Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Moral Perversity of Today’s Education “Reform”

The narrative of school failure that fuels today’s reform policies in education stretches back to the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk.”  That document asserted that our national education system was so woefully inadequate to the task of educating for the future, that if it had been imposed upon us it “might be considered an act of war.”  The dire warnings have hardly abated, and in 2014, we are frequently told that our children and economy are in danger unless we fully embrace the vision of today’s reformers.  Moreover, today’s menu of reform, common standards, mass high stakes testing, value added evaluation of teachers, elimination of or severe curtailing of teachers’ workplace protections, promotion of charter schools and school choice, are frequently promoted by politicians and policy makers as civil rights issues.  Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig notes:

Student achievement data in the U.S. show long-standing and persistent gaps in minority versus majority performance (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Public concern about pervasive inequalities in traditional public schools, combined with growing political, parental, and corporate support, has created the expectation that school choice is the solution for poor and minority youth (Vasquez Heilig, Williams, McNeil, & Lee, 2011). As a result, many reformers have framed school choice as a “civil rights” issue. Scott (2013a) argued that philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits have followed Secretary Arne Duncan’s conjuring of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement as synonymous with market-based school choice.

It is notable that the school choice movement counts on prominent African American and Latina/o leaders to support vouchers, charters, parent trigger, and other forms of choice….In our recent Twitter exchange, (former California State Senator Gloria) Romero framed her bill as a civil rights remedy for low-performing schools. Clearly, African American and Latina/o leaders have formed advocacy coalitions to press for school choice as an alternative to the status quo as our nation has consistently and purposefully underserved students of color (Scott, 2011).

In the 21st century, we are exhorted to education reformers’ policy agenda by language invoking the struggles undertaken by some of our most heroic figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Representative John Lewis, and told that the best way to close the historic education achievement gap between suburban white children and their urban African American and Latino peers is to embrace highly disruptive change.  We are further told that all of our children are still “at risk” because even in the well-off communities of our upper middle class, students are not learning what they need in a global economy.  Without education reform, our impoverished students will remain locked in poverty, and our comfortable students will slide into stagnation.

For the sake of this discussion, let me do something I never do.  Let me assume, momentarily, that the education reformers are correct.  Assume that common standards and aligned mass assessments will create a seamless system of curricula that challenge students meaningfully, and that those standards encompass a strong vision of student accomplishment.  Assume that adoption of the standards and assessments narrow the differences between states and districts so that expectations remain high for all students.  Assume the assessments are well-crafted and valid measures that stand as good proxies for student learning.  Assume value added measures of teacher evaluation are statistically valid and supported by a robust body of research.  Assume that eliminating the job protections of tenure would mean that vast numbers of students would have greater contact with skilled teachers and that there would be no negative consequences to the rest of the teacher workforce.  Assume that the proliferation of charter schools in urban school districts would give vastly more students options to attend a high performing school and that pressures from school choice schemes would increase the quality of zoned schools.  Assume that urban charter schools fully serve all students who arrive at their doors.  Assume that the advocates of “no excuses” charter schools are correct and that they genuinely demonstrate that closing the achievement gap can be accomplished entirely within school through teachers armed with extremely high expectations.

Assume every last bit of that is true.

Then what?

This is a more critical question than many realize because even if the performance gaps in American education closed overnight, we would still need an economy that can accommodate many more and more equitably distributed high performing graduates than we currently have.  Advocates of current reforms certainly seem to be banking on this.  Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine recently wrote that Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy charter school network should be considered a “hero of American social justice,” and he declared that her schools have “been a staggering triumph of upward mobility.”  That’s quite a claim to make for a chain of schools whose oldest students have just begun high school, and, in fact, it rests almost entirely about the network’s accomplishments in state administered standard examinations.

However, the attractiveness of the claim is fairly obvious.  If we admit that economic injustice and that institutional racism have a detrimental impact upon students in poverty and students of color, then we have to admit that many of the gains made over the decades by students from upper middle class and upper class backgrounds are at least partially attributable to unearned privileges as well as to individual merit.  Further, we would have to engage in a policy discussion that attempts to alleviate the deprivations of poverty and institutional racism rather than to extol individuals to claw their way past such obstacles largely on their own.  The “no excuses” brand of charter schools claims that they have figured out how to lift all of their students to the same level of education and opportunity as students in the suburbs, and their policy allies are hardly shy about singing their virtues, as represented in standardized test scores:

Former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein does not want to talk about the complicating factors surrounding Success Academy results, nor does he spend time considering how far such results could be replicated. Success Academy fits into a narrative that believes schools and teachers are fully responsible for providing all of the lift out of poverty.

But, as I said, assume that it is possible and that Jonathan Chait’s premature declaration of social mobility comes true.  What awaits these students?  If current trends in economics do not begin to change soon, the answer to that question is not especially hopeful.  While there is still an discernible “college wage premium” for those who earn four year degrees, since the 1980s, a significant portion of that is more attributable to cratering wages among people without degrees than to significant wage growth among those with degrees:

Wage growth and decline by level of education

Wage growth and decline by level of education

While a Millennial with a college degree earns a wage that is $730 more than a late boomer with the same degree, the wage trends for those with either a two year degree and no degree have dropped precipitously since the early 80s compared with decades of modest but steady growth before.  A college degree may be necessary for a middle class career today, but more and more, it looks as if the degree is more a means to keep from falling into chronic income insecurity rather than as a genuine means of economic advancement.

If the middle class is increasingly a tenuous position in the American economy, it is even worse for the lower middle class, an economic stratum that has traditionally helped families transition from working class to more economically secure circumstances.  According the The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, nearly half of American families live at 250 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) or below, and 30 percent live between 100 percent and 250 percent of the FPL.  Unlike families below the poverty level, such lower middle class households are equally likely to be headed by a married couple or a single parent, and nearly half have a head of household who has attended at least some college.  The report on their economic struggles notes that, despite living above the poverty line, large percentages of these families rely upon a number of tax and transfer benefits such as SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit to remain above the FPL.  Indeed, without many of these programs, the number of families that would slip from an unsecured lower middle class to simple poverty is significant.  As a transition point from poverty to a more secure middle class, the lower middle class is faltering badly.

And where is the evidence that the economy is desperate for more workers with bachelors degrees?  It certainly is not in the wages earned by recent college graduates.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, wage growth adjusted for inflation has been nonexistent since 2000, and the downward trend has continued even as the economy has recovered from the Great Recession:

Wages for Recent College Graduates

Wages for Recent College Graduates

If college graduates were in short supply, basic labor economics dictates that businesses competing for them would have to offer higher wages, but even in the vaunted STEM fields, wages, while higher overall than in non-STEM fields, have not grown significantly for most of the 21st century.

Reality suggests that even if all education reform assumptions were true, graduates of a “properly reformed” school system would still graduate into an economy that is not equipped to lift them from poverty and that is barely equipped to maintain those in the middle class where they currently reside.  The recently published study by Karl Alexander of The Johns Hopkins University, The Long Shadow, illustrates just how complex and potentially unsuccessful the rise from poverty can be.  Out of 800 children studied from first grade to their late twenties, only 33 moved from the low income to the high income bracket.  While a good education is certainly a PART of a pathway out of poverty, it is by no means the ONLY way out, and with more and more workers in the economy struggling to keep pace, it is perverse to suggest that we bestow upon schools the sole responsibility for lifting children from poverty.

And yet that is exactly what is implicit and even explicit in reformers’ policy objectives and rhetoric.  When Jonathan Chait calls Success Academy a “triumph of upward mobility” he is expressly saying that equalizing standardized test scores through Moskowitz’s “no excuses” methodology will effectively raise the children in her schools to economic security.  But even if everything he says about her accomplishments is true, we cannot blithely assume that this academic accomplishment translates into mobility when the economy shows no indications of providing the kind of reward for work that would translate academic standing into economic standing.  Eva Moskowitz’s scholars still face a world where this trend shows no signs of abating:

Share of Total Income

And, of course, we know that we cannot grant the reformers that their agenda will work because much of it simply will not or is built upon faulty and deceptive claims.  Common standards are being implemented in 45 states simultaneously with virtually no field examination of whether or not they improved instruction at the classroom, school or district levels.  Evaluating teachers based on Value Added Models is problematic at best, statistically invalid at worse. There is scant to no evidence that the elimination of teacher tenure is going to significantly improve the teaching in urban schools, and, in fact, the states with the weakest teacher job protections tend to be states that perform very poorly on national assessments. Success Academy, despite claiming to teach similar high need populations as NYC district schools, has a very high attrition rate, and they do not replace students who leave.  This is a trait shared with many other “no excuses” charter schools who eventually have student populations with many fewer disabled students, English language learners and students on free and reduced lunch than their district counterparts.  They combine the selective attrition of the most difficult to teach students with an extreme emphasis on discipline for even minor infractions of the rules and, at Success Academy and elsewhere, a curriculum aimed at test preparation.  While there is little evidence yet that such test performance training will result in long term economic success, there is evidence that charter school expansion can make segregation actually worse.

And this is where reform advocacy devolves from being merely wrong-headed and into territory that is dangerously close to immoral.  America has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.  It is well established that poverty and its deprivations have serious, often lifelong, impact on people in health, education and economic outcomes.  While improving educational opportunity for children in poverty is a necessary component of expanding opportunity, left to its own, education reform, ANY education reform, cannot make significant dents into the roadblocks that stand before our nation’s poor.  We do not have an economy where the lower middle class can survive on the wages offered for their work.  We do not have an economy where 90% of the wage earners possess more than 49 percent of the total income in the country, and we do not have an economy where the often expressed need for college educated workers has led to growth in income earned by college graduates.

Worse, we have accepted no society wide responsibility to address child poverty in any meaningful way that would lift more children into the economic circumstances more highly correlated with school success than any other factor.  In fact, as a society, we have responded to current economic circumstances with demands to cut discretionary programs in ways that can directly harm children, deepening the already woeful health, education and economic outcomes for children in poverty.  Matt Bruenig of Demos, estimates that with an investment of 1% of GDP in a straight transfer program, child poverty could be cut by 50 percent, almost instantly.  He further points out that our 24 percent of GDP taxation level is among the lowest in the developed world, and it is hard to argue that there is no room for an extra percentage point of GDP.

But there is no political will to discuss this or other direct approaches to lifting people out of poverty in our government.  More accurately, there is no willingness for the major political donors who effectively leverage significant portions of policy in America to do anything that changes either the economy or their taxation levels.  There is, however, significant interest in bypassing those discussions and placing all of the responsibility to both transforming our economy and for lifting disadvantaged children from poverty upon teachers and school.

It fits the meritocracy narrative, and it may tug at our cultural bias towards individualism in the face of daunting odds.

But it is immoral.

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Filed under charter schools, Funding, politics, Social Justice

Dear Common Core English Standards: Can we talk?

Back in 1993, when I had barely been teaching in my own high school English classroom for a month, I had an epiphany.  I looked around my classroom of ninth graders and realized, consciously, that they were not all going to become high school English teachers.  As epiphanies go, I admit that does not sound exceptional, but it was actually foundational for the rest of my career in education.  The reason for this was that I simultaneously realized that I was teaching English because of the lifelong qualitative relationship that I had with reading and writing in English.  My father probably read “Oscar the Otter” to me every night for a month when I was four.  As a young reader, I often wondered if I would ever have a friend as cool as Encyclopedia Brown’s sidekick, Sally Kimball.  Later, I was positive that I found a lifelong friend in Charles Wallace Murray, and my copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” and  “A Wind in the Door” were shortly falling apart from their spines.  Bilbo Baggins’ fate trading riddles in the dark is still a matter of tense anticipation, and what I remember most about a bout of chickenpox was that it gave me an opportunity to read all three existing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books in one afternoon.  Why was I a high school English teacher?  Because of the transformative power of reading to develop relationships over distance and centuries, to teach about cultures and ideals, to illuminate human nature, to amuse and to challenge.  I am a better person because of books, and I wanted students to discover similar experiences and to build skills that would allow them to both read and to write powerfully.

That most of my students would not seek the same path did not mean that they were incapable of such reading and writing, but it did mean that I could not ignore that they had their own reasons for being where they were, and that I had to allow them to find reasons for reading and writing that mattered to them.  In other words: You cannot be an English teacher and aim your instruction at the students who most remind you of yourself.

Common Core English Standards, you really need to learn that lesson.

I have read the standards, many times.  I have introduced them in foundations classes.  I am now working with teacher candidates in an English language arts methods class with the standards used for planning.  In this class, candidates not only are learning classroom methods for teaching English, but also they are learning the theoretical basis for adolescent literacy.  I have told them that if they squeeze the standards really hard and shake them a lot, it is possible to get something other than close textual reading out of them.

Common Core English Standards, you are making me a liar.

It is not that the Common Core English Standards do not describe aspects of reading and interpretation.  It is that they describe them from a single literary perspective, and then they backwards engineer them from high school all the way down to Kindergarten.  But don’t take my word on it, let’s look at the Reading Literature Standards themselves.

The Reading Literature Standards are laid out by what they call “College and Career Readiness” anchor standards that are iterated in each grade level.  Those ten anchor standards are organized in groups by Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Text Complexity.  For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to select one standard under each of these groups to present at different levels.

From the grade 11-12 Reading Literature Standards:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

Range of Reading and Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

If you have graduated from a 4 year liberal arts college or university, odds are good that this sounds familiar regardless of your major.  The selected standards in Reading Literature represent a description of the close textual reading you were required to do as part of your introductory English coursework, possibly taught by an enthusiast of the New Criticism school of literary analysis from the mid-twentieth century.  For college bound students, this is not off the mark as far as a portion of their work with literature is concerned.  However, reading the entirety of the reading literature standards demonstrates that close textual reading is pretty much ALL that they contain.  Each of the anchor standard descriptors reiterates the anchors’ focus on the text — to the exclusion of the reader.

As mentioned, these standards then move down to Kindergarten, largely describing simpler tasks for less experienced readers.  From 6th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7: Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

From 3rd grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5: Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7: Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

From Kindergarten:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.5: Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.7: With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.10: Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.

So what is wrong with this?  It represents a very specific purpose of reading literature, a purpose that does not serve the reasons why all children read, not even all children destined to become college English majors, and it is backwards engineered to grade levels when students cannot be expected to have full fluency.  What Common Core does is take reading literature and purpose it entirely to close textual reading, which is a tool of literary criticism, especially for the New Criticism school of analysis.  In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader.

This stands in stark opposition to Reader Response criticism where the role of the reader in creating meaning not only cannot be set aside, but also is absolutely essential for the words on the page to have any meaning whatsoever.  Louise Rosenblatt informed this school of thought by demonstrating that the process of reading is best understood as a transaction between the text and the individual readers who approach the task of reading it:

The transaction involving a reader and a printed text thus can be viewed as an event occurring at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader. The transaction will involve not only the past experience but also the present state and present interests or preoccupations of the reader. It stresses the possibility that printed marks on a page will become different linguistic symbols by virtue of transactions with different readers….

Does not the transactional point of view suggest that we should pay more attention to the experiential framework of any reading transaction? Is it not extraordinary that major social upheavals seem to have been required to disclose the fact that schools have consistently attempted to teach reading without looking at the language and life experience, the cognitive habits, that the child brought to the text? And should not this same concern be brought to bear on more than the problem of the language or dialect that the child brings? Should not a similar concern for reading as an event in a particular cultural and life situation be recognized as pertinent to all reading, for all children at all phases of their development as readers, from the simplest to the most sophisti­cated levels? (pp. 15-16)

Reader Response does not deny that there is a text with a structure that readers must encounter in order to make meaning, but it also recognizes the robust and essential elements brought by each individual reader in the meaning making process.  Instead of the text containing a single meaning to be derived by close textual analysis, the text is brought to many different meanings because of the histories, cultures, dispositions and experiences of the multitude of readers who transact with that text.

At this point, some advocates of the Common Core standards may protest that the Reading Literature standards are not trying to shoehorn all readers into New Criticism, and that with the tools of close textual reading, students and teachers could possibly engage in any number of reading experiences incorporating social, cultural, historical, psychological and personal knowledge.  To some degree, it is upon this that I have been hanging my promise to my own students that you can shake a social reading out of the CCSS if you just shake hard enough.  The problem is that I am not really convinced of that myself.  To begin with, even when the standards suggest some form of reading that is connected to something other than the text, it circles right back to close textual analysis. From the third grade standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

Looking at these, I get somewhat hopeful.  RL3.2 states that students will recall some rich literature such as fables, folktales and myths which could become a great basis for comparing current and past societies, understanding the concept of a the heroic figure and how it relates to the child’s life.  But the standard quickly segues right back to picking out “key details in the text” in service of determining “the central message, lesson, or moral.” (emphasis added) Similarly, RL3.3 begins with some hope that students might develop personal relationships with the characters in the story and use those character traits to better understand themselves.  Then the standard immediately purposes their understanding to “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.”  In Common Core, all literary roads lead to close textual analysis.  The reader is a bit player.

This shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise.  After all, one of the key players in the creation of the English Language Arts standards is David Coleman, current president of the College Board, philosophy graduate from Yale and Rhodes Scholar in English literature at Oxford University.  He is, plainly, a man of great intelligence and of sincere interest in the classical liberal arts.  What he is not, however, is a person with even the slightest credentials in literacy acquisition, elementary literacy or adolescent literacy.  As a student of classical philosophy and literature, he is no doubt quite familiar with literary criticism, but to infuse common standards in the English Language Arts with tools for literary criticism to the exclusion of all other ways to interact with texts all the way down to Kindergarten is a thoroughly strangled view of the role literature plays in the classroom.  This seems entirely unproblematic to Mr. Coleman, and while I have not read his thesis from Oxford, I have little reason to doubt that he is an enthusiast of New Criticism and other formalist schools of thought.  When presenting on the Common Core standards, Mr. Coleman derided what he described as a heavy emphasis on personal writing in most school curricula, thus:

When you add together the structure of the standards with the heavy testing regimen that have been tied to them and actual career consequences for teachers tied to those exams that were simultaneously put in place with the adoption of the CCSS, I find it hard to believe that very many teachers, on their own, are going to be able to use these standards to promote children’s love of literature from any social or experiential angle.  There is also extremely limited room for states to maneuver around the standards, as Mercedes Schneider reminds us here because the Memorandum of Understanding that states signed before adopting the CCSS only allows 15% of states standards to differ

If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.

Did anyone have anything better for children before Common Core?  That’s difficult to answer because while states have been held to progress in examinations since the No Child Left Behind act of 2001, this is the first time that nearly nationwide assessments are going to be aligned with a single set of standards.  However, it is possible to speak about how states with standards different from Common Core did on nationally administered assessments prior to this endeavor.  For example, Massachusetts has long been recognized as a high performing state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  In 2009, when Common Core was still twinkling in its authors’ eyes, Massachusetts’ 4th grade NAEP reading scores were higher than any other state in the nation.  At the time, Massachusetts was still using its own English Language Arts framework, adopted in 2001.  I would like to draw attention to Standard 9: Making Connections:

Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.
By including supplementary reading selections that provide relevant historical and artistic background, teachers deepen students’ understanding of individual literary works and broaden their capacity to connect literature to other manifestations of the creative impulse.

The standard is then extrapolated forward, requiring that students examine works as related to the life and experiences of the author and in relationship to key concepts, ideas and controversies that existed in the society that produced the work itself.  Examinations such as these are fruitful grounds for personal experiences and comparisons of current society and events as well.  This is similar to principles articulated by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA) in the standards for the English Language Arts that they released in the 1990s.  Standards 1-3, in particular, articulate a broad vision of what reading is for and how readers go about doing it:

  1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Neither of these documents rules out close textual reading, nor do they dismiss the need for students to develop skills in creating sophisticated analyses using the tools of text.  Common Core, however, provides no explicit space for any other kind of reading or analysis, and it appears entirely uninformed by any framework of reading as a process that includes the reader in any capacity other than as faithful seeker of the text’s internally constructed meaning.  Readers who want to understand society and history via the text?  Readers who want to explore their own humanity across space and time with characters who live and breathe after centuries?  Readers who want to enjoy the feelings of a work of art without picking it apart into its component parts?

People don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

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Filed under Common Core, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

If You Don’t Know What is Happening in Newark, You Should

Newark Public Schools began the school year under the “One Newark” program imposed upon the city by Trenton appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  The plan, which is the fruition of the partnership between Governor Chris Christie and former Mayor and current U.S. Senator Cory Booker, essentially speeds up the process by which neighborhood schools are labeled failures and turned over to charter school management and, in theory, opens up the entire city to a school choice plan potentially sending students all across the city in search of schools.  Community concern, parent, student and teacher, has been brushed aside, and the plan has been put into operation this school year.

Bob Braun, retired education reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger has extensively covered the plan’s roll out on his blog, Bob Braun’s Ledger, and it is safe to say that he characterizes it more as a roll OVER of the entire community.  Schools were slated to close even when succeeding by every reasonable metricAnderson stopped attending monthly public meetings where she was hearing the public’s anger and confusion.  Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed concern that Anderson’s plans are being rushed to implementation too quickly.  During the summer months, it was clear that Anderson had no operable plans for the transportation logistics problems caused by potentially busing students from the same families across the city to entirely different schools.  The lack of planning or even of care to plan was further evident this summer, when parents, taking off much needed work hours to participate in a school assignment process, were left waiting for hours in sweltering heat only to be told they would have to return another day.  Mind you, this wasn’t to enroll in an assigned school — it was just to get an assignment at all.  Mr. Braun reported one of just many heart-breaking stories entirely born of the cruelty being imposed upon Newark:

All the parents had stories to tell about the cruelty inflicted by the Anderson/Christie regime on the often poor and predominantly black and Hispanic residents of Newark. Typical was the story told by Marisol Mendez who came to the “One Newark” registration day to find placements for her 14-year-old son, Carlos Perez, and 9-year-old daughter, Emily Perez. The family lives in the North Ward and the children attended Abington Avenue but, when they applied under Anderson’s “One Newark” plan, Carlos, a special education student, they were  assigned to West Side High School and Emily was sent to a South Ward school.

“The placements were inappropriate for both of the children,” says Mendez. “My daughter is not going to take NJ Transit across town and my son needs a self-contained, special education class. He has had one all of his school career.”

Mendez tried to get answers from both the NPS administration and from charter schools. But, she says, two charter school operators–Newark Prep and K-12–told her they couldn’t take special education students. When she tried to speak to bureaucrats downtown, she received this shocking answer:

“They told me I should home-school my children.”

Anderson was upbeat on opening day, despite numerous reports of buses wandering the streets trying to find the students they were supposed to pick up.  But this week, the Newark Students Union tried to prove a point: that even in a politically disenfranchised community like Newark, people love their schools and will use whatever voice they can to make themselves heard.  On September 9th and 10th, students took part in direct action to protest what has been imposed upon them from outside political and economic alliances that see their entire school system as a worthy “experiment” at “creative destruction”.  With threats of citywide boycotts no longer supported by adult-led institutions such as the teachers’ union and the city clergy, these teens decided they had to be on the vanguard of demanding that Newark be heard: as reported by WABC News in New York City.  The student activists protested a second day by blockading the street near Anderson’s office as reported by WNBC the following day.  That protest culminated when police moved in to unchain the protesters, injuring the group’s leader, Kristin Towkaniuk.  Time will tell what will become in Newark, but despite their setbacks, it was genuinely inspiring to see students standing up when few adults are willing to do so.

And we all might have to get used to it.  I hope that I am wrong, but I have a terrible feeling that what is happening in Newark will shortly become the norm in American urban education.  Those schools have been treated to over 31 years of a relentless narrative of failure that has set them up for this kind of externally imposed disruption, and large portions of their populations are alienated constituencies in the body politic who certainly cannot muster the kind of money that drives policy today.

What worries me is that the growing backlash against the common standards, associated testing and use of testing to label students, teachers and schools as “failures” ripe for reorganization and take over is one with teeth because it has been pushed into our politically empowered communities, ones under no threat of state take over and loss of local control.  Peter Greene, a teacher and blogger, wrote about how at least one enthusiastic advocate of current reform trends, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, appears to be grasping this problem.  The gist is that Mr. Petrilli is now concerned that he and his fellow reform enthusiasts have mistakenly pushed their entire reform package into communities that have always thought highly of their schools, get the outcomes that they wish from those schools, have no easily identified need for drastic changes — plus they vote.  Some of them are even affiliated with powerful corporations who can provide the kind of monetary largesse that gets the attention of policy makers.

I could have told him this years ago if he had asked.  While a super majority of Americans think our schools are doing a mediocre job at best, a similar super majority of parents approve of the schools their children attend, and the Race To The Top package of reforms have taken the failure narrative from urban parents long used to it and pushed it out to the suburbs, whose parents are getting pissed at it.  Petrilli is even willing to admit that most high poverty schools are not failing so much as they are “no better and no worse” than average suburban schools.  However, he then pivots that such schools cannot “settle” for average and arrives at his conclusion that “no excuses” charter schools are the “best” suited for the job of propelling high poverty student populations to match students in affluent communities.

And this is why we can expect Newark to be replicated across the country if we don’t speak up even from the comfortable position of middle class school patrons.  I think Petrilli is correct when he diagnoses the reasons for growing push back against Common Core, testing and school failure.  Reformers have pushed so hard so quickly that they have challenged the politically empowered constituencies that policy setters need in order to stay in office. They certainly cannot charterize school districts where well-off families paid top dollar for homes in a neighborhood specifically because of the neighborhood schools.

But the efforts to turn over more public schools to charter management organizations will not give up easily.  If you have any doubt about that, recall that Wall Street donations pushed over 3 million dollars into the campaign of Shavar Jeffries for Newark mayor because his opponent, now-Mayor Ras Baraka opposed One Newark and its plans to turn over many more Newark schools to charters.  This is in a city where the mayor and school board have no real power over the schools.  There are well-financed and influential operations that want One Newark to become a model for urban education.

If that happens, we will have missed an opportunity.  If suburban parents manage to push back the disruption of current reforms from their communities, only to stand back and allow it to be imposed, full force, on communities without political power, it will be yet one more anti-democratic burden layered upon the backs of these communities.  It will be yet another case where we have abandoned children living in poverty as someone else’s problem, favoring the “easy” answers promised by education “reform” instead of the hard work of re-imagining a society without institutional racism and an economy where genuine opportunity flows upward.

We cannot afford to keep ignoring that.

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Filed under Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, politics, schools, Social Justice

New York Times Ignored Teacher Input on Eva Moskowitz

The September 7th New York Times Magazine ran a story by Daniel Bergner called “The Battle for New York Schools: Eva Moskowitz vs. Mayor Bill de Blasio”.  Bergner’s piece reads as an astonishing piece of hagiography to appear in the paper of record, ignoring any substantive argument about Ms. Moskowitz’s schools and repeating without critique her organization’s point of view.  Mr. Bergner did make note that he had spoken to critics of Ms. Moskowitz’s approach, notably Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University whose input he represents thusly:

When I talked with her, Ravitch indicted the hedge-fund titans and business moguls — including Kenneth Langone, a founder of Home Depot, and the Walton family of Walmart — who put their weight behind promising charter schools, leading their boards and lending political clout. “When they call themselves reformers,” she says, “it’s something I gag on.” What these philanthropists are all about, Ravitch says, is making themselves feel good while using charters as a halfway step in a covert effort to pull the country toward the privatization of education. For charter opponents, liberalism is in jeopardy. And from this perspective, Moskowitz, with her results and her readiness to trumpet them, poses the greatest risk.

Knowing something of Dr. Ravitch’s criticisms of charters schools generally and of Ms. Moskowitz specifically, this struck me as an odd and likely incomplete representation of her input.  Sure enough, several days after publication, Dr. Ravitch responded in her own blog at some length. According to Dr. Ravitch, her conversation with Mr. Bergner was not represented in the published article:

I spent a lot of time on the phone with the author, Daniel Bergner. When he asked why I was critical of Moskowitz, I said that what she does to get high test scores is not a model for public education or even for other charters. The high scores of her students is due to intensive test prep and attrition. She gets her initial group of students by holding a lottery, which in itself is a selection process because the least functional families don’t apply. She enrolls small proportions of students with disabilities and English language learners as compared to the neighborhood public school. And as time goes by, many students leave.

The only Success Academy school that has fully grown to grades 3-8 tested 116 3rd graders but only 32 8th graders. Three other Success Academy schools have grown to 6th grade. One tested 121 3rd graders but only 55 6th graders, another 106 3rd graders but only 68 6th graders, and the last 83 3rd graders but only 54 6th graders. Why the shrinking student body? When students left the school, they were not replaced by other incoming students. When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test.

She goes on to note that in addition to the phenomenon of selective attrition, she also discussed high rates of teacher attrition at network schools, but that Mr. Bergner argued with her instead of interviewing her.  Dr. Ravitch also notes that Mr. Bergner used different language than she did when discussing the issues with him, and all of her points about selective attrition were either ignored or glossed over with talking points that reflect Success Academy’s standard public statements.

While Dr. Ravitch has a platform to illuminate the distressing puffery that made it to the New York Times magazine posing as a multi-sided examination of a contentious public issue, a reader would be hard pressed to know that Mr. Bergner actually spoke to public school teachers who work in fully public schools that are co-located with Success Academy schools.  The sole hint of input is presented here:

That attitude (Moskowitz’s)  infuriates many teachers at regular schools. When I spoke with a handful, they used words like “metastasize” and “venal” to describe Success Academy’s proliferation. That Moskowitz’s wealthy board members choose to highly reward her track record — her salary and bonus for the 2012-13 school year totaled $567,500 — only adds to the union’s fury.

What is astonishing about that brief mention focused entirely upon a few potential epithets and alleged jealousy of Ms. Moskowitz’s salray is that Mr. Bergner DID speak with teachers who work in co-locations with Success Academy schools.  In fact, he spoke at length and clearly decided to disregard their input almost entirely. I am fortunate to know one of those teachers through local teacher advocacy groups, and she agreed to inform me about her discussions with Mr. Bergner and to share what it is like to be a teacher at a school where Ms. Moskowitz has claimed classroom space for her students.  Her name is Ms. Mindy Rosier, and she is a teacher at P.S. 811, the Mickey Mantle School, a special needs school within P.S. 149 in District 75.  They have been co-located with Success Academy since 2006, and this Spring, she and her colleagues found themselves in the center of the storm when Mayor de Blasio decided to not allow three previously agreed upon co-locations for Success Academy expansions.  The resulting highly public battle resulted in a 6 million dollar ad campaign accusing the mayor of throwing Success Academy students out of their schools, all funded by Ms. Moskowitz’s Wall Street supporters, and it culminated in Governor Andrew Cuomo helping coordinate a pro-Moskowitz rally in Albany that resulted in the city of New York being bound by the state budget to provide co-locations or pay rent for all charter schools.

Ms. Rosier was kind enough to answer my questions about what she thinks people in NYC need to know about the consequences of charter school co-locations awarded to Success Academy.  Much of this was what she told Mr. Bergner in a 45 minute long conversation whose content never made it to the New York Times Magazine:

Can you explain the school where you work?  Who are your students and what is the mission of your school?  

My school is PS811 at PS149. We are an additional site to the Mickey Mantle School family and we are also a part of District 75. My school site serves over 100 children with autism, learning disabilities, emotional and psychiatric disorders in a low income area in Harlem. Harlem Gems also have some rooms in our building. We all get along really well, with the exception of Success Academy.

The following is our mission statement;

The core values of P811M are articulated and expressed by a family of dedicated professionals committed to educating the whole child with integrity, compassion and respect. Our collective community effectively implements instructional practices geared to the individualized achievement of students’ social, emotional and academic goals. Each child’s individual assessment data informs this instruction. It is our goal to lead students towards maximum independence. With this independence, disabilities are turned into abilities.”

How did the co-location with Success Academy happen?  Were there discussions with parents and faculty/staff?  Do you know how it was decided to co-locate at your school?

Our site opened the same time as Success Academy began. It is my understanding that at that time, space for all was agreed upon. They had a certain amount of classes on one floor in one side of the building. I was hired at that school during the same time, so I am unaware of any other previous discussions with faculty/staff and parents. I don’t think anyone had a problem with that co-location then, but then again we had no idea what was to come.

How did the co-location process work?  Did you have any input into how the building would be divided between your school and Success Academy? 

At first, everything was fine. Then, over the next several years, they have requested more and more space from us. Up until last year, I did not know what the process was. I know our teachers did not have a say in this, and I really don’t know what the involvement of my admins were. I do know that just for one year, our former Chapter Leader (who now works for the UFT division for District 75 schools) was able to prevent more expansion on her part. Overall, we lost two floors that included classrooms, our library, our music room, our art room, our science room, and as a matter of making up one classroom, we lost our technology room as well. P.S.149 was so nice and offered us some available rooms at that time. Since, Success Academy has also expanded on their side and they lost an entire floor. So by last year, we had NO free space and P.S.149 was and is crunched for space as well.

Do the schools ever share any parts of the facilities?  If yes, how does that work out most of the time?  If not, do you know why?

We are NOT allowed on their floors. However, they always go through our hallways. Because of overcrowding and for safety reasons, they were told not to walk through a certain hallway during our dismissal times. My understanding was that they were not too happy about it and I have observed this still happening a couple of times over the years. All schools share the auditorium. In order to reserve time, coordination needs to be done. When Success Academy is using the auditorium, it is usually closed off to all others. Since our building is of a decent size, many of us cut through the back of the auditorium to the other exit to get to the P.S 149 side. (We have 3 classes on their second floor as well as a speech room and a resolution room.) So many times, when SA puts on a show or an event, it is very loud! There are two sets of doors that lead to the auditorium from our hallway. We have several rooms including classrooms close by. They have no problem keeping those doors open, disturbing our classrooms and other rooms. My office happens to be near there as well. So many times I have gotten up to close those two sets of doors. Sometimes I got looks doing so, but I didn’t care. We were all being disturbed. Noise levels do not have to be that loud. Even with the two doors shut, you still can here them. We just make do, like every other time. We do share the lunch room. In the mornings, SA has their breakfast first and then we do. There is another lunchroom on the P.S.149 side and also because of scheduling, their lunch begins around 10:40. On our side it is 11:30. Whether or not lunch staff starts on time, we have to be out of there just shy of 12. Our standardized students then have recess for a half hour, and then our alternative students have the next half hour. On Wednesdays, Success Academy has early dismissal. They are supposed to come out at 12:30. They exit through our playground. For the most part, they are already lined up to leave as we are heading back in from recess. There have been some occasions where at least one of their classes had come out really early. It was about 12:15 and my assigned class were in the middle of a kickball game. I yelled out several times to that teacher to please hold off, it is still our time. I know I was loud (that’s the Brooklyn in me) so I am pretty confident she heard me but chose to ignore me. My students LOVE recess and when they saw they had to end the game early they got upset very quickly and behaviors escalated. Me and one other para(professional) were trying our best to calm them down. There was another para who had gone inside earlier with another student because of a separate issue. When I saw that para come out, I yelled to him to get help which he did. This was a 4th grade class of about 12 who are all emotionally disturbed and learning disabled.  It was such a difficult situation. Some students had to be separated because their anger looked like it was going to lead to some fights. My lunch was next period, and I immediately informed my Assistant Principal. In front of me, she called their principal. I also had to write up several incident reports.

Now back to our lunchroom….our lunchroom is also our gym. Right after breakfast, it is cleaned up and the tables are folded and pushed to the sides. We have access to this space all mornings. Now the afternoon is a different story.  SA uses the the lunchroom in the afternoons. If P.S.149’s gym is available, they have been nice enough to let us share it. Otherwise adapted phys ed is done in the classrooms. Our gym teacher is wonderful and he has been great adapting to this situation. However, these are kids, kids with special needs, and they need to run a bit.

What changes have you seen in your work and your students’ educations since co-locating with Success Academy?  What do you think accounts for that?

We have done our best over the years to make sure that our students’ education has not been compromised in  any way. However, our students as well as those in P.S.149 have picked up on the fact that we are all treated differently from them by them.  Their teachers sometimes very obviously, have always looked down at our students even us teachers. I have tried to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are new teachers and they may just not understand what our students are going through. However, that is no excuse to give us looks or ignore us for simply saying “good morning.” There have also been some times where as I was passing, some of the kids have said “hi” to me. I love all children and without even realizing it I always acknowledge their presence even if it just a smile. I remember one time in particular those kids seemed so happy that I made their eye gaze, so I quickly said “hi” to them and slowly kept on walking by. A few of them said “hi” back and proudly told me how old they were. I would have loved to engage with them but they are not our students. Their teacher snapped at them to be quiet and to stand correctly on line. I felt so bad and I did look back. I didn’t want anyone in trouble for me simply saying “hi.”

Could you explain any changes to the environment/culture/feeling of the building during that time?  What do you think accounts for that?

There is definitely and us vs. them feeling in the air. I’ve been told that they have shiny clean floors, new doors, fancy bathrooms, etc. Meanwhile, we have teachers who have bought mops and even a vacuum cleaner to clean their rooms for they feel what is done is not efficient enough. Near our entrance, we have an adult bathroom. It is for staff and our parents. Success Academy parents as well have used it. For many months that bathroom went out of order. Honestly, I am not even sure it is fixed yet, but after all this time, I really hope so. So we would have to either use the closet of a bathroom in the staff lunch area or use one of the kids’ bathroom when it is not in use. You and I know that had that been an SA bathroom, it would have been fixed by the next day. SA also throws out tons of new or practically new materials often. At first, some of their teachers would sneak us some materials thinking we could benefit from it. They stopped out of fear. With all the great stuff that they have thrown out, they got angry when they found out that teachers from P.S.149 and I believe some of our teachers too would go through the piles and take what we could use. Well, now they only throw out their garbage shortly before pick up so that no one could get at it. Nice, right?

We have all seen them get Fresh Direct deliveries. Our kids too. Our students have a general feeling that SA students are special based on how they walk around and how they are personally treated either by looks or sometimes comments. Our students may be special needs, but they understand to a point that feeling of us vs. them. We do not at all refer to things that way at all.

It truly is sad. We are a school with teachers, other staff, and students. We are all supposed to be here for a reason. It is beyond me that this has been such a battle.

This past year teachers and other faculty were very angry. Once I heard about SA’s plan to take over last September, that’s when I started to get involved. Enough was enough. In October, I attended a hearing in my school building, I went to that Panel for Education Policy (PEP) in Brooklyn a week later, and subsequent to that, I have been a part of rallies and press conferences, etc. as I have detailed in my email. All of what happened at my school has led to my educational activism. I have read so much over the years. The more and more I read, the angrier I got. The Alliance For Quality Education has done so much for our school in order to save it and for that I am very thankfully to them and I still maintain a very good relationship with them. I was introduced to MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) in late April, and I now sit on its Steering Committee, committed to do right by our teachers and students. Instead of just being angry as I have been for so long, I finally did something about it by being proactive. I do have to say, since my activism began, I have made tons of new like-minded friend and I am grateful of that too.

Why do you think Eva Moskowitz and Mayor Bloomberg agreed to further expansion of Success Academy in your building?  What would you say to them about that if you could?

Oh, boy! I believe they are friends and that they run in same circles. They did not care, never did. When we went to that PEP in October, about putting through those charter locations, it was like nothing I have ever seen before. It was my first one. The room was packed with teachers from so many different schools. There were parents, students, and various community leaders including Letitia James and Noah Gotbaum. People were ANGRY. So many plead their case for two minutes at the mic, some with heart wrenching stories, and all the while the panel was very busy playing on their phones, looking bored and disinterested. It was disgusting. You could hear so many people yelling, “Get off your phones!” I did not speak at this PEP ,but a dear coworker did.  I hadn’t found my voice just yet at that time. She tried to give an impassioned speech and when they did not even look at her, she called them out on it and was STILL ignored. It sure seemed to us that the fix was in. Money and power talks and all else suffers.

How could you be so heartless? How can you say you are for all children when you have thought nothing about our community’s most vulnerable children, just willing to toss them aside like trash? A population that you refuse to educate and have sent as cast-offs our way? Knowing our building did NOT have any free space, why did you purposely choose to expand here? Why were parents lied to? Why did you perpetuate lies in the media and to the general public?  These are just some of the questions I would ask her (Eva Moskowitz) based solely on what she tried to do to my school. Trust me, there are so many more that we all have been asking her for a long time.

On the Families 4 Excellent Schools’ page on Facebook, I have gone back and forth with many, and most of those were parents. They had no clue as to what the truth was. So instead of them doing their homework, it was easier to call me a liar, a racist, clueless myself, etc., etc. I didn’t go on there to bash Success Academy. I went on there to inform them of the truth that was completely hidden to them and the general public.  After a while, I just had to stop. It was like beating my head against the wall. Moskowitz seems to be this cult-like figure to parents and they adore her. I have even heard her be called a savior!

As for Bloomberg, I used to like him, but that obviously changed.  Apparently, he came to our building several times to visit SA but never us. We never said “boo.” However when Farina came to our school for a quick walk through to see our space situation during this whole debacle, it became front page news in the NY Daily News with Farina’s big picture and bold letters SNUBBED.  Something to that affect, I don’t remember exactly. SA was pissed that even though she had a specific purpose for her visit to us, she did not go to visit them. She “snubbed” them and that made the front page! Honestly, I think I would simply ask him, “Why did you put money, politics, and power over the welfare of our beautiful special needs children?”

What do you think about the presentation of your concerns in the New York Times article that ran in the September 7th magazine?  Is there anything you think the reporter ought to explain to you and your fellow teachers?

I was beyond angry. I have no problem taking time out to talk about concerns I have, and on those things that I am passionate. I spent a considerable amount giving very specific facts, and they were all ignored. Other teachers were ignored. Parents were ignored. We all gave verifiable facts, but that did not matter. I personally feel that a good reporter should report both sides of the story. Way too many reporters and various mass media outlets have failed us, our school. our students, their parents, and the general public. I want to know why he blatantly ignored all of us and deceived the general public? Important information that I feel everyone should know, instead of blindly praising a woman with obvious deceitful tendencies simply because they have higher scores. There is a reason for that and the public needs to know the actual truth. Isn’t writing about and printing the truth Reporting 101? We ALL deserve a public apology with answers to the questions I have mentioned.

We need more reporters like Juan Gonzalez who is not afraid to tell the truth. He has posted several articles on SA, even one that had a focus on our school. He is one out of how many? AND because of all the faulty and biased information out there, when he does write something, he does not get any respect and he has been bashed.  “How do you say such things about Moskowitz and her schools?”

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!

###

Ms. Rosier has also written to the New York Times and Daniel Bergner to express her surprise that none of her conversation made it into the article, and to remind Mr. Bergner what she had said to him.  As of today, the letter has not appeared in the Times, but Ms. Rosier provides the text of it here.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Media, Stories, Unions

How to Spot a Fake Grassroots Education Reform Group

One problem with today’s education reform environment is that a number of groups exist that call themselves “grassroots” organizations, but which have expanded rapidly because of large infusions of cash from corporations and foundations invested in pushing charter schools, mass high stakes testing, data mining students and the Common Core standards.  These groups do not exist to represent the organically derived priorities and shared interests of students, teachers and parents; they exist to put a more credible face on the priorities and shared interests of a very narrow but astonishingly influential set of repeating characters.  Take Educators 4 Excellence as an example.  On their website, they tout that they began as “two teachers” and wanted to give teachers a voice in a system that imposed changes from the top down, and now they are growing into 10 of 1000s of teachers in multiple states. What don’t they mention?  That they are funded by The Gates Foundation, which is not really a surprise because a) Gates has been funding a lot of similar efforts and b) their “pledge” includes evaluating teachers by value-added testing models (something Gates really, really likes) and supporting “choice” which is reform jargon for charter schools (something hedge fund managers really, REALLY like).  The group was central in the not-entirely-successful #supportthecore  social media campaign, and former Connecticut legislator Jonathan Pelto writes here about more of their rather miraculous funding.

When I was in high school, soap actor Peter Bergman did television ads for Vicks cough syrup with the tag line “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.”  At least he was upfront about it.

A few days back, The Washington Post ran a story about the founding of “Education Post” which is claiming to be a new source of information about topics in education that will avoid the supposed rancor in current public conversations.  To her credit, reporter Lyndsey Layton did report that it is funded by the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Walton Family Foundation and is headed by the former communications director for Arne Duncan, so we have some heads up as to how that “reporting” on “what works” will tilt.

Genuine grassroots organizations cannot just pop up out of nowhere, grow by 1000s of members practically overnight, afford slick web designs, afford Manhattan rent and big staffs.  But without knowing what to look for it can be difficult for the casual observer, or even a working teacher, to spot the signs of a group that is more AstroTurf than grassroots.  I would like to offer the following guide as assistance, and I have chosen, not entirely randomly, Students for Education Reform.  Sounds like a great thing, doesn’t it?  Students?  Education reform?  Who wouldn’t want to support that?

From the Students for Education Reform webpage:

 

What started as two students working for educational justice in their own communities eventually grew from one college campus to twenty, and from twenty to over 140 undergraduate chapters at two- and four-year colleges in over 30 states. Our founders launched Students for Education Reform as college freshmen, each bringing a different perspective to the fight for educational equity: Alexis Morin is a lifelong public school student and was a local school board member in her Massachusetts district, and Catharine Bellinger is an aspiring teacher from Washington, DC. Together, Alexis and Catharine created a platform for college students to share their stories on one campus; by working with peers across the country, they grew SFER nationally during their sophomore and junior years. SFER’s members now represent the diversity of the American K-12 education system: the vast majority of us attended local district schools, while many others attended schools of choice – charter schools, parochial schools, and private schools. Together, we know what’s true, and what’s possible.

Ms. Morin and Ms. Bellinger started SFER in 2009 while freshmen at Princeton, and it has grown to 136 chapters in 33 states.  According to this blurb in Forbes, both of them had to put off their studies for a year to assist with the astonishingly paced growth of the group.  Which brings me to my first clue for spotting fake grassroots groups:

Growth at a pace that only a corporation’s monetary resources could manage.  Perhaps SFER’s founders had sincere interests in growing a real movement that included a genuine array of student voices (although the prominent mention of KIPP charter schools and North Star charter in this interview makes me doubt they had any vision except current corporate backed reforms in mind), but their growth could not have happened this rapidly without a serious infusion of assistance from outside.  That assistance, of course, came in the form of cash and the expectation that such cash would influence the values of the activism.

And Students for Education Reform definitely have been given cash.  This is evident in their web design which is a slick and well-executed page oddly reminiscent of the “Educators 4 Excellence” site.  SFER also has a national office in New York City, specifically on West 38th Street in the Garment District and near the Empire State Building and Pennsylvania Station.  While not the priciest office district in Manhattan, rents for office space on this site range from $27 per square foot to over $100.  That’s per month.  I’ll go out on a limb and assume someone is putting up the money for that which brings me to the second clue:

Who is funding the group and for how much?  This is readily known for SFER, thankfully.  According to this article from The Nation, SFER has gotten a hefty infusion of at least some of $1.6 million from Education Reform Now, the non-PAC wing of Democrats for Education Reform, in 2010.  ERN’s 2010 990 IRS form is available for your pleasure here, and the relevant page is 21.  Keep in mind, SFER was barely a year old in 2010, and it was already being infused with cash from Education Reform Now.  Not bad work for a pair of sophomores even if they are in Princeton.

It will help readers to know more about Education Reform Now and the affiliated political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform.  ERN operates as a 501c3 organization, and DFER helps spread campaign cash.  While ERN claims to be non-partisan and DFER claims to be an organization of Democrats, both groups are essentially joined together around the familiar causes of charter school expansion, mass high stakes testing and evaluating teachers based upon controversial and statistically invalid value-added measures of effectiveness.  DFER was founded in part by hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, and the main purpose of the PAC is to influence Democratic politicians to support charter schools and high stakes testing.  Education Reform Now receives annual donations from the Walton Family Foundation, getting $1.1 million in 2011 and more than $2.8 million in 2013.  DFER takes in a diverse range of donors, all from the privatization end of the reform spectrum.  According to this graphic assembled by the Alliance for Quality Education, DFER’s money and political alliances include the Koch brothers, conservative financier Rex Sinquefield, Rupert Murdoch, The Walton Family Foundation, and the American Federation for Children, which is a charter supporting organization. 

Suffice to say that when you see Students for Education Reform, you are seeing a group whose existence is at least partially owed to Education Reform Now channeling Walton money into their ledgers.  With ERN’s ties to DFER, you also know that the policies supported by SFER will align very well with the privatization advocates who want to break teacher unions and replace fully public schools with privately managed charters.  SFER has to, or the money will dry up.

With such funds come influential advisers, and for SFER, that is a board of directors that is a made up of some heavy hitting finance and reform personalities.  Which comes to the third clue:

Who is REALLY running the operation?  SFER is upfront about their boards of directors, which boasts some very familiar names and organizations.  Amy Chou is the chief growth officer of the KIPP charter school network.  KIPP, it should be noted, is one of the “miracle” charter chains that claims they have “proven” that high poverty populations can close achievement gaps by doing things their way.  What they don’t mention is how self-selection and high attrition without backfilling vacated seats influences their success rates.  In fact, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University provides a simple chart showing how various “miracle” and some non-miracle charter networks compare in populations relative to fully public schools in NYC:

I don’t mind various ways of doing business, but I really mind being told miracles are happening when the data suggests something much more mundane, and largely unethical.  As an added bonus, one of KIPP’s founders, Mike Feinberg, was asked if his children were going to attend a KIPP school.  His fumbling answer would have been amusing under other circumstances.

Also on the board?  Christy Chin of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, which is the philanthropy arm of the venture capital firm, Draper Richards.  Adam Cioth, the founder of Rolling Hills Capital and former investment banker at Goldman Sachs.  Justin Cohen, the president of Mass Insight Education which is the education wing of Mass Insight Global Partnerships, a financial industry alliance and lobbying group supporting “market-driven solutions”.  Shavar Jeffries, former mayoral candidate in Newark whose campaign received a huge influx of Wall Street cash in the final weeks. Jon Sackler, who is listed as the President of the Bouncer Foundation, but who is also a player in finance and investment and is a trustee with a major charter school management firm. Chris Stewart is listed as the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, but he will also be blogging for the recently announced Education Post, funded by the Waltons, Broads and Bloomberg.  The board is rounded out by the Deputy General Council of Unilever and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, Rebecca Ledley, who is married to ERN and DFER board member Charles Ledley, and who is herself on the board of a charter school management company.

But, you know, what she’s studying in graduate school is MUCH more interesting.

This kind of slight of hand brings up my final clue about a fake grassroots organization and that is:

Do its supposed grassroots members have even a clue what the organization is about?  I have done grassroots politics.  As part of the steering committee that formed the Graduate Employees Union at Michigan State University, I know first hand that real grassroots work is painstaking and slow, requiring a lot of time to meet, debate and educate a population.  Yes, we got help and networking connections from the Michigan Federation of Teachers, but the actual door to door conversations with the 1000s of teaching assistants at the university?  We did that ourselves and aimed to help every potential member of our collective bargaining unit to understand the issues we believed could be solved by forming the union.

While the central office of Students For Education Reform is deeply entrenched in an exact kind of reform that emphasizes charter schools, testing and union busting, it is not clear that all chapter members, the ones called upon to be the public face of SFER at rallies and meetings, know this.  In 2012, SFER mobilized students to take part in a rally demanding that the UFT and city reach an agreement to implement a teacher evaluation system that included controversial value-added measures of teachers using testing data because there was a $300 million dollar implementation grant at stake.  They carried signs emphasizing the money that was at stake, and got people to talk about how important that money would be for city schools.  But one would think that if SFER was really worried about school funding, they’d be far more concerned about what Bruce Baker demonstrates here:  that the NYC school budget is shorted $3.4 BILLION ANNUALLY by Albany.  SFER showed up to protest the UFT’s reticence to accept a deal that included teacher evaluations that do not stand up to ANY scientific scrutiny, but to date, they do not seem to have mobilized any placards to protest what Dr. Baker points out.

Do these “students for education reform” even have the slightest clue what they are protesting?  I doubt it matters to their board of directors who are happy to have a ready to deploy force of good optics for the press, and who are not as honest as a 1986 cough syrup ad:

The good news? We learned something from the #supportthecore day on Twitter.  Genuine grassroots work may not have a Manhattan office.  It may not have a steady flow of cash from the Waltons.  It may not have a slick website and be able to boast 100s of chapter offices in only 4 years.  But it does have an energy that derives from authenticity.  And that has staying power.  The hedge fund managers are treating all of what they want to accomplish as simply an advertising matter, but it is a democracy matter and people will have a say, one way or another.

 

 

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, DFER, Funding, Gates Foundation, politics, Unions, VAMs

Cuomo Lost My Vote, But Teachout and Wu Have Earned It

Back in April, I wrote extensively about how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo lost my vote, not merely in the primary but for any election he intends to run in, ever.  The upshot is that his treatment of public in education in New York State has been so harmful and so devious that it is obvious that he has no interest whatsoever in doing anything for schools other than acting at the behest of his donors.  Governor Cuomo’s budgets have strangled local school aid, and his tax policies have prevented districts from making up shortfalls.  His Common Core implementation has been overly disruptive, and his administration is enthusiastic about using poorly designed examinations to fuel statistically invalid evaluations of teachers.  The governor reached a breath-taking low in Eva Moskowitz’s campaign to prevent her charter school chain from having to pay rent in New York City, and the governor, as reported in the New York Times, did not merely stand by her — he actively made her rally in Albany against Mayor De Blasio happen.  Thanks to his efforts, the state budget REQUIRES New York City to pay Moskowitz’s rent even though her charter school chain is so flush with cash from hedge fund donors that she can unleash a multi-millon dollar attack campaign on almost no notice whatsoever.

All of this is tied fairly directly to the overlap of donors between Cuomo and the charter school market in New YorkCharter school investors have managed to make them work as an investment vehicle for themselves, and they have donated heavily to politicians who they believe will keep ordering more charters to open.  If you want to know how Governor Cuomo will decide on an education issue, you can save yourself the trouble and consult the wish list of “Democrats for Education Reform“, the astroturf organization set up by hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson mostly to put political pressure on Democratic politicians to support unfettered expansion of charter schools and to do so by funneling money donated from interests like the Walton Family Foundation through them and to candidates.

Is it any wonder that when the supposedly independent Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption actually dared to do its job that Governor Cuomo abruptly shut it down?

So Governor Cuomo cannot have my vote, but I am happy to say that Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu can, and for positive reasons, not simply as protest votes.  The reasons that I am voting for Teachout and Wu:

  • Teachout and Wu offer a positive vision of governance.  Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu endorse the vision of an “open democracy” that would enhance the values of our society and live up to the towering but often unfulfilled rhetoric of American inclusiveness.  America’s greatest stories are those when we have enlarged the franchise to embrace historically marginalized and ignored populations, and the Teachout/Wu ticket endorses this openly.
  • Teachout and Wu are not bought.  Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University shook up the political and pundit classes with their study that concludes the United States has become an oligarchy.  Their conclusion was based upon analysis that found policies were more likely to become law when backed by the small proportion of the population that wields economic power — even when such policies are disliked by super majorities of the voting population.  Governor Cuomo, as demonstrated by his public education policies, listens to the donors who can marshal 100s of 1000s of dollars for his campaign coffers even when it comes at the expense of properly funding our schools.  Having candidates like Teachout and Wu on the ballot allows voters to endorse representatives who are not bought and paid for by the current campaign finance system and who have pledged to change that system.  And despite the depressing conclusions about our current oligarchical trend, I see hope because money may sway policy, but it does not always sway elections.  If money always won at the ballot box, then Linda McMahon would be a United States Senator (twice), so voters still hold one power that gets elected officials to sit up and notice: the power to keep them from office via the vote.
  • Teachout and Wu have the expertise we need today.  Zephyr Teachout is a nationally recognized expert in government corruption.  Tim Wu is a fierce advocate of an open Internet and coined the expression “Net Neutrality.”  What are two of the most pressing issues for the future of our democracy?  Corruption and whether or not our digital infrastructure will remain a place of opportunity and equal access.  Unfortunately, our government is not listening to the experts on these issues, falling again for the advocacy of cash.  If the government will not listen to expertise, then it is perhaps time to place expertise in the government.
  • Teachout and Wu believe the education is a vital part of our national commons.  For the past dozen years, our education system has been warped far from its role to provide individual opportunity and to provide our citizenry with the knowledge and skills to fully participate in a democracy.  Current education “reforms” make education serve private interests and, preversely, private profit while claiming the mantra of civil rights and educational opportunity — even while they increase segregation and starve fully public schools of funds and resources.  Teachout and Wu see through that veil to the fundamental threat to public education and, by extension, to the threat to democracy itself.
  • Even if Teachout and Wu lose, we can win something important.  Governor Cuomo has ambitions.  There is little doubt in my mind that he sees the Oval Office in his future.  Given the version of corrupt, oligarchical politics that he represents, it is vital that he not cruise back into office in November.  If Teachout and Wu gain even a significant minority in the September 9th primary, Governor Cuomo’s armor will be tarnished on the national stage, and national Democrats will have to acknowledge that they cannot ignore the liberal vote in pursuit of unlimited campaign cash.  This is not as impossible a task for national Democrats as it may seem.  In poll after poll, the national electorate favors policies that are far more progressive than are politically viable because of the campaign financing system under which we currently suffer.  If voters finally refuse to vote for politicians tied to oligarchs instead of to the people, that can begin to change.
  • When I disagree with Teachout and Wu, the reasons do not make me angry: Governor Cuomo’s education policies are disastrous, and, worse, he arrived at them by doing the will of campaign donors who are serving their own interests.  I do not agree with Teachout and Wu on every single issue, but those positions are the results of their personal convictions and their study.  Those are differences with which I can discuss and for which I have respect.
  • Teachout and Wu dance while campaigning:

I am happy that I will be voting FOR Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu on September 9th.  If you are a Democrat in New York, I urge you to do the same.  We need to send a message.  We need to vote for values that truly resonate with our own.  We need to say that we demand better.

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Filed under Activism, politics, Social Justice