor Emeritus Stephen Krashen, the portrait of America’s schools look very different when poverty characteristics are considered.  In schools where less than 10% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, our PISA scores are higher than the average for any OECD nation, but where 75% or more of students are in poverty, the PISA scores are second to last.  Given that our communities are increasingly segregated by income, Mr. President, it is inevitable that test score data compared nation to nation will be misleading.

It is at this point that Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Eva Moskowitz, Andrew Cuomo, Bill Gates, Whitney Tilson, and a host of other corporate “reformers” will line up to accuse me of making “excuses” for “bad schools”.  They will insist, absent any evidence, that “great teachers” can close the achievement gap even if we completely fail to address poverty in our communities.  But it is not “making excuses” to insist that if we want a child living in poverty to succeed in school that we cannot ignore whether or not she knows if she is going to eat tonight, or if she will have a place to sleep, or if her parents will continue to work or any of the host of other matters that afflict children in poverty in ways that negatively impact their formal education.  Mr. President, we have known the long term impacts of poverty on children for some time now just as we have known that it has been growing and deepening, and we spend far less than our peer nations on helping to alleviate the detrimental impacts of poverty.  Nothing in education policy in the past three decades has done anything to address that.

That is not “excuse making,” Mr. President, that is aiming the analysis at the actual problem, whether or not addressing the problem will make anyone a profit.

You have an advantage that few of your predecessors had, Mr. President, and it is your demonstrated interest in and ability to genuinely listen to others.  Joshua Dubois wrote about your meetings with the families at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and how for hours, you sat, embraced, asked questions and listened to them. What strikes me, sir, is how, despite an election year warming up, you never once mentioned this to the press and never once used this remarkable testament to your character for political gain.  I urge you, Mr. President, to visit teachers, parents and children in the same manner, without cameras or vetting, and just ask them what they want our schools to be.  You will not find their answers easily mapped onto your education policies.

It is not too late for you to have a transformational impact on America’s schools, Mr. President, but it will take a number of immediate actions to have a chance.  I ask you to consider the following, badly needed, steps:

  1. Scrap Race to the Top: Your signature education policy is detrimental to children, teachers, schools and communities.  Ending it will not do away with the Common Core State Standards, testing or charter schools, but it will free states and districts to look truly reflectively at these initiatives and to voluntarily engage in as little or as much of them as they deem necessary and beneficial.  It will require proponents of these policies to make their cases in full view of the public in all 50 states instead of hiding behind coercive requirements for federal funding.
  2. Restore Federal Privacy Protections: Technology entrepreneurs may have truly powerful learning tools in development, but to make them work, they need student records deemed private under federal law.  Instead of engaging teachers and parents about these tools, they got your administration to revise regulations and are now mining those records without any meaningful consent.  This is unacceptable, and it must stop.  Our children are not sent to public school to be monetized without our consent.  Parents will listen to open and honest efforts to describe how these tools can benefit their children, but they will oppose efforts to bypass them.
  3. Be Serious About Holding Charter Schools Accountable to Civil Rights Legislation: Your administration recently expressed interest in making certain that charter schools meet federal civil rights requirements.  This is a good first step.  It must be applied vigorously, especially given how poorly many high profile charter operators do in serving students with disabilities, educating English Language Learners and retaining students of color after admission.  Your administration has granted enormous favoritism to charter schools, and they must be made fully accountable.
  4. Demand a Marshall Plan for School Aid and Construction:  Nearly all states are spending less money per pupil today than in 2008. In New York State, the average school district still receives $3.1 million less in state aid than they would have without budgetary tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment.  All across the country, our public schools are being told to implement a complex new curriculum, meet unrealistic testing requirements and to do so while having their budgets cut to the bone.  Further, in 2008, the AFT commissioned a study that estimated a need for over $250 billion in school infrastructure spending nationwide, a need that remains unmet.  It adds insult to injury that students come from homes that suffer from the deprivations of poverty and arrive in schools that are cold in the winter, hot in the summer and wet when it rains.  Our nation must do something about this.  At the same time, you must highlight schools where children in poverty thrive, not merely where they get good test scores.
  5. Replace Secretary Duncan: Mr. Duncan is entwined so deeply in the Race to the Top approach to reform that he is incapable of moving away from it.  Your Secretary of Education demonstrates no understanding of why people oppose current reforms, little willingness to see his mistakes as more than verbal slip ups, and he consistently misuses international test data to denigrate the quality of our schools and teachers.  If you want to protect our schools from the forces of corporate reform, Secretary Duncan cannot lead.

You have an opportunity, Mr. President, to retask the federal Department of Education with protecting our national Commons, our history of 200 years of seeing public education as a public good for communities and a private good for individuals.  Your administration has abetted the use of our public schools by private and corporate interests in ways that are actually detrimental to education.  If you wish that to not be your legacy, you must act now.


Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Director, Secondary and Secondary/Special Education Teacher Preparation, Seton Hall University

Career Educator

Father of Two Public School Children



Leave a comment

Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, DFER, Gates Foundation, politics, Privacy, schools, Social Justice, Stories, teaching, Testing, VAMs

A Short Story on Falling for Education Narratives

When I was in 7th grade, my junior high school had just set up a “computer lab” with Tandy/RadioShack 80s known as TRaSh80s by classmates who were already personal computing buffs.  My own computing experience was limited to a Commodore 64 system which I remember fondly today but mostly used to play Zork back in 1982.  The lab in school was set up as part of a new curriculum meant to ensure that we all learned how to program – in BASIC.

This being the early Reagan administration, there were two social trends at work.  First, a deep and hurtful recession at home and international anxiety about the rising star of Japan on the world economic stage.  Competition from Japanese manufactured automobiles and consumer electronics were damaging American industry, and an increasingly anxious public worried about our national future.  In a year’s time, “A Nation at Risk” would be unleashed on the public arena and a 30 year narrative of how our schools have failed us as a nation would take off.  Learning computer programming was adopted by our suburban school district as response to that.

As I sat in front of a TRS-80, unhappily learning how to write lines of code that code could make my name scroll diagonally across the screen (I would have much rather have been in study hall re-reading “The Hobbit”), I commented to our teacher how useless this seemed.  I was then given a short lecture on how in the future EVERYONE who HAVE to know how to program computers.  If I wanted any chance at a productive life I would have to learn as well.  In fact, it was my patriotic DUTY to learn how to make my name scroll diagonally across the computer screen.  For a final rhetorical flare, I was asked if I really wanted Japan to take over everything?

I gave my teacher a good hard look.  Then I looked around the lab, and I could see that a few of my classmates were intensely interested in what they were doing and appeared to be, absent his guidance, experimenting with their programs to see what they could make them do.  I looked at him again.

“That’s not true,” I said. “In the future, there will be people who program computers and people who use computers, and they don’t all have to be the same person.”

We didn’t get along.  Luckily, it was only a half year class.  Ironically, the argument for more people learning to program is finally making a bit more sense with the advent of mobile computing platforms that allow people to design their own apps.  Assuming that they want to.  I’d still rather reread “The Hobbit”.

But the moral sticks with me today:  be on the lookout for people telling you what “everyone” will need to do in the “future”.  The odds are very good that they are trying to sell you something today.

Leave a comment

Filed under schools, Stories, teaching

Can We Talk About Poverty And Violence NOW?

I became aware of this via a graduate school colleague.  Research from the CDC and Harvard University identifies that as much as 30% of young people in our urban areas suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of living in communities afflicted by violence, a rate higher than soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  This citation recently went viral because of report on a San Francisco CBS affiliate that mentioned the research — while deciding to coin the phrase “hood disease” to describe the phenomenon.  Response to that polarizing and sensationalist turn of phrase was swift, and it was well earned.  Hopefully, it will not obscure a chance to focus on a conversation that is desperately missing from today’s education conversation — the impact of poverty and violence on children and what it means to provide meaningful education for those children.

I am not optimistic, unfortunately.  Discussing the impacts of poverty and community violence on children would mean taking a good hard look at American society as a whole, how segregated we remain as a society (and how it is getting worse since 1980), how poorly we do as a country at helping families in poverty and how we largely ignore problems that are clustered in communities that are predominantly of color. I find it hard to believe that we are ready for a conversation today.  It would require more willingness for painful introspection and confrontation of racism that many prefer to believe does not exist.

Optimism is further undercut by the fact that the impacts of poverty on all sorts of outcomes for young people is not precisely news, although the PTSD estimates for community violence should cause more people to take notice.  “Effects of Poverty on Children” was published in 1997 and found vast differences in physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional and behavioral outcomes for children living in poverty, and it described the ways in which poverty influences these outcomes.  They recommended community health, parental education, in home interventions, and renewed efforts to eliminate deep, sustained poverty.  Not one of these recommendations found their way into the Bush era No Child Left Behind education reform bill nor into its Obama administration successor, Race to the Top.  Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Emeritus David Berliner delivered the Presidential Invited Speech at the 2005 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, and he titled in “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform.”  Among his conclusions:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

But since that address in 2005, “one-way accountability” has not only dominated policy, it has actually spawned an entire industrial scaled investment in testing and data, entrenching it even deeper.  Even though it has very little to do with the issues that plague impoverished communities in our country and the schools that try to serve them.

Most of what you’ve read about our “failing” national schools is based on flawed data.  Even using the preferred tool of accountability advocates, standardized tests, the crisis in our public schools is one of community poverty.  This graphic comes courtesy of Christine McCarthy, a New York City public school teacher and recipient of a Distinguished Fullbright Award in Teaching:


Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at USC provides the data for this chart which should make it crystal clear that the constant doubling down on standards and testing will have no serious impact on the international testing gaps that produce such gnashing on the teeth in the media and in Washington.  A test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.  Firing a teacher whose students are performing poorly on a test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.

It is at this junction, that a Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein comes along, sometimes on a talk show, to say that there should be “no excuses” for even a school with a 75% or higher poverty rate.  Their preferred “no excuses” methods involve firing as many people as they can, closing down schools and turning more and more children over to charter school operators.  Certainly, many of those operators like to claim that they’ve found the “secret sauce” to educating within communities afflicted by high rates of poverty.  Eva Moskowitz’s “Success Academy” empire claims that it is educating the exact same students as the neighborhood schools in Harlem, but that claim is simply false, and a parent at Upper West Side Success documented on tape how administrators have tried to counsel out her son who has an IEP, something no neighborhood school could do.  Northstar Academy in Newark loves to claim at 100% graduation rate for seniors, but it fails to report its 50% attrition rate prior to senior year.

The lesson here is that there is no “special sauce” and “Superman” is a comic book hero.  We, as a society, have never figured out a way to provide large scale, genuine, educational opportunity to children growing up in communities with deep and persistent poverty.  We, as a society, are woefully uncommitted to alleviating poverty and have even come to accept the terrifying 20% rate of childhood poverty as normal and perhaps inevitable.  But absent those two commitments, no amount of firing teachers or testing students until they cry is going to “fix” American education.

And this is where I worry for the future again:  I think it is very likely that a combination of suburban parental outrage and teacher activism is going to push back hard on current reforms.  If Common Core survives, it will be substantially modified with fewer tests and less emphasis on value added models of teacher evaluation.  The fact is that pushing the punishment narrative that has been the burden of urban schools for so long to communities that generally like their schools is going to create a backlash.  But once those parents have pushed back and changed these systems, we will still be left with communities rife with damaging poverty and violence, and we will most likely go back to ignoring those facts.

And the next cycle of “reform” will ignore it too.

Leave a comment

Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing, VAMs

Newark Student Union — Standing Up for Their Schools

I’ve mentioned several times how much I believe young people today need to become active and to become advocates.  It is with a great deal of admiration that I noted this story this week.  Their message was clear: radical changes forced upon their city from powerful private and public forces must be slowed down or stopped.  Public schools, whatever their faults, are a matter of public interest and plans for change that shut out students, parents and teachers are not acceptable.

Their efforts have certainly caught someone’s attention.  New Jersey’s acting Commissioner of Education, David Hespe, will reportedly meet with them.  Such a meeting, if it indeed happens, does not guarantee that Mr. Hespe will arrive with open ears and a willingness to include all of Newark’s stakeholders, but just announcing the desire to meet is a major change for a city that has been subjected to rapid paced, outside imposed changes that are aimed to provide massively preferential treatment to charter school operators. Little signs of listening at any level has been evident so far.

I absolutely applaud students in Newark for taking action.  Hopefully, they are being heard by people who understand how to listen.


Leave a comment

Filed under Activism, charter schools, Newark

My Entirely Unofficial Commencement Address to the Class of 2014

My university bid farewell to the class of 2014 yesterday.  Commencement exercises are a curious thing.  They are rightfully celebratory of the graduates’ accomplishments, but often overly reliant on pomp and ceremony for the tastes of those attending.  They are also long, sometimes painfully so and commencement addresses are oddly situated.  Supposedly meant to honor the graduates and the world of high education and accomplishment that they have entered, many bore or confuse those in attendance.  When delivered by a lofty persona, that person’s position and importance overshadows the graduates.  When delivered by someone with a lofty opinion of himself regardless of position and importance, the result is the same.  Far too few actually address the soon to be minted graduates with much more than pabulum about how accomplished they are.

Naturally, I have a few ideas of my own that I’d like to share with the Class of 2014.  And, consequently, this is why I expect to never be asked to address a commencement.

Dear Class of 2014.  The world you are about to enter is messy, perplexing, infuriating and the pathways to success in it are harder to find and to navigate than in any time since the end of World War II and almost none of the adults in your life to this point have been upfront to you about it.

I’m sorry.

I also suspect that you have figured it out on your own by now.  One of the funny things about people who are facing complex and anxiety producing situations is that they are fully aware of the ways in which they have been lied to far more so than the people who have done the lying.  Today’s youth employment market is perhaps better than it has been since 2008, but that is damning it with very faint praise.  Overall unemployment among people under the age of 25 is 14.5 percent.  For college graduates under 25, it is 8.5 percent, and the underemployment rate is 16.8 percent.  You can be thankful that you have a college degree in this respect: among your age peers with only a high school diploma, those numbers are 22.9 and 41.5 percent respectively.  And for those of you with jobs, well, they are paying less than they used to.  According to the Federal Reserve, 44 percent of recent graduates between 22-27 years old have jobs that do not require a B.A., and while that is not entirely unusual, those jobs are far less likely to pay a decent annual wage than in previous decades.

What is even more galling than those numbers is the insistence at policy levels that it is necessary for everyone to, in President Obama’s words, “eat our peas” — except the very movers and shakers who played Russian Roulette with the nation’s banking system and precipitated the economic wasteland you are looking to inhabit.  Austerity is not merely being imposed upon the assistance programs offered to the poor and ill in America.  In New York State, administrators estimate that the average school district  has had to make do with 3 million dollars less in state aid per year since 2010.  Nationwide, state spending per pupil in higher education is down 28 percent compared to 2008. Gross public capital investment in is now at its lowest level since the end of World War II, meaning that investment in schools and infrastructure spending, important drivers of economic growth and opportunity, are at a 6 decade low.

Some of this is not simply the result of the Great Recession.  The America you were born into was an America that was already well on its way to critical lack of investment in public capital in favor of private capital.  From 1950-1970, America spent 3 percent of GDP on infrastructure.  Since 1980, that has fallen by a third, and the result are transportation, sanitation and energy infrastructures from the middle of the last century and the diminished economic potential from that.

And what have you heard from the people who should have known better?  Who stewarded this reality into being?  Largely, they tell you “This is life, kid” instead of “This is the life we decided to give you.”

And let’s be clear — your generation of college graduates did what was asked of you.  When people demanded that our schools get “more rigorous,” you sacrificed swaths of your childhood to meaningless increases in homework for early grades.  When you got to the higher grades, you did hours of homework a night that had little connection to actually scaffolding your learning but for which your schools could tell the community and the state that they were “raising standards”.  You were born in 1992-1993 which means that you were not out of elementary school when No Child Left Behind demanded constant high stakes testing.  You are the most tested generation in American history.  In order to be competitive for college admissions, your generation took on more activities that, combined with homework and testing, meant very few of you had significant free time to manage.

You did all of that.  You got into college.  You quickly realized how different college was from a world where everyone chose your activities for you and gave you work that required little long term planning.  You succeeded here as well.

And now the world is giving you another “gotchya” moment in the form of diminished career and financial prospects.  By the way, your loan payments come due in 6 months.  If you concluded that every adult in your life, parents, teachers, principals, professors had little clue about the way the world works for your generation, I wouldn’t blame you.

The facts of this world you are entering means that you will have to downgrade expectations about career and financial success, but how you respond and move ahead from those expectations is a different matter.  When I began my career as a classroom teacher, I quickly discovered a set of students who were, for lack of any better words, school resisters.  They came from more impoverished neighborhoods.  Many of them had families struggling to make ends meet, and they had few close examples of people they knew who had used success in school to step ahead economically.  It was not uncommon for them to face forces of institutional racism and sexism that simply expected they would fail because of who they were.  Some of my colleagues were less than enthusiastic about their potential as well, but I made a habit early on of sitting down one on one with a student who was failing to turn in assignments and acting disengaged from our work and asking her who she thought she was hurting.  Such conversations invariably hinged on my acknowledging that student’s very valid reasons for doubting school and affirming what she already knew — that life was unfair and people expected her to screw up.

So why give them the satisfaction of seeing you do just that, I’d ask?   Yes, you have to work twice as hard for less, but in the end you can rub it in the faces of the people who expect you to fail and just maybe build something for your own children in the process.  My goal wasn’t to let a student’s resentment and anger go away.  It was to redirect it for her own benefit.

I challenge graduates of college in 2014 to do the same.  My generation made a half hearted affectation at being worldly and ironic slackers before a large portion of us went on and exploded the world economy and handed it to you.  Your generation has a real chance of showing Generation X and the Baby Boomers that you did not make this mess, but that you are capable of setting it straight.  You can become innovators and entrepreneurs, teachers and scientists, service leaders and public servants, artists and entertainers — and with the world changing as rapidly as it is and with gate keepers of industry, finance and content becoming outmoded, you can become leaders in all of these areas faster than your predecessors ever did.  You can show the endless parade of elder naysayers who make fun of your tastes and your alleged work ethics what you really are.

And I have little doubt that you can do it.  Your generation is vast and it is interesting.  You are more sincerely dedicated to the ideal of acceptance and a diverse society than anyone before you.  You are generous; most of you have already given to charity despite being young and in school.  You may have taken on loan debt to pay for college, but you are the most educated generation in history.  Your priorities are strong — far more of you value being good parents and spouses than value extremely high pay and fame.  You care about the environment and the future.

And there are a lot of you — the population aged 12-34 number at over 90 million.

So Class of 2014, this is my challenge to you: You have entered an unfair and vexing world not of your own making and that few adults in your lives have recognized as such.  But you need to take any anger you have about that and turn it productive — work, vote, lead.  Lord knows, we need you even if most people my age and older won’t admit it yet.

Leave a comment

Filed under schools, Stories

Data Mining in Education — Incredible Potential, Incredible Arrogance

When inBloom fell apart, I expected that the argument would continuePolitico reported yesterday on the scope of data mining in education — and the stunning arrogance of some technology entrepreneurs.  According to the report, some analysts expect that data mining in education could lead to 300 billion a year in economic growth, and I find that credible.  I already use “small data” in my classroom via social media feeds that let me know what my students are thinking about as they read and to craft my planning around that input.  The potential of “big data” to craft learning tools for use by teachers and students is likely incredible.

And it will be thoroughly undermined by the secrecy and arrogance of its proponents.

Jose Ferreira, the CEO of Knewton, a leading “adaptive education” firm, is portrayed as frustrated and dismissive:

When parents protest that they don’t want their children data-mined, Ferreira wishes he could ask them why: Is it simply that they don’t want a for-profit company to map their kids’ minds? If not, why not? “They’d rather the NSA have it?” he asked. “What, you trust the government?”

Ferreira said he often hears parents angrily declaring that their children cannot be reduced to data points. “That’s not an argument,” Ferreira said. “I’m not calling your child a bundle of data. I’m just helping her learn.”

He goes on to say:

“It just helps children,” Ferreira said. “That’s all it does.”

But Ferreira misses the point by acting as if all he is facing is knee-jerk and reactionary parents misconstruing his work.  Data analytics may be powerful, but the firms involved in it have not be upfront or informative to either school districts or parents and guardians of school aged children.  While it is true that businesses have always made money via our public schools,  I can walk into my daughter’s first grade classroom and I see the publishers of her textbooks and other classroom materials.  The money spent is part of a public budget. I can engage in her curriculum, and I can consult with her teachers about her strengths and struggles.  Even more to the point, I get to know the teachers who know her school work the best and my voice and perspectives are heard.

But when the federal government alters education privacy law to suit the interests of data mining and when the firms themselves are unclear even to school districts how data is safeguarded and used, parents have legitimate concerns that cannot be dismissed.  With the rush to implement Common Core and the accompanying testing poised to create vast amounts of data from 10s of millions of students, it is even more important for technology entrepreneurs to spend time actually engaging parents and teachers about the potential of these tools and the safeguards on student privacy they intend to use.  If they are unwilling to do that, and Mr. Ferreira’s statements are not encouraging on that front, then the pushback is both inevitable and deserved.

They are not selling iPhones to adult consumers.  If I purchase a smart phone that has the potential to generate data about myself, I am capable of wrestling with the implications of that both legally and morally.  My two public school children, however, are legally obligated to be in school, and their public education is matter of concern for both our family and society as a whole. inBloom’s major error was only engaging state level DOEs when setting up a system that would have effected 10s of millions of children.  It looks like the big data firms that are eager to get in on the 8 billion dollar market in software and digital materials are not learning from that.

These are my children.  They are my responsibility. You need to sell these products to me.  You need to give me an opportunity to opt my children out of your system.

Leave a comment

Filed under Privacy, Uncategorized

Featured Image -- 178


Save Our Schools Rally — May 17, City Hall Park

Leave a comment

May 15, 2014 · 1:17 pm

Ras Baraka Wins in Newark Despite Millions in Wall Street Money Going Against Him

Ras Baraka, high school principal and son of poet Amiri Barak, won the Newark mayor’s race yesterday, on a campaign that heavily emphasized the influence of outside reformers who have rushed to impose massive change on Newark’s school system.  According to Bob Braun, 50 year veteran of the Star Ledger, Wall Street interests rushed in the waning days of the campaign with 3 million dollars to try to get Shavar Jeffries over the top. It will remain to be seen if the new mayor has the ability to do anything to slow down or stop Trenton appointed school chief Cami Anderson and her controversial “One Newark” plan, but Mr. Baraka’s victory is instructive.

School reformers will undoubtedly decry this as a set back for “the children” as they often do when people question the endless emphasis on standards, high stakes testing, firing teachers, closing schools and turning them over to charter operators, but we have known for many years now the detrimental effects of poverty in childhood and not one of the corporate reformers’ ideas has any answer for that.  Pointing out that placing unrealistic demands on schools, essentially setting them up to fail, and then turning them over to charter operators who have become an investment vehicle for Wall Street is unfair and anti-democratic is not making excuses — it is demanding that “reformers” be upfront about how they have been monetizing public education.

The Newark race is also instructive because it represents a voter backlash against the general pace of change being placed upon public education from outside the democratic process.  Newark was placed under an astonishingly rapid pace for wholesale reform by former Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie who had gained massive funding pledges from financial interests.  Booker himself is quoted in the New Yorker article as urgently pushing “reform” ahead regardless of what anyone in the path of it might think.  Now I doubt that anyone who is being honest would question that Newark needs change — administrative overhead is astonishingly high just as an example.  (I would like to thank Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters who sent me a fact check from Bruce Baker of Rutgers University.  I sourced the observation of administration costs in Newark from The New Yorker article, but Professor Baker points out that Newark’s administration ranks 24th out of 103 K-12 districts in New Jersey school systems with over 3500 students.  Data from the state DOE can be found here.)

But Booker and Christie’s race to push reform from the top down absent any real effort to build a grassroots coalition for change is illustrative of the entire approach to “reform” that we have seen since No Child Left Behind raised the stakes on public education in the Bush administration.  Everything — from Common Core, to assessments, to value-added teacher evaluation, to tenure reform, to charter school expansion, to creating vast data clouds for vendors to mine — has come at a break neck clip without meaningful involvement of parents and teachers.

Public education is a part of our national “Commons” — our collective cultural and economic resources.  What has been going on in the past 15 years has been a cynical exploitation reminiscent of Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” where individuals pursuing rational self interest deplete or even destroy that resource.  It is certain that many involved in the Newark story sincerely believed they were working to improve Newark’s schools, but it is equally certain that many others were urging that process forward without democratic input because they saw many millions to be made regardless of whether or not the schools became great.

Yesterday, the voters of Newark said “enough” to that.  It is up to the new mayor to bring change for all of Newark’s children and to do so with the input of parents and teachers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Activism, charter schools, Newark, politics

20 Years in Classrooms — What I Learned in the First Month Still Resonates

In August, 1993, I stepped off of an airplane at Honolulu International Airport to begin a one year assignment as an intern teacher at Punahou School.  I had studied hard for that moment, completing education course work and an English degree at Dartmouth College in 1991 and a Masters in poetry at the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University.  For a year, I worked at paying off student loans while living with my parents in Massachusetts and searching for teaching jobs, mostly in private schools.  Punahou offered me an amazing opportunity to learn the craft of teaching from one of their veteran English teachers, and what was originally a one year commitment to teaching in Hawai’i became 4 years as I found a new position at the St. Francis School in Manoa Valley after my year at Punahou was up. I have remained in classrooms every year since then — as a graduate student instructor and as a professor.

This month is the end of my 20th anniversary year of teaching, and what I learned that first year in the classroom still resonates deeply and forms a substantial core of my teaching today.  My mentor, Bill, is a marvelous gentleman of English origin who, as we planned our first classes together, told me the core of his teaching philosophy: Teaching happens when interested minds come together to explore interesting content.  It is a simple statement that embodies a great deal, invoking the famous Vgotsky’s triangle and David Hawkins’ essay: “I, Thou, and It”.  Learning in the classroom is different than entirely self-directed learning, because there is a role for an informed “other” to assist the learner and to help shape experiences around a potentially enriching content.  Without the student, the teacher has no work to do, although many forms of teaching rely heavily on ignoring any legitimate role for the student.  Really teaching cannot fall into that.  Of course, it is possible for teacher and student to develop incredibly positive relationships, but for that to become an end in and of itself and set aside the purpose of being there in the first place…is a mistake.  This is why the choice of the “It” is so important as well. Content not only needs to be present for the student/teacher relationship to have a purpose, but also the content itself needs to be full of potential and the object of purposeful work.  Bill’s simple statement opens a world of fascinating conversation, cooperation and projects; it is a platform for a career of teaching.

The second lesson I learned within the first month of teaching had to do with the purposes my students brought to the classroom.  I realized that I had become a high school English teacher because of my long term love affair with reading and writing.  Books are precious to me as a means of gaining information and, probably more importantly, as a way to experience other lives and times and places in depth.  Reading a good book is a means of living in a new world and making new friends.  Writing is a form of personal power.  Richard Lederer’s “The Miracle of Language” was released in 1992, and I still remember an observation it made about the versatility of the English language.  Given the syntax and immense vocabulary available to speakers and writers in English, it is very likely that any time you talk or write that you are putting together the words you use in the order you have used them for the first time in the history of language.  I have always found that intoxicating as a concept — and see writing as a continuation of the human need to put a stamp in the world, to say “I am here” in a way that goes back to the very first cave paintings.

Something became evident to me by the end of my first month teaching: all of my students were NOT going to become high school English teachers.  It would have been so easy to pitch my teaching to the students who most reminded me of myself, but that would not make me an actual teacher.  I needed to not only consider the needs and interests of all of my students, I also needed to invite them all in to experience at least some of what I saw in the subject. This required excitement, innovation, passion, patience, confidence and reflection from me.  It has required it in every since that first one.  The year that I cannot muster those resources to support my knowledge of content and teaching is the year I need to stop.

The third lesson I learned had to do with how sincerely I believed what I said I believed.  Moving 6000 miles from home and taking up the task of teaching other people’s children meant that I not only had to say that I believed in the value of diversity in the classroom, but also I had to do a crash course to learn what I did not know about my students and their many, rich and beautiful, cultures.  Hawai’i is one of the most diverse places in the entire country, and my students could trace ancestry to every corner of the globe.  They were from families who could trace tens of generations in Hawai’i and who had arrived for a multitude of purposes from every inhabited continent since the late 18th century.  They held on to unique cultures from their ancestry and to new cultures that had developed in contact with each other and existed no place else on Earth.

And I, to my substantial humbling, knew absolutely nothing.  In retrospect, I am incredibly grateful for that because even though I know that I could have gone to teach in my hometown and still have a tremendous amount to learn about my students, beginning my teaching in Hawai’i forced me to recognize immediately that you cannot teach without knowing your students and learning from them. I had the astonishing privilege of learning that lesson from some truly remarkable young people.

Focus on the relationship among teacher, student, and content.  Strive to include all students in the beauty and power of your content.  Learn from your students who they are and what they need from you.  It is 2014 and many of the challenges of teaching have changed, but the heart of it has not.  People truly dedicated to this work understand that and project that, and it is the reason, I think, why most parents respect and appreciate their children’s teachers and schools.  It is why the work remains rewarding.

It is why the work is worth defending.

Leave a comment

Filed under schools, Stories, teaching

Of Greenbacks and Green Cards — Why Wall Street Likes Charter Schools

Yesterday, I contemplated why hedge fund manager and principle founder of Democrats for Education Reform, Whitney Tilson, would be quoted in the New York Times saying that “hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital” as an explanation for financial support of charter schools by Wall Street.  Offering the benefit of the doubt, I considered that Tilson may have simply meant that relatively small cash investments could result in returns of human capital in the form of better educated students.

I no longer consider that.

It turns out that United States tax and immigration laws have created a healthy flow of money from the very wealthy into the charter school movement, possibly in ways not exactly imagined by the authors of those laws but which nevertheless have made charters a favored project of quite a few .1% movers and shakers in world capital.  The New York Times printed an article back in 2010 that reported the interest of the financial sector in promoting charter schools, but it did not examine the connection of that interest to actual returns on investment. While I cannot dispute claims that hedge fund managers like charters because many of them focus on test scores, are not unionized and they are seen as a way of polishing local philanthropic credentials, there is another reason that money flows into charters: it gives a return on investment.

In this piece on Forbes, financial analyst and author Addison Wiggins, explains the mechanism in the tax code that allows Wall Street to show a return on investment in charter schools:

In part, it’s the tax code that makes charter schools so lucrative: Under the federal “New Markets Tax Credit” program that became law toward the end of the Clinton presidency, firms that invest in charters and other projects located in “underserved” areas can collect a generous tax credit — up to 39% — to offset their costs.


So attractive is the math, according to a 2010 article by Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News, “that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.”

That isn’t sexy Gordon Gecko kind of money, but it is also guaranteed.  Put down money to fund the creation or expansion of a charter school, and a firm can double its money in a predictable time table and get to brag to the press about it is bringing new education options to urban areas.  The Gonzalez article in the New York Daily News also reported that JPMoragan Chase was setting up a more than 325 million dollar fund to invest in charter schools taking advantage of the tax credits.  This strategy is attractive enough that there are firms specifically devoted to connecting charter schools and financial backers.

To be fair, it is entirely possible that this is a more cost effective way of increasing the number of classrooms in some urban areas than traditional school construction projects funded by bonds; I do not currently possess the data to make such an analysis.  However, two very important considerations must also be made.  First, using the federal tax code in this way means that the cost to the public comes from potentially lost federal revenue instead of being paid in a predictable way at the local and state levels.  Second, when a city funds school construction traditionally, it is usually doing so to create schools that are obligated to educate and accommodate every student within its zone.  Many charter schools love to brag about their “awesome” results and make incredibly impressive claims about their test scores and graduation rates.  As Bruce Baker of Rutgers demonstrates here, such claims rarely can stand even moderate scrutiny.  North Star Academy in Newark, NJ, for example, claims that 100% of its seniors graduate, which is true — if you ignore that 50% of the students who enroll in 5th grade never make it to senior year.

So what we have are major charter school chains with deceptive or outright fraudulent marketing backed by the titans of finance who are making hefty returns on investment and are donating significant sums to politicians to keep the returns flowing.

In addition to onshore capital returns, investments in charter schools can be beneficial to foreign investors via the EB-5 visa program.  Under this program, foreign investors who spend at least $500,000 in the United States on a development project can earn a visa for himself and his family. According the Reuters article, this path is so attractive to foreign investors that Florida alone expected 90 million dollars for charter schools from foreign investors in 2013.  Much like the tax credits for domestic hedge funds, there is an industry developing to connect wealthy donors looking for EB-5 eligible projects to charter schools seeking capital.

To my knowledge none of these actors are channeling investments into neighborhood schools in need of infrastructure funds, estimated at over 250 billion dollars in 2008.  But the good news is that some hedge funds are getting a guaranteed return on investments and some foreign born multi-millionaires are getting green cards.

Al Shanker, the former head of the American Federation of Teachers, helped envision the idea of charter schools.  In a blog post from 2012, NYU’s Diane Ravitch wrote an open reminder to then New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf, about what Mr. Shanker thought charter schools should do. Charter schools, in Shanker’s vision, were meant to serve students who were most needy and had potentially failed already within other schools — instead, many of today’s charters deliberately avoid or push out those students.  Shanker also saw charters collaborating with other public schools.  As small laboratories of innovation, their goal should have been to translate what they had learned about working with students to the rest of the public school system.  Today, many charters aggressively compete with public schools and far from being a true part of the public education system, large numbers in some states are managed by for profit Educational Management Organizations who are responsible for their bottom lines.  According to Ravitch, Shanker turned against charters when he saw a pattern of corporate and for profit interests taking over the movement.

I have no doubt that with 1000s of charters operating across the country, that many of them embody the original vision to provide innovation and collaboration and truly dedicate themselves to serving the most needy of our students.  However, today, they are being greatly overshadowed by deceptively marketed brands of charter chains that rake in Wall Street and foreign investment, aggressively lobby state and federal officials for preferential treatment and build their reputations for success on the backs of students they refuse to serve and work to evict from their schools.  Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy chain can summon 7.75 million dollars in donations in one evening while most states’ education spending remains below pre-recession levels.

But, again, the good news is that some hedge funds are getting a guaranteed return on investments and some foreign born multi-millionaires are getting green cards


Filed under charter schools, DFER, Funding, politics