Monthly Archives: November 2014

What I Am Thankful For: 140 Years of School Success

David Tyack and Larry Cuban, two of America’s most accomplished scholars in education, published the book “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform” (1995) examining various efforts to reform American education and  explaining why schools tend to persist regardless of changes envisioned by reformers.  The book, arguably one of the best treatises on the subject in the past two decades, opens by noting how it is possible to portray American education as either evidence of progress or of regress depending almost entirely upon the motivations of the examiner:

Beliefs in progress or regress always convey a political message. Opinions about advance or decline in education reflect general confidence in American institutions.  Faith in the nation and its institutions was far higher in the aftermath of success in World War II than in the skeptical era of the Vietnam War and Watergate.  Expectations about education change, as do media representations of what is happening in schools. And the broader goals that education serves – the visions of possibility that animate the society – also shift in different periods, making it necessary to ask how people have judged progress, from what viewpoints, over what spans of time. (p. 14)

Tyack and Cuban take great care to demonstrate that much of our concept of progress or regress in education depends greatly upon how we frame questions and what questions we ask (or fail to ask).  For example, the great wave of educational expansion in the Progressive Era was influenced by the reformers’ beliefs that education could mold society for the better and that their progress was clearly reflected in statistics that showed greater and greater numbers of Americans obtaining more and more education.  At the same time, however, these same Progressives built a system with systemic inequalities enshrined in legally enforced segregation in some states and de facto segregation in others, with deep differences in school funding depending upon location, with limited college and career opportunities for women, and with few efforts to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities. The federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs set up a system of boarding schools for native children that were expressly racist and traumatizing.  The point here should be clear: whether or not schools are progressing is a consideration awash in choices of focus, not merely in data.

Today, Americans are in the third decade of an intense effort to convince them that the nation’s schools are failing.  Steeped in the rhetoric of existential threats in the Cold War, the Reagan administration released “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Education Reform” in 1983, which declared, in no uncertain terms, the belief that the education was not merely failing, but that it had already, definitively, failed:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. (p. 1)

President Reagan’s commission made such dire pronouncements at an opportune moment.  Having had confidence in the government shaken by both the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal and having had confidence in our economic future beaten by declines in heavy industry, oil crises, stagflation, and back to back recessions, Americans had already lost confidence in education generally.  As Tyack and Cuban (1995) note, in 1973 Gallup polling reported that 61% of Americans thought their children would get a better education than they had gotten, but by 1979 that number had fallen to 41%.  But the authors also note that in 1985, while Americans did not have a high opinion of the national school system, only 27% of the them rating it as an A or a B, parents  with children in school rated those schools highly, 71% of them giving a grade of A or B to the school attended by their oldest child.  That discrepancy has remained notably stable over the decades.  In the 2014 version of the same poll, 17% of Americans rated the national school system as earning an A or a B while 67% of parents gave that grade to the school attended by their oldest child.

While that second number has been trending lower recently, it is note worthy even after three decades of constant criticism of our schools that a super-majority of parents remain favorably disposed to the schools they know the best. In the past decade and a half, that criticism has become omnipresent with a bipartisan selection of politicians demanding more and more of our schools and with private foundations and billionaire financiers pushing reforms to increase test based accountability in public education and to use what they see as evidence of failure to demand market-based changes to how we deliver our educational commons.  Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates burst into a public role demanding education reform in 2005 by declaring our entire system of education “obsolete”.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan now famously opined that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it provided the impetus to dramatically change the schools in the city, and the result is that the New Orleans school district is the first in the nation to be comprised entirely of charter schools.  Secretary Duncan’s words, insulting to the many who lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods in the hurricane, make it clear that he believes hugely disruptive change is an imperative in education today.

But what if that is, from a variety of perspectives, unnecessary?  What if the story of American education is one of steady and cumulative progress and success?  What if the needs of our schools and the students in them are better seen from the perspective of systemic support rather than from systemic turmoil and disruption?  What if our leaders, both in politics and in business, are choosing to see American education in terms that can only be addressed by unleashing “creative destruction” without regard to the quantifiable goods that will be unpredictably harmed or dismantled by that force?

In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement, released an omnibus report entitled “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait“.  The report, presented in charts and graphs, demonstrates a steady progression in the reach of education from relatively small enterprise encompassing mostly a white and male population in the mid-1800s to a national enterprise available to and used by the majority of our population.  In many respects, it tracks the growth of American enfranchisement because as different populations in the country have been granted access to the right to vote and to protection from discrimination, their engagement with our educational commons has expanded as well.  So at the risk of taking a stance that Tyack and Cuban would acknowledge as political, I would like to present some of these findings as reasons to be thankful that previous generations of Americans invested meaningfully in an educational infrastructure as crucial to our economic health as our transportation, power, health, and water systems and as important to the vitality of our culture and psyches as our libraries, national parks, civic cultural institutions.

The growth of access to education and the depth of completion of education in the history of our common schools movement is evident.  In 1850, 56.2% of white children aged 5 to 19 years of age were enrolled in some form of schooling while only 1.8% of black children and children of other races were similarly enrolled.  By 1910, those numbers had climbed to 61.3% of white children and 44.8% of black children and children of other races, and by 1970, the numbers were 90.8% and 89.4% respectively, climbing to 93.1% and 93.2% in 1991.  In 1940, the percentage of males who completed 4 years of high school was 12.2% and 5.5% had 4 years or more of college for a median of 8.6 years of schooling completed, and the percentage of women who completed 4 years of high school was 16.4% and 3.8% had 4 years or more of college for a median of 8.7 years of schooling completed.  By 1991, 24.3% of males over the age of 25 had 4 years or more of college for a median of 12.8 years of schooling, and 18.8% of women over the age of 25 had 4 years or more of college for a median of 12.7 years of schooling.  Black men and men of other races only had a median of 5.4 years of formal schooling by age 25 in 1940, but that number rose to 12.6 years in 1991 with 17.8% of black men and men of other races having 4 or more years of college.  Black women and women of other races had a median of 12.5 years of completed school by 1991, and 15.8% of them had 4 or more years of college.

Over this time frame, illiteracy in the general and specific populations decreased.  In 1870, 20% of the population over the age of 14 was considered illiterate as defined by not being able to read or write in any language.  That percentage was a staggering 79.9% in the black population, but by 1910 the total illiteracy rate had decreased to 7.7%, and the rate in the black population had dropped to 30.5%.    Black illiteracy rates remained above 10% through 1952, but by 1979, they had fallen to 1.6%, and illiteracy in the total population was down to 0.6%.

Our nation’s schools were rarely accommodating places for students with disabilities with little to no recognition of specific learning disabilities until the 1970s.  In 1931, only 0.6% of children enrolled in schools were recognized as being disabled and in programs, and those were mostly speech, visual, and auditory disabilities with another large group of children recognized with cognitive impairments.  In the mid-1960s, this had grown to 4.3% of public school enrollments, but still without recognition of specific learning disabilities.  Due to litigation and legislation, this changed in the 1970s, and by 1989, 11.4% of the student population was served by special education programs with 2,050,000 children receiving accommodations for learning disabilities.

Student achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has made slow but steady gains in the decades since the federal government began the program.  In 1970-71, the average 17 year-old scored 285 in reading, 304 in mathematics (1972-73 data available), and 296 in science.  These scores rose slightly by 1990 to 290 in reading and 305 in mathematics, and fell slightly to 290 in science.  Black and Hispanic students made more notable gains in the NAEP during this time.  In 1970, black 17 year-olds scored 239 in reading, 270 in mathematics (1972-73 data available), and 250 in science (1972-73 data available).  By 1989, these scores rose to 267, 289, and 253 respectively.  For Hispanic students, reading scores of 252 in 1974 rose to 275 in 1989, math scores of 277 in 1972 rose to 255 in 1989, and science scores of 262 in 1976 remained stable in 1989.  Gains in the NAEP for higher level proficiencies also occurred across racial groups.  For example, level 300 in mathematics in the NAEP at high school is defined as being able to perform elementary algebra and geometry.  In 1977, 57.6% of white students scored in this range as did 16.8% of black students.  By 1989, those percentages had risen to 63.2% and 32.8% respectively.

Pursuit of higher education has also grown dramatically in the United States.  In 1869, 1.3% of the population aged 18-24 was enrolled in higher education of any form.  This number did not rise to 10% until 1945, but in the post World War II period it grew steadily, reaching 23.6% of the population in 1961, 41% of the population in 1981, and 53.7% of the population in 1991 with public institution enrollment of over 10.7 million split between 4 and 2 year schools.  In 1910, only 20 persons out of 1000 aged 23 had a bachelor’s degree, and by 1990, that number rose to 282 out of 1000 persons aged 23 years.  In 1990, the nation conferred 454,679 associate degrees, 1,049,657 bachelor’s degrees, and 323,844 master’s degrees.  It is noteworthy that female degree recipients outnumbered men in all of these categories when they lagged behind men in both bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees as recently as 1980.

American educational progress did not end in the data for the 1993 report.  Educational attainment numbers rose between 1990 and 2013 across the board, with high school diploma acquisition rising to 94% of whites, 90% of blacks, and 76% of Hispanics.  The percentage of 25 to 29 year-olds with a bachelor’s degree rose to 34% of the total population, with white degree earners rising from 26% to 40%, black degree earners rising from 13% to 20%, and Hispanic degree earners rising from 8% to 16%, although the gap between groups in degree attainment did rise despite the nominal gains.  Women built on their previous gains, widening to a 7% difference in bachelor’s degree attainment from the 1990 data, and by 2013, 9% of women had a completed master’s degree compared to 6% of men.

Achievement results have also grown, although sometimes slowly, in this period.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 4th grade assessments grew between 1994 and 2010 with very slight gains in the upper percentiles of children taking the assessments, but with more dramatic gains in the lower quartile of test takers.  Children in the 25th percentile saw their average scores rise from 180 to 192, and students in the 10th percentile grew from 147 to 169.  The 2010 report notes that only a quarter of students tested rated as “proficient”, but that for 4th an 8th graders, the gains in proficiency from the 1994 data year was significant.  Further, gains in the NAEP assessments for black and Hispanic test takers in 2010 represented a narrowing of the achievement gap compared to the 1994 data.

It is important to remember that Tyack and Cuban argue that portrayals of education in progress or regress is frequently a political choice, and I have to confess that there are real and legitimate questions to ask of our schools.  Although schools have admirably followed the continuous, if slow, expansion of the American franchise with the expansion of educational opportunity, many of our schools, much like the communities in which they reside, languish with dilapidated facilities, outdated resources, inexperienced or overworked teachers, high class sizes, students who struggle, and community constituencies that are overlooked or actively disenfranchised by our political system.  And for the 31 years that we have been subjected to constant narratives of failing schools, our society has disinvested in infrastructure, seen its unionized workforce collapse, and largely accepted vastly growing income inequality as a fact of modern economics.  These trends only contribute to the deeply entrenched poverty in many of our urban and rural centers, and they highlight the now well known difficulties of getting ahead when one is born into poverty.  Worse, another growing trend in America, our rising residential segregation by income, means that those who are economically secure rarely even see the decayed streets, crumbling schools, and closed small businesses that more and more of our citizens live with routinely.

It is little wonder that schools struggle in communities with such problems.  Schools are social institutions, and when an entire community’s institutional infrastructure struggles to meet basic needs, it is tragic but hardly surprising when schools similarly struggle.  Education “reform” today, unfortunately, looks at those very schools and does not merely demand that they do better; it demands that they essentially take on the responsibility of transforming their entire communities with practically nothing demanded from society as a whole.  The great progress that we have made with our educational commons since the late 1800s did not happen by simply demanding more and layering more and more responsibility.  It came because we, as a society, invested heavily in the creation of a common school system, and then we took vigorous actions to open up access to more and more members of our society.

If we want to push through this lingering, neglected, frontier of educational opportunity in our country, we will need to become serious about everything that is necessary to rebuild our communities that suffer from inter-generational poverty by pouring in resources, and we will need to seriously demand an economy where full time work is properly rewarded, making education an obtainable means to a genuinely obtainable end.  Improved and revitalized school systems in these locales can be an critical part of revitalization — but they cannot bring that about on their own.

Our continued educational progress will not hinge on increased demands so much as it will hinge on increased support.


Filed under Data, Funding, politics, schools, Social Justice

Reflections on Ferguson — What does education mean in a world like this?

I guess I am reblogging quite a bit this week….

Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18 year-old African American, was shot dead in the middle of the afternoon by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.  Eye witness and police accounts of how the fatal encounter began differ, but three different witnesses reported that Mr. Brown had his hands in the air when Officer Wilson fired the shots that killed him.  As news of the killing and its circumstances spread, Ferguson, a community of 20,000 that is two thirds African American, saw protesters take to the streets where, on the first night, some looting occurred leading the police force to use tear gas to disperse crowds.  On the next several days, different protests were met with similar tactics, and then on August 13th, this happened:

ferguson1ferguson 2 ferguson 3

The Ferguson Police Department, a force on 53 officers, only 3 of whom…

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A Review of Joel Klein’s Book, Posted on Gary Rubinstein’s Blog

I don’t usually reblog, but this bears repeating. Joel Klein is quite a piece of work…

Diane Ravitch's blog

Gary Rubinstein posted a review of Joel Klein’s book by someone who worked in Klein’s Department of Education central offices for many years.

I have not read Joel Klein’s book. I have had calls from two reporters asking if what he said about me was true. I asked, what did he say? They said: He claimed that I had turned against “education reform” (e.g., charters, merit pay, school closings, and high-stakes testing) because he refused to give a job to my partner or promote her or fund her program. I answered that I never asked Joel Klein to give a job to my partner; I never asked him to promote her or to fund her program.

When Klein arrived in 2002, she was executive director in charge of principal training at the New York City Board of Education. Just about the time Klein started as Chancellor, her program won a…

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Chancellor Merryl Tisch to Mayor Bill de Blasio: Drop Dead

Dr. Merryl Tisch is probably the most powerful person in the state of New York that you have never heard of.  As Chancellor of the Board of Regents for the powerful University of the State of New York, Dr. Tisch oversees a body that has all responsibility for overseeing and accrediting every educational institution in the state of New York from all public and private elementary and secondary schools, to nearly 250 public and private colleges and universities, to libraries and museums, to state historical societies, to public broadcasting facilities, to 47 licensed professions, to adult and career education services, to the official state archives.  Chancellor Tisch and her fellow Regents are appointed by the state legislature to five-year terms.  Dr. Tisch, a former first grade teacher in Jewish schools with a doctorate from Teachers College at Columbia University, has served on the Board of Regents continuously since 1996 and has been Chancellor since 2009.  With such far reaching powers and responsibilities, it is possible that the Chancellorship of the Board of Regents is the most powerful position in the state of New York that is not subject to election.

Chancellor Tisch is not adverse to taking harsh and public stances, and in 2011 even criticized the Bloomberg administration, which was never shy about going after allegedly failing schools, for not showing enough progress in the kind of numbers driven school improvement in favor today.  The Chancellor is also enthusiastic about the grinding state examination schedule that has been instituted from Albany, claiming that she “understands” the test anxiety felt by students but that the need for change is so urgent that “We have to just jump into the deep end.”  Blogger Jersey Jazzman notes that her understanding is an odd claim from a Chancellor who has never attended a school that believes in high stakes testing, has never taught in a school that believes in high stakes testing, and has never sent her own children to a school that believes in high stakes testing.

With such positions on education and reform, it should come as little surprise that Chancellor Tisch joined Governor Andrew Cuomo on the “If-It-Is-Sunday-It-Is-Time-To-Throw-Mayor-de Blasio-Under-The-Bus” parade by announcing that she wants to “aggressively” pursue more charter schools, and that the Mayor’s plan to turn around 94 of the city’s most troubled schools has until Spring before the Board of Regents moves to start closing them down.  Mayor de Blasio’s plan, which was only unveiled on November 3rd, will task $150 million over a three year period to transform most of the schools into “Community Schools” that do not simply seek improved academics, but also focus upon embedded social and community services to address many of the difficulties students face at home and in the community.  The schools will need to demonstrate improvement in attendance and academic performance, can turn over staff if needed, and may still face shutdown if they fail to improve in the given timeline.

Chancellor Tisch sounded less than impressed:

“It depends upon what they do with the money,” Tisch said. “There needs to be the capacity to manage how and where we place our teachers.”

The main issue, according to Tisch, is that the principals need leverage to fire educators if they don’t meet standards.

“It’s not just saying, ‘We’re gonna fix these schools,’” she said. “You gotta give the new principals and assistant principals the ability to hire the teachers that they want and fire the teachers that they don’t want.”

Her chosen metric of improvement appears to be how quickly the schools start to turn over staff: “From the state’s perspective, if we do not see movement with these lowest-performing schools in terms of their ability to retool their workforces by the spring, we will move to close them.” 

Mayor de Blasio outlined a three year timeline for improvement.  Chancellor Tisch says that he has about three months.  Mayoral control of the New York City Schools apparently is only for people in Dr. Tisch’s personal Rolodex.

What exactly does Chancellor Tisch mean when she demands to see such a quick “ability to retool their workforces”?  I have to agree with author of the Raginghorseblog, who teaches at one of the 94 schools in question and who writes here that Dr. Tisch mainly wants to see school administrators given free reign to fire masses of teachers regardless of their current due process rights.  Dr. Tisch is an intelligent person who fully knows that the Mayor cannot demonstrate significantly academic gains in these schools by Spring, so she is telling him that he is officially between a rock and a hard place.  If he does not move to pick a massive fight with the teacher’s union over firing large numbers of teachers without due process, then he will have a fight with the Board of Regents who will veto his school improvement proposal by shuttering the schools in question.

Doing this to a mayor who, in theory, has direct control of the city schools is stunningly disrespectful, but it has also become a popular pastime in Albany since the departure of Mayor Bloomberg.  Governor Cuomo did it last Spring by orchestrating a charter school rally in Albany on the same day that Mayor de Blasio was there to rally support for universal pre-K in the city.  The Governor did it again just before the election by declaring his intentions to make teacher evaluations even harder in the state even as Mayor de Blasio’s Chancellor, Carmen Farina, has been working to take the harsher edges off of school evaluations in the city.  Both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Tisch want to raise the cap on charter schools in the city and state and will likely pursue that with the legislature.  This is despite the growing evidence that the charter school sector, as currently regulated, concentrates more and more highly disadvantaged students into the remaining fully public schools which, unsurprisingly, continue to struggle.  The cycle, favored by billionaire Wall Street figures who donate heavily to both the charter schools and to politicians who support them, is pernicious enough that it invokes near conspiratorial overtones: declare fully public schools to be failing, close them, open up charter schools which attract families able to go through the application and lottery process, concentrate higher proportions of struggling students into remaining fully public schools, allow charter schools to push out harder to accommodate children, declare remaining fully public schools even bigger failures than before, close more of them and open more charter schools.

And for good measure, it must be noted that people are making fistfuls of money promoting this cycle of dislocation, concentration of disadvantage, and more dislocation.  It is also worth noting at this point that Dr. Tisch is married to the heir of the Loews Coporation, a diversified company involved in insurance, oil and gas exploration, and luxury hotel and resort properties, that has over $79 billion in total assets.  Her husband, James Tisch, owned, with several family members, stock worth $3.2 billion in 2012.  The people making money off of charter schools are in the same circle of financial titans as the Tisch family.

And now, it appears, Chancellor Tisch has given Mayor de Blasio, who ran as a progressive friend of New York City’s working families, an ultimatum: force a showdown with the teachers’ union and join the war to undermine what is left of American labor — or the Board of Regents will steamroll you.

I wish I could be surprised.


Filed under charter schools, Funding, New York Board of Regents, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Predicting the Future in Education: How Often Are We Dead Wrong?

In September of 1981, I was beginning seventh grade in the suburbs of Boston.  Our junior high school, catching on to the growing home computing revolution, had purchased approximately 20 Tandy Corporation model 3 TRS-80s which we referred to as “TRaSh 80s”.  Our class was enrolled in a half year long computing course that aimed to teach us to program using the BASIC computer programming language developed by Dartmouth Professors John Kemeny and John Kurtz in the 1960s.  The course was intended to familiarize us with the concepts of computer programming in an economy that saw more and more computer presence in everyday life via the home computers developed in the late 1970s.  However, our teacher introduced the “need” for us to learn programming in a singular manner.  In the 1970s and 1980s, many popular media sources played on fear of Japan’s perceived economic power as an industrial and technological powerhouse and corresponding perceptions of American decline to place our nation in an almost existential competition with our ally for economic security.

So our computer teacher told us that we needed to program because “in the future, everyone will need to know how to program computers,” and he layered it with a patriotic appeal that if we did not learn to program that Japan would “take over everything.”  I won’t claim a sophisticated understanding of the global economy and politics at the age of twelve, but I immediately questioned his assessment.  As I looked at my computer screen with a five line program on it, I spoke up and announced that I did not believe him.  With my classmates looking on, I said that in the future, there would be people who knew how to program computers and people who knew how to use computers just like how most tools that we used were designed and constructed by other people.  My teacher, to his credit, did not allow himself to be baited into that argument, and we continued the class as per his plan.  I did my assignments.  I learned IF-THEN statements and FOR-NEXT loops, and built tidy little programs that made my name scroll diagonally across the screen of our TRS-80s.  Then I went home, and I buried myself in “The Hobbit”.

I have not used a computer programming language another day after the class ended, although I have probably used a computer most days since beginning college in 1987.  Some of my classmates, fascinated by the ability to make a machine do what they told it to do, pursued computer science degrees and have, indeed, spent their working lives programming.  I, like most computer users between the late 1970s and today, have been content to use programs and applications designed by others.

Despite my lack of interest in patriotic programming, computers and commercially available internet access have exploded since I was in junior high school.  In 1984, only 8% of households had a home computer; today, that number is now 83.8%, spread across a mix of desktop and handheld devices, and 74.4% of households have internet access.  These numbers vary significantly by age, income level, education level, and race, but even 56% of households with less than a high school education own computers today.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 343,700 people worked as computer programmers in 2012, and a total of 3,980,000 work in “computer and mathematical occupations,” including researchers, web developers, systems analysts, programmers, support specialists, actuaries, and statisticians.  In the 1980s, computer and data processing grew by 181.9% in employment numbers, and while growth continues, computer and mathematical occupations represent roughly 2.7% of the labor force.

And even though the majority of American workers did not learn to program computers, Japan failed to “take over” as predicted by my computer teacher.  America, in possession of a computer workforce of trained specialists, saw Gross Domestic Product grow to 16.8 trillion dollars in 2013.  In 2013, 48.7% of all patents granted were issued to developers of U.S. origin.  US share of global “triadic patents” that indicate higher value inventions has remained constant since the turn of the century at between 27-30% of global patents.  In 1992, American citizens and permanent residents earned 28,013 doctorate degrees in all fields, and that number grew to 32,927 in 2012.

All of this, even though I was less than enthusiastic about learning BASIC in 1982.

Interestingly enough, today we are seeing a new push for wider access to computer programming through the “coding for all” movement.  I certainly will not prognosticate whether or not this is truer today than in 1981, but it is not hard to imagine it being reasonably true.  63.6% of households have some form of hand held computer, and their integration into our daily lives, even our hourly lives, is far greater than the home computing pioneers probably could have imagined outside of science fiction.  Computers masquerading as cell phones are integral to an astonishing number of people, and the number of mobile app developers worldwide may be as high as 2.3 million individuals.  It is hard to turn around today without a story about a person in high school seeing a need and developing an “app for that” whether it is for reasons personal or deadly serious.

So as I said, it is possible that “coding for all” is not simply an attempt to democratize the field of app development and raise overall awareness of the devices that we have deeply integrated into our lives and that we rely upon for more and more of our daily tasks.  It is possible that this will be an important indicator for how our economy will grow over the next decades, but it is also entirely possible that, like the predictions offered to me in 1981, that it will not.  App development may very easily be a part time hobby for many and a serious professional endeavor for a few, and while long term trends could easily impact how people buy and utilize programs in much the same way that the way they consume media and entertainment have been impacted in the digital age, that does not mean that most or even a significant plurality of us are going to be coding on a regular basis.  Nor does it mean that the fate of our economic future hangs on the percentage of our population that code daily.

And this ought to be a cautionary note for today’s education reformers who insist, absent much evidence beyond the rankings of American students of international examinations, that if we do not follow their path of education reform, we will fall into national economic ruin.  Today, the catchphrase for proponents of the Common Core State Standards is that our children must be “college and career ready,” such readiness to be defined as scoring “proficient” on a Common Core aligned examination designed and delivered by publishing and testing magnate Pearson.  They betray no doubt at all that this is a need, and they are entirely certain that “college and career readiness” in 2014 is captured by the CCSS and appropriately measured by the CCSS aligned examinations.  They further insist that the network of state standards that existed before CCSS were not sufficiently aimed at “college and career readiness” and thus were heading our nation’s students towards educational and economic doom.

A bit more humility really is in order.

A detailed examination of whether or not the CCSS are aimed at “college and career readiness” is not necessary here (although I would like an explanation from CCSS enthusiasts why being able to write an entry level college English course essay to David Coleman’s satisfaction is the sine qua non of college readiness).  What is necessary is questioning the ability of any group of individuals to make such sweeping pronouncements about what the nearly 60 million American children of school age need in order to be successful in life.  Predictions of the future of society often turn out to be dead wrong or hinge upon matters that are inherently unpredictable.  Futurists of the 1960s looked at technological development and predicted a world by the year 2000 virtually disease free and full of people who enjoyed a lifestyle typified by an excess of leisure.  The advent of home computing eventually led to today’s handheld mobile devices, but few in the late 1970s could have accurately predicted the ways in which computers have become integrated in our daily routines.  Observers of the economic landscape in the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a future where America’s position as an economic power was deeply threatened by a rising Japan, and while our economic landscape today looks vastly different than in the decades before 1980, we are certainly not subsumed under Japan or any other of the purported “Asian Tiger” economies.  Simply put: predicting the future and what it will need is hard.  So hard that the most prescient people are sometimes science fiction writers.

When it comes to school, this is complicated because, despite the heavy emphasis on economic needs, we purpose universal, compulsory education to goals that are not tied to economic ends.  A healthy democracy dedicated to goals of pluralism is embedded deeply in our educational system, and schools have been on the vanguard of our expanding enfranchisement since World War II; however, those are aims not readily placed on a standardized test.  The humanistic development of individual intellectual, social, and emotional potential is deeply embedded in the beliefs of many of our nation’s teachers, but again, it is not a purpose of school that is readily testable.  Regardless, if we are asking whether or not schools today are “meeting our needs” as a society, we ought to consider them alongside whether our children are “college and career ready” — and in the early grades, perhaps we ought to consider them far more than today’s reformers allow.

So do we know the future of education and what changes are truly necessary for our children over the next several decades?

If we are being honest, no, we don’t.  And we shouldn’t take very seriously those who think they do know.

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Dear Randi

Dear Randi Weingarten,

You do not know me, but we have crossed paths on Twitter and education blogging circles.  In fact, I think you have kindly retweeted some of my writings to your followers on a few occasions.  I am writing because I have been following your political actions for some time in this election cycle, and while I think I understand what is motivating a great deal, I am concerned that as the leader of the American Federation of Teachers’ 1.6 million members you have been too willing to accept a “seat at the table” with politicians and foundations, a seat that has come at the expense of the rank and file.  I do not believe this has been your intention, but I also think that it is necessary to question whether or not politics as usual has broken down, whether or not having a seat at the table is worth the comprises necessary to get there. I respectfully suggest that this is one of those times.

Many of the bloggers and education activists I read have been very harsh towards you in their assessments.  Those assessments are based upon what they see as a long series of actions demonstrating a willingness to play ball with so-called reformers and to negotiate for changes in matters like teacher assessment and compensation and the Common Core State Standards.  Mercedes Schneider pulls few punches in this piece detailing cooperation with Eli Broad, the Gates Foundation, and other forces in education reform who have sought to weaken unions, pushed for unregulated charter schools, advocated evaluating teachers using standardized test scores based on the CCSS, and advocated to institute performance pay using those same measures. Blogger Jersey Jazzman wrote you an open letter in 2012 about the Newark contract, making predictions that have pretty much come true.  I know other bloggers and activists who’ve openly pondered nefarious reasons for your willingness to cooperate with people and institutions that have been demonstrably disruptive forces in ways that have rarely been beneficial for schools.

I’d like to make it clear that I do not share that negative assessment.

There are two polar opposed views of how unions ought to deal with efforts like the current reform movements.  The first, which is certainly familiar to many, is best described as following the maxim that if “you let the camel’s nose under the tent, the rest of the body will follow.”  In this view, any concession given to reformers means that a constant wave of detrimental ideas will follow, so union leaders should fight tooth and nail to keep them from happening.  It probably will not work 100%, and the public relations will be difficult to manage, but if reformers keep getting bloody noses, fewer of their ideas will come to fruition.  The other perspective, perhaps more popular in the post-World War II period, believes that having a “seat at the table” is important and more valuable in the long term than constant brawling.  In this view, trade offs have to be made so that policy can be guided into less harmful directions because policy makers only listen to insiders and policy will be made with or without your input.  The stance is less viscerally satisfying, but if the seat at the table is genuine, there is potential to have actual impact without subjecting rank and file and their students to constant turmoil.

I will admit that I see the wisdom of the less confrontational stance.  Policy will be made, and we live in an era when union power has been greatly diminished by loss of membership and political figures willing to attack unions.  If the union leadership is fully shut out of the inside of the political process, then the people who will be left will be lobbyists representing corporate interests and a growing cadre of the super wealthy who have discovered that they enjoy bending politicians to their will far more than they enjoy endowing hospitals and art museums.  In the absence of union leadership with any insider capacity, politicians and plutocrats will bend everything to their will without a voice representing the rank and file even within earshot.  This is not a position of purity, but it promises to keep balance.

There’s just one problem with this perspective.  It only is operable when the place offered at the table is genuine.  If the owners of the table only plan to shoot you underneath it, then preserving your seat can no longer be a viable priority. I respectfully suggest that today is such a time, and that the only move that truly serves your members is to walk away from the table that is populated by people acting in bad faith.

The first evidence of this is the absurd and personal campaign against you by Richard Berman.  As you know, Berman is a political consultant whose preferred tactics are so bottom feeding and vicious that an oil industry executive listening to him talk felt the need to expose him for type of operative that he is.  Berman has spent most of the past year coordinating a direct assault on teacher unions generally and you specifically, relying on hyperbolic tone, misleading information, and a staggeringly personal content.  I must note that you have been dignified, forceful, and inspiring in the responses I have seen to Berman’s attacks, but I also must note that there is a lesson in the mere existence of his campaign.

Berman works for corporate interests, and although he will not disclose his donors, it is not hard to guess the kinds of people behind him.  After your cooperation with Eli Broad on some issues and after your personal efforts to support the standards side of the Common Core, it would be atrocious for his funding to be coming from Broad or Gates, but there is no lack of other corporate interests from the Walton Family Foundation to the Koch Brothers to the Rupert Murdoch to Michelle Rhee’s Students First who would be more than happy to take up the cause.  And why would any of these people and foundations be eager to engage in such a puerile attack on you?  Well, you’ve stepped out of line.  You’ve warned reformers that their obsession with testing and evaluating teachers by tests have put the Common Core State Standards in trouble with teachers and parents.  To me, this was overdue because Race to the Top had super glued testing the standards from the get go, but for your supposed friends in reform, this kind of talk about the obvious is a betrayal.  Worse from their perspective?  You have defended teachers and their union won workplace protections from the lawsuits seeking to strip them from all of our nation’s teachers, and you have been willing to criticize supporters of the suits in public.

I’ve heard and read your defenses of tenure.  They have been eloquent.  They have been factual.  They have been passionate.  And they must be unforgivable to the types of people who hire the likes of Berman. It is fairly obvious that he was hired to “soften you up” prior to the Vergara lawsuit ramping up, and he has been charged with keeping up his attacks as you’ve defended teachers since then.  What’s the lesson here?  You are only favored by corporate reformers and their political allies as long as you stay entirely within the ranks.  Take a step out of line, and well, you are on billboards as the enemy of America’s children and subject to junior high pranking on social media.

More egregious, however, has been the steady stream of betrayals of teachers and schools by politicians who have been wooed by steady infusions of corporate cash and have participated in starving public schools of funds, forcing the CCSS, testing and test based evaluations into schools, and who have promoted charter school policies that concentrate high levels of disadvantaged students into the same district schools they have starved of funds.  Worse, these betrayals have come from Democratic politicians who have traditionally enjoyed strong labor support, and who, in public, claim to be allies of school and labor.  Republican Governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have been incredibly hostile towards teachers and their unions, but they have also been forthright about their oppositional stance.  Meanwhile governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy and mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Newark’s Cory Booker (now U.S. Senator from New Jersey), and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento have pursued public school policies harmful to teachers and students — even if some of them go through the motions of courting traditionally Democratic Party constituencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has perhaps been the worst.  Governor Cuomo has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to balance his budget on the back of our schools.  Districts cannot make up the difference in lost school aid with local funds due to his property tax cap.  Governor Cuomo plays favorites with charter school operations that further disadvantage local schools and then attacks those local schools and teachers for poor test performance. Governor Cuomo’s education commissioner went out of his way to set the cut scores on state exams so that only 30% of students would be rated as proficient.  His record has been so damaging that the UFT took the extraordinary step of not making an endorsement in the 2014 gubernatorial election, and while many rank and file members would have preferred a stronger stance to endorse an opponent, it was an important step to publicly acknowledge that teachers in New York have no friend in the Governor’s Mansion.

It is because of these reasons that myself, and many others, were sorely disappointed by your tepid public response to Governor Cuomo’s latest outrage that he sees our system of free common schooling as a “public monopoly” that he wants to “break” and that he believes our state’s hard working teachers do not want to be evaluated.  He signaled not only his plans to double down on the destructive path of privatizing and testing, but also his utter disregard for teachers and the public purposes of education itself.  In response, you told reporters that his statements were most likely “campaign rhetoric” and that you had sent him a private letter explaining his errors.  To call the governor’s statements “campaign rhetoric” is to suggest that he is not entirely sincere in those statements and has tailored them for a political purpose, but I have to ask what in this man’s record suggests that he does not fully believe everything he has said?

Your statement reminded me of segment on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show on October 31st.  On it, Working Families Party co-chair Karen Scharff and actress and activist Cynthia Nixon made the case for people to vote on the W.F.P. line even as the Governor had appeared in the hour before them, implicitly insulting the Working Families Party in favor of his newly created Women’s Equality Party line on the ballot:

“We’ve formed every kind of fringe party for every kind of reason,” the governor said. “We have Democrat, Republican, Green, red, white, blue, working people, working short people, working tall people. We’ve never had a women’s party.”

Many observers believe that the Governor created the W.E.P. line for no other reason than to siphon off votes from the progressive W.F.P. and possibly lead them to lose their ballot line in the future, and they believe he did this because the party made him fight for his spot on their line.  Karen Scharff and Cynthia Nixon made the case that if people voted on the W.F.P. line, they would remain a force in state politics and keep pressure on Governor Cuomo to be the “better Cuomo that we know is lurking inside…”

The thing is that I do not “know” that there is a “better Cuomo,” and I do not believe that anyone can make such a Cuomo show up.  When he has stood for traditional Democratic Party issues they have been issues that carry almost no political risk in this state: gun control, abortion rights, and marriage equality.  While those are significant, it is very clear that when it comes to fiscal policy and our public education system, he is taking his cues entirely from the corporate financiers of his campaigns. When a sitting governor takes 100s of 1000s of dollars from the backers of a single charter school chain, then manipulates circumstances to humiliate a mayor seeking funding and support for universal pre-K, and then enshrines forcing New York City to pay the rent for those schools right into the state budget — then we know full well that he has no intention of playing fair with our schools, our teachers, and our children.

I have seen you on Twitter stating that elections are “about choices,” and perhaps you believe that the Republican opponents to these Democratic Party privatizers are even worse.  You might be right — in the short term.  In the long term, however, it will be even worse if the Democratic Party continues its head first slide down the path of mass standardized testing, invalid teacher evaluations, mass teacher firing and school closings, selling off our educational commons to charter school corporations, and the breaking of one of the last unionized middle class professions in the country.  A Republican candidate may be hostile to teacher unions as well, and may deny teachers and their representatives a seat at the reform table, but I have to ask how is that any worse than being invited to that table only to be betrayed again and again?

Elections are, indeed, about choices, and perhaps 2014 and forward is the time to choose better candidates and to actively oppose those who are eager to sell off our educational commons no matter their party and no matter how they will respond if they make into office over our opposition.  The vote is one of the remaining democratic mechanisms that can still work in an age of dark money elections and politics.  Influential billionaires may own politicians’ ears in between elections, but those same politicians have to get past the voters, and we need strong voices to roundly condemn those who have betrayed public education to forces that seek to profit from it instead of nurturing it for the benefit of all.

When the seat at the table is a farce, we still have the ballot box and the picket line.  I urge you to consider what roles they have in the years ahead.


Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Public School Graduate

Lifetime Educator

Father of Two Public School Children

Addendum: After I published this piece, Randi Weingarten, after a day of travel, posted this piece on the AFT web page about the “difficult choices” facing New York voters.  The statement insinuates that Ms. Weingarten will not be voting for sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, and while she describes the problems with the Republican challenger Rob Astorino, she is very firm with the Democrat:

It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in New York, especially after campaigning across the country for gubernatorial candidates who unequivocally support public education, respect teachers and will fight for the investment our schools need.

But in New York, the decision is painful. I am deeply disappointed and appalled by Gov. Cuomo’s recent statement that public education is a “monopoly” that needs to be busted up. (Frankly, it’s only hedge fund millionaires, right-wing privatizers and tea partiers who would use that terminology.) Public education is a public good and an anchor of democracy that is enshrined in our state constitution. Public education needs to be nurtured and reclaimed.

Ms. Weingarten concludes her statement by saying, “It’s well past time to fund our schools, care for our children, support our teachers, and stand up for workers and working families everywhere in our state.”

I wholeheartedly agree, and I sincerely hope that this signals a willingness to challenge Mr. Cuomo much more vigorously.


Filed under Activism, charter schools, Cory Booker, Gates Foundation, politics, schools, Unions