Category Archives: DFER

Betsy DeVos Broke the Ed. Reform Coalition – For Now

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as United States Secretary of Education, she required an unprecedented tie-breaker vote by Vice President Mike Pence.  This was because all 48 Senate Democrats voted against her along with 2 Republicans.  A barrage of phone calls from constituents, her demonstrable ignorance about federal education policy, her utter lack of experience with running a large organization, and unanswered questions about her financial conflicts of interest could not scuttle her nomination – but it got closer than any cabinet nominee in recent memory.  Betsy DeVos took her office with a the only bipartisan consensus being the one against her.

On the one hand, DeVos presented a very reasonable target for opposition.  She really has no relevant experience whatsoever.  She is an ideologue rather than a expert who has made her “name” in education by leveraging her inherited wealth into buying the votes of state legislators.  While many school reform advocates favor shifting tax money to privately managed entities, DeVos appears to see the privatization of public money as a goal in and of itself without regard for outcomes.  Advocacy groups funded by her actually scuttled legislation in Michigan that would have kept failing charter schools from expanding, and she has demonstrated no interest in holding the overwhelmingly for profit charter sector in her home state accountable to much of anything, leaving Michigan sending $1 billion annually into a sector rife with self dealing and absent any oversight worthy of the wordDeVos favored policies have wrought additional havoc on Detroit Public Schools, leaving children wandering a landscape with a glut of seats which are distributed so unequally that getting to a school consumes hours of commuting time and where families are encouraged to “vote with their feet” – even if it means changing schools multiple times a year.

And if that record were not enough, DeVos gave Senators plenty of reasons to oppose her during her testimony which was peppered with evasions and displays suggesting she knows painfully little about federal education policy.  She whiffed a question on one of the central policy issues of the past decade.  She bobbed and weaved to avoid talking about accountability.  She appeared to have no knowledge about federal laws regarding educating students with disabilities.  She was pathetically glib about the question of guns in schools.  And when Senators sent her written questions to answer in further detail after her hearing, she plagiarized some of  her responses.  On top of all of that, DeVos was confirmed with votes from a raft of Republican Senators who reply on her cash for their campaign coffers.

So given this basket of deplorable qualities, it is not so surprising that her nomination went right down to the wire with not one Democratic vote and two Republicans breaking ranks as well.

Then again, maybe it is a bit surprising.

Democrats, after all, have been full members of the education reform club for some time now.  As Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post notes, Democrats who opposed DeVos’ confirmation have not been shy about joining the education reform coalition in the past two decades:

That’s why it was unusual when, in 2001, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat, gave critical support to the new conservative Republican president, George W. Bush, in passing a new education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A bipartisan, they said, was to make sure public schools attended to the needs of all students, but the law actually became known for creating new “accountability” measures for schools based on controversial standardized test scores.

By embracing the NCLB system of high stakes testing coupled with dramatic consequences, Democrats enabled the move to privatize more and more public school money as charter schools proliferated in the wake of schools being labeled as failing.   Today, a cadre of Democratic politicians such as former Newark Mayor and now Senator Cory Booker, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and yes, former President Barack Obama are as dedicated to some or all of the central tenants of education reform as any Republican.  And as the debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act demonstrated, most Congressional Democrats are still in favor of high stakes accountability testing that is the centerpiece of education reform – and which provides the leverage necessary for Betsy DeVos to have wrought her special kind of chaos on her home state of Michigan and leaves her poised to try the same at a national level.

How Democrats got to this point is a layers and complicated situation.  Some followed the lead of many of the nation’s most venerable civil rights organizations who argued in 2001 and continue to argue that high stakes accountability is vital to make certain that states and communities do not ignore communities of color in allocating education resources.  This coalition split somewhat from the mainstream of education reform when the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion in the election last year, citing the widespread problems of fraud and lack of accountability in the sector, but the general premise that schools with high percentages of minority students will be neglected without high stakes accountability is powerful and rooted in centuries of systemic racism.  Representative Mark Takano, who is one of the few members of Congress who actually has teaching experience, also explained that his colleagues assume that accountability systems which make sense for banks and for legal entities work in public education:

First, I don’t have a lot of time to talk with my colleagues and have this kind of conversation. Second, the attention span of the average member is so short, and it’s hard to have a conversation that goes beyond a superficial level of knowledge.

So when you come to Congress with particular expertise, you tend to stick with your expertise regardless of the topic. Take Elizabeth Warren. I really love the woman. She makes my heart beat when I watch her on banking. When she says we should have broken up the big banks, I say, you go, Elizabeth Warren. But she has been a lawyer all her life. When she takes a position on education, she brings her experience as a lawyer on the issue of accountability. And to her, accountability is some sort of punishment.

Certainly there has to be some level of accountability. But if you liken education to bean counting, that’s not going to work. Likewise, if your background is in criminal justice or civil rights, you’re likely to want to remedy education problems by putting into place a law with all these hammers to correct the ways in which minorities are systematically excluded. But that same mentality isn’t going to work in education.

Representative Takano makes a compelling case that it is very difficult for Representatives and Senators who possess little practical or academic expertise in education to discern how incentives commonly used in legal and civil rights contexts will fail to achieve the same results in education.  Further, given the way that time and influence operate at the federal government’s level, it is extremely difficult for what teachers and administrators know about the system and the nature of teaching and learning to reach Congress.

In addition to these shortcomings, it is indisputable that other Democratic members of Congress have been enthralled by the enthusiasm for “big data” in the technology sector.  The Obama Department of Education was particularly convinced that large data sets from standardized tests could sort failing schools from thriving ones and incompetent teachers from brilliant ones, and this conviction was certainly aided by the enthusiasm of technology sector donors and philanthropists like Bill Gates.  Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for use of “big data” to rank and sort schools and individual teachers far outstrips the evidence that it can work the way Bill Gates thinks it can, and we are nearly three years past the American Statistical Association issuing a statement urging policy makers to not use value added measures in individual teacher evaluations.  Regardless, the Arne Duncan and John King education departments continued to plow time and resources into promoting those measures, leading President of the NEA, Lily Eskelen-Garcia to dub the department an “evidence-free zone.”

Yet another strain among Democrats has been the perspective of firm believers in the Clinton “Third Way” style of centrism – emphasis on free trade and market based solutions while defending some aspects of the social safety net and maintaining a left of center stance on many social issues.  It certainly has been an effective political stance in the West’s most conservative Democracy, and as the traditional labor support for Democrats has waned, it also attracted campaign donors from sectors of the economy that increasingly benefited from growing income inequality.  But it also brought the inevitable expectations that Democrats taking those donations would favor policies espoused by those donors – who have been hostile to organized labor and in favor of school privatization.  Third Way Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emmanuel have been dreadful for public schools, public school teachers, and public school students as a result.

It is therefore surprising that Betsy DeVos, with her lengthy portfolio of favoring school privatization, could not muster a single Democratic vote except when she is regarded as an almost living example of education reform’s reductio ad absurdum.  In this light, it is not that Betsy DeVos is wrong to favor school privatization per se, but she is wrong to favor it in the wrong way.  That construction was all over the statement opposing her nomination issued by “Democrats” for Education Reform, the hedge fund created advocacy group aimed at convincing Democrats to expand school choice and privatization:

“Outside of her commitment to parental choice, the hearing provided little insight on Mrs. DeVos’ vision for educating the 50 million American children who currently attend public schools. We are strong supporters of choice married with accountability, but as vital as parental choice is, choice alone is not an answer for ensuring the education of 50 million kids.

“In sum, the hearing did little to clarify concerns that progressive reformers have about Mrs. DeVos’ policy commitment to strong accountability and a strong federal role spanning the scope of the Education Department’s work, from finance equity and teacher preparation to higher education and civil rights. We do hope that at some point Mrs. Devos will speak more expansively about her vision for all public schools and the federal role in ensuring our schools work for our kids. But based on the record before us, we cannot support her nomination.

DFER positions itself as a voice of “progressive reformers,” and the education reform movement has certainly been skillful at positioning itself as a civil rights struggle.  DeVos’ enthusiasm for any privatized school, even those engaged in outright fraud, is simply too far for their brand.  Last month, before the DeVos hearings, Peter Greene astutely noted that charter school enthusiasts were concerned about her nomination to protect their brand, to protect the left flank of the reform coalition, to block vouchers, and because DeVos’ regulation free ideal is not actually good for many charters fighting over finite pools of money.  Jersey Jazzman further noted that reform Democrats were bemoaning the nomination of DeVos, but on the premise that the center “consensus” on accountability, school choice, and charters was working really well until Trump went over the top with his pick for Secretary of Education.  This is, as he noted, bollocks because like their counterparts on the conservative side of school choice, reform Democrats ignored evidence about the charter sector as a whole and never acknowledged how those with impressive test scores achieve them.

Consider this painful exchange between Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and DeVos during her confirmation hearing:

I honestly do not know how she got ten votes in the Senate after that, but we should examine the Senator’s question and its premise as well.  On the one hand, it is an excellent question, and given DeVos’ long record of favoring any private entity getting public money over any truly public school, she was either going to evade answering it, outright lie, or give an answer even Republican partisans could not have ignored.  On the other hand, Senator Kaine’s belief in “equal accountability” for all schools that receive public funds should break apart the education reform coalition if every Democrat actually believed that and meant it.  In Senator Kaine’s defense, his record is not one of unabashed love for charter schools, but plenty of Democrats love to tout urban charters schools, especially of the “no excuses” models that boast about high test scores.  The rationale is that those schools “prove” that “poverty is no excuse” and that all things being equal, urban schools can match suburban test performance.

The trouble?  All things are almost never equal.  Urban charters, even ones with high test scores, are not held to equal accountability with public schools and such accountability will never be accepted by the sector.  Even if they are spotted being free from union work rules, charters inherently draw from a pool of families more attentive to the system than fully public schools can guarantee, and the “no excuses” charter schools championed by Arne Duncan, John King, and a raft of Democratic politicians use restrictive conduct codes and heavy use of out of school suspensions to force either quick conformity by students or quick withdrawals.  This shows up in the research all of the time, and the end result are schools claiming that they have the “same” students as their host districts but which in reality have fewer of the students with the greatest needs, leaving district schools to care for a population that is even more high need with fewer resources with which to do it.  The equal accountability that Senator Kaine favors does not exist and will not be accepted by school choice advocates, even those on his side of the aisle, unless something much more earth shaking than Betsy DeVos’ tenure in Washington happens.

So, for now, the education reform coalition has split, but mostly it has split into conservatives hoping to achieve long thwarted dreams of school vouchers and so-called “progressive” reformers asserting that Betsy DeVos “goes too far”without questioning any of the underlying premises of high stakes accountability and privatization.  Unless Democrats get themselves a genuine education on the core issues facing our school system, it is entirely likely that the education reform coalition will just bide its time and re-emerge as strong as ever.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Cory Booker, Dannel Malloy, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Funding, John King, NCLB, politics, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Cory Booker Whiffs It.

Let’s not mince words: Betsy DeVos, the designated nominee for Secretary of Education, is a potential wrecking ball aimed at public schools.  The Michigan billionaire brings literally no qualifications to the post except a decades long zeal for privatizing public schools and an alliance with Christian Dominionists who see public schools’ secular and pluralistic mission as a threat to their values.  Her advocacy in Michigan helped spawn one of the most shoddy and unaccountable charter school sectors in the nation with the city of Detroit especially suffering under a bizarre maze of over capacity and an environment that was dubbed “The Hunger Games” for public school.  Even the typical funders of school choice and charter school networks tend to steer clear of Detroit because they simply have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  None of this seems to matter to DeVos who gives the impression that simply removing regulation and getting public money out of fully public schools is the only real goal — advocacy groups funded by her even blocked an effort to prevent failing charter schools from expanding.

It is possible, of course, that the reality of governing and managing the federal education bureaucracy will stifle her.  After all, the work of being a Cabinet Secretary is vastly different than the work of privately bending politicians to her will via campaign donations.  Further, the federal government only provides a small portion of the nation’s annual P-12 school budget, putting an inherent limit on the reach of the Secretary of Education.  However, Republicans are already suggesting that some or most of Donald Trump’s promised $20 billion school choice fund could come from the $15 billion spent on Title 1 grants.  $15 billion is not a lot of money compared to the $600 billion spent on public elementary and secondary education, but it reaches over 56,000 schools serving tens of millions of students.  There’s a lot of potential for chaos during her proposed tenure in Washington.

The DeVos nomination must pose a bit of difficulty for current education reform advocates who have really come into their own under President Obama.  Those who claim to stand for standards and accountability and push the narrative of “high performing” charter schools will have a difficult time defending DeVos funded outcomes in Michigan.  Perhaps more difficult is the fact that today’s education reformers have labored constantly to portray their issues – accountability and testing, privatization, breaking teachers’ unions – as matters of civil rights.  Whether writing for Peter Cunningham’s Education Post, or providing content for Campbell Brown’s The74, or lobbying Democratic politicians to favor policies long championed by Republicans like Democrats for Education Reform, education reformers do two things consistently:  1) distract from the fact that they are largely funded by what education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch has long called the “Billionaire Boys Club” who have no special interest in civil rights and progressive politics and 2) insist that turning as many schools as possible into privately managed charter schools and weakening teachers’ union rights are THE civil rights struggle of our time.  DeVos’ service as Secretary of Education will provide cognitive dissonance for these advocates.  On the one hand, she will almost certainly be a bonanza for the charter school sector.  On the other hand, she will serve at the pleasure of a President whose rise to office has sent spasms of joy among literal Nazis. Further, the incoming administration’s promises of mass deportation and “law and order” policies are aimed directly at the urban minority communities education reformers claim to serve.

Small wonder, then, that when “Democrats” for Education Reform issued a statement about the election, Shavar Jeffries suggested that Democrats resist any temptation to serve in a Trump administration.  In it, he invoked progressive principles and tried to tie them to reform priorities, but he also gave a strong nod to the condition of children in general in our communities and the need for a government that cares about those issues:

The policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be a progressive committed to educating our kids and strengthening our families and communities. He proposes to eliminate accountability standards, cut Title I funding, and to gut support for vital social services that maximize our students’ ability to reach their potential. And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods.

Less than a week later, Mr. Jeffries issued another statement about the nomination of Betsy DeVos.  The statement, more measured than the previous one, congratulated her and “applauded” her commitment to “high quality” charter schools.  The statement then turned to concern about other policies that might come from the new administration, called upon Ms. DeVos to be a “voice” against those policies, and once again blasted Donald Trump for his rhetoric.  To say that Ms. DeVos is an advocate for quality of any kind is belied by what she leaves in her wake in Michigan, but, as Mercedes Schneider points out, DFER’s lobbying arm, Education Reform Now, is a beneficiary of DeVos money.  It is hard to give full throated criticism to someone who can cut off your spigot.  This is the bind that education reformers find themselves in – unable to shout “huzzah” that one of their top allies is in the Trump administration lest they betray ideological dissonance….and unable to shout “boo” lest they bite the hand that feeds them.  America is the only advanced nation where education “reform” is made up of billionaires paying millionaires to wreck middle class unions teaching working class children.

And then there is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

Senator Booker is a bit of a phenomenon in the Democratic Party.  Having risen from city council in Newark to the mayor’s office then to the United States Senate in a little more than a decade, the Senator is well educated, charismatic, and he literally saved a neighbor from a burning building.  Actually, he also saved a freezing dog, fixed a broken traffic light, and personally shoveled out snowed in residents after a blizzard.  Give the man an armored body suit and a utility belt, and he could be Batman.  Political pundits already suggest him as a Democrat to watch out for in 2020.

What he isn’t, however, is a particular friend to public education.

While mayor of Newark, Mr. Booker famously partnered with Republican Governor Chris Christie to use a $100 million donation from Facebook CEO to reform the Brick City school system.  The resulting program, called “One Newark,” threw open the entire school system to choice and increased charter school options.  The implementation was flatly wretched, slating schools for closure even when they met their improvement targets, confusing parents and guardians in a poor managed enrollment process, sending children from the same family to schools in different wards, and leading to massive student protests and the eventual ouster of state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  Mayor Booker was already in the United States Senate by the time Anderson was yanked from the project, but his finger prints were all over it, including $21 million spent on consultants who concocted the whole mess. This was no anomaly for Booker – his record is firmly in the education reform camp, including close ties to DFER and he has enjoyed campaign support from Andrew Tisch who was on the board of virtual charter school operator K12, Inc – which just happened to open 3 schools in Newark using their systems while Booker was mayor.

So what, exactly, does Senator Booker have to say about Betsy DeVos, a nominee who even his allies at DFER are being cautious about in tempering their enthusiasm?  A potential Secretary of Education who has never attended a public school, never taught at a public school, never sent her own children to a public school, has never studied education practice and policy at any level, and who has spent decades trying to funnel public education money into private hands?

I’m not saying anything.”

At an event where the Senator had no trouble voicing his, reasonable, concerns about Senator Jeff Sessions becoming Attorney General, he evaded entirely the chance to speak about Betsy DeVos, even though, as RollCall noted, he has served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice while she was chairwoman and spoke in 2012 to the American Federation of Children when she was chair of that organization – whose amiable title is largely cover for its support of vouchers and privatization.

I suppose the question was uncomfortable for Senator Booker.  Ms. DeVos is an ally, and she is certainly influential among some of the Senator’s donors.  She also promises to be a zealous advocate for expanding Mr. Booker’s favored school sector, charters, but she is likely to do so by gutting Title I funds to our nation’s most vulnerable communities, something not exactly on Mr. Booker’s agenda.

Still – “I’m not saying anything?”  With more than a week to contemplate the nomination, he cannot come up with anything more thought out than that?  He could have said, “I know and have enjoyed working with Betsy on issues of common interest, but the record of reform in Michigan is decidedly mixed.  My support depends upon her standing only for quality schools for urban children.”  Or he could have said, “Although I have found some common ground with Betsy before, I am very concerned that the new administration is eyeing money that 21 million children depend on.  If she supports projects that harm them I will certainly oppose her nomination.”  Or he could have said, “Betsy has advocated for ideas I can appreciate, but she should use her new position to strongly advocate for the dignity and safety of all of our children who have reason to fear the new administration. If she does not, I will oppose her nomination.”

But, no – “I’m not saying anything.”

Senator Booker had a chance to show that his education reform credentials are really wrapped tightly in at least SOME progressive principles.  He whiffed it instead.

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Filed under Betsy DeVos, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Newark, One Newark, politics, School Choice, Social Justice

This Was The Summer of Charter School Discontent

As summer gives way to Fall, it is worth taking note how shifts, both subtle and substantial, are changing the ground on which charter school advocates fight for more of our public education system.  This is not what they are used to.  Backed by billionaire financing, using that money to pull the Democratic Party towards education policies more typical of the Republican Party, calling in favors from elected officials who owe their donors, getting unfettered and poorly monitored largess from the federal government, permitted to engage in practices that would land any public school district in a federal civil rights lawsuit, and existing in a regulatory environment that is charitably described as “permissive,” charter schools and their advocates are used to owning the conversation…and pretty much getting their way.

Slowly — but possibly steadily — that is changing.

An early blow actually came last November when current Democratic Party nominee for President Hillary Clinton was campaigning and made an entirely factual observation about the charter school sector as a whole:

“Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”

There is literally nothing inaccurate about that observation.  Self selection helps charter schools in general with their student population, and many flatly rig their supposedly open lottery processes.  The attrition rates at many charter schools, especially ones that apply incredibly narrow disciplinary regimes to their students, are well established, and the enrollment and financial impacts of these practices on host districts are also well known.  Every observation she made in that comment was fundamentally true.

Which did not stop major charter school advocates from lamenting her statement.  The pro-charter and hedge fund backed group “Democrats” for Education Reform (DFER) immediately released a response saying, it was “highly disappointing and seemed to reinforce fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.”  This is the same DFER that enthusiastically responded to Secretary Clinton’s campaign announcement, but which apparently has problems with her suggesting that charter schools be held to the same standards as fully public schools and doesn’t want anyone noting how quickly many charter operators purge themselves of students with disabilities, with behavioral needs, or with second language learning needs.

Since then, Secretary Clinton seems to have tried a bit of a pivot, saving her most negative comments for so-called “for profit” charter schools, which, to be fair, are a general disaster zone of a sector.  However, as Peter Greene rightly noted in July, this is a distinction in desperate search of a difference.  An actual charter school can be a non-profit entity run by a for profit charter management organization (CMO).  A non-profit CMO can contract exclusively with for profit vendors that the CMO operators have a financial interest in.  Real estate plays abound in the charter school sector, and various investment arrangements allow guaranteed returns for large financial firms.  Operating as a not for profit also doesn’t stop charter school administrators from paying themselves extravagantly from the public money they receive.

In fact, these very issues were at the heart of a Last Week Tonight segment by John Oliver.  The comedian and social critic was blistering.  While explicitly avoiding the debate over the existence of charters and carefully noting that he was looking at the problems associated with a poorly regulated sector taking public funds, Mr. Oliver looked at financial scandals and fraud in charter schools across the country:

This level of scrutiny has been sorely lacking over the quarter century of charter school growth and promotion, but Mr. Oliver was specific and devastating, looking at schools that suddenly shut down without warning, crooked financial arrangements, questionable charter school applications, and oversight laws allowing administrators to select their own non-profit organizations as the legal overseer of their owns charters.  Consider the quote in this screen shot warning parents in Philadelphia what to do before selecting a charter school:

philly

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

But the charter sector is still only in the denial stage of grieving, so, despite Mr. Oliver’s careful framing of his examination of fraud and mismanagement, the pro-charter Center for Center for Education Reform announced a $100,000 contest called “Hey, John Oliver, Back Off My Charter School!” I wish every public school district in the country had a spare hundred grand laying around for something like this.

The pro-charter camp also suffered set backs at the Democratic National Convention this summer when the education portion of the platform was amended with language explicitly supporting democratically governed public schools and making some actual demands of charter schools:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

It is hard to imagine anyone having a problem with this, so, of course, Shavar Jeffries of “Democrats” for Education Reform laced into the changes saying that the platform had been hijacked by the national teachers’ unions, and DFER tried, unsuccessfully, to block the language.  The lack of total obsequiousness from elected Democrats must have been very shocking to them.

However, the most difficult blow to absorb must have been from the NAACP. The venerable civil rights organization, sometimes an ally in education reform during the No Child Left Behind era, called for a general moratorium on privately managed charter schools – in effect, all of them.  The resolution cited the fact that charter boards accept public money but lack democratic accountability, that charter schools are contributing to increased segregation, that punitive disciplinary policies are disproportionately used in charter schools as well as other practices that violate students’ rights, that there is a pattern of fraud of mismanagement in the sector in general, and it then called for opposition to privatization of education, opposed diversion of funding from public schools, called for full funding for quality public education, called for legislation granting parents access to charter school boards and to strengthen oversight, called for charter schools to follow USDOJ and USDOE guidelines on student discipline and to help parents file complaints when those guidelines are violated, opposed efforts to weaken oversight, and called for a moratorium on charter school growth.  Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig defended the resolution, saying that education reformers have only offered top-down and privatized solutions and that choices can be community based.

Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University explained the importance of the resolution clearly:

Civil Rights workers were concerned first and foremost with the eradication of legal policies or structures like separate but equal that resulted in inequality. This mirrors the cornerstone of the NAACP’s current call for a moratorium on charter schools. They do not claim that all charters are bad, as some commentators have suggested, but declare that the unchecked proliferation of such schools represents a real danger to communities of color. They expressed concern about the dearth of evidence proving their effectiveness and deplore the resulting segregation they often produce. Most importantly, they question the equity of diverting public funds to support private enterprises. As the NAACP rightly observed, “[Charter schools] do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent [and have] contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.”

This is really the crux of the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was about inclusivity, while those who appropriate its language to buttress corporate education reform do so largely in support of programs that promote exclusivity at the public’s expense.

I find it difficult to emphasize this enough. For more than a decade and half, education reformers – backed by powerful philanthropies and funded by PACs funneling dark money from billionaires – have attempted to co-opt the language of civil rights.  They have used the plight of children of color who attend schools that are deliberately segregated and criminally underfunded to justify, as Dr. Denisha Jones explains, privatizing schools, setting up “choice” systems where schools choose children, and offering barely trained, infinitely replaceable teachers for children of color.  The NAACP resolution calls for a full pause in that agenda and recognizes it as antithetical to civil rights.

Of course, reformers could not stay silent on the matter.  Secretary of Education and former charter school head Dr. John King chartersplained that there should not be any “artificial barriers” to charter schools calling them “drivers of opportunity.”  Various African American led school choice groups pushed back on the resolution as well.  Self-proclaimed “most trusted educator in America” Dr. Steve Perry took a blunter approach on social media, calling the NAACP platform “anti-Black”:

And former Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham continued his efforts to use millions of dollars in seed money to build a “better conversation” by blaming the whole drubbing that charter schools have suffered this past summer on AFT President Randi Weingarten:

Mr. Cunningham is also referencing a suit in Washington state against the charter school sector that was working its way through the courts at the time – charters in Washington lost, with the state Supreme Court ruling that the state’s charter school law violated the state Constitution.

Of course, charter schools are in no danger of folding up shop and going away (although the faster that virtual charter schools which even charter advocates cannot defend just die already the better).  There are billions of dollars in public funds still up for grabs, and numerous ways to monetize public education.  Despite their complaints at hearing actual criticism, it is unlikely that charter schools would face an implacable foe in a Clinton administration as much as they’d face an ally telling them to behave better.  Charter school advocates are pouring money into a fight to convince Massachusetts voters that their already best in the nation school system needs unlimited charter schools — painting itself as a progressive cause when it is funded mostly by the same conservative groups – DFER, New Schools Venture Fund, billionaire donors – behind school privatization everywhere else.  They might win that one, but, for the moment, they are in unexpected territory and feeling defensive.

That’s long past due.

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Hillary Clinton, John King, politics, Social Justice

A Teacher’s Case For Hillary Clinton

I suppose I ought to front load this:  In the Democratic Party Primary in New York State, I voted for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  My reasons for the doing so were various, but they focused heavily upon how well Senator Sanders articulated what I consider to be a genuine crisis in our time: the out of control growth in income inequality and the consequent damage to opportunity and justice that comes with it.  Senator Sanders’ ability to make a genuinely competitive campaign outside of the system of large donor politics was also inspiring, and it pointed to another vital issue – how our campaign finance system grants large donors more access and more voice to the point of commanding far more attention than the voters.

In contrast, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, while acknowledging such issues, has spent the last quarter century at or near the very highest offices of political power in the country.  While I did not doubt that she recognizes these as problems, I did question her ability to give full critique to them while running a campaign that is fully enmeshed in big donor politics, especially when given the choice of Senator Sanders’ avoidance of typical large donors.  Further, as an advocate for public education and full-throated critic of the current reform environment, Secretary Clinton’s long standing connections to education reform was, and remains, a real difficulty for me.  Secretary Clinton has been supported by Eli Broad, whose education “philanthropy” has been consistently aimed at aggressively favoring charter schools over fully public schools.  Secretary Clinton’s PAC received a massive donation from Alice Walton, and the Clinton Foundation has been a financial beneficiary of the Walton Family Foundation whose education efforts are geared towards privatization and hostility to teachers’ unions.  “Democrats” for Education Reform, an organization founded largely by Whitney Tilson in a effort to convince Democrats to support anti-union and pro-privatization policies that are  more typical of Republicans, greeted Secretary Clinton’s campaign with enthusiasm.  Secretary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair is John Podesta who is President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and the founder of the Center for American Progress (CAP).  CAP, while often progressive and innovative on a range of issue, is reliably on the wrong side of education reform. If there is a bad idea being proposed for our public schools, there is a good chance that CAP has written a position paper in support of it.

Suffice it to say that this has been at least a bit of a difficult journey.  In reality, finding American politicians who truly support – and understand – public education and its purposes is not actually easy.  Senator Sanders’ education record – beyond college financing – is not actually stellar considering missed opportunities to trim back today’s test and punish environment.  California Congressman Mark Takano is a former school teacher who has explained that most of his colleagues, however well-intentioned, have limited time to learn an issue as complex as teaching and learning and are readily swayed by ideas that fit their known areas of expertise such as law and finance.

So how have I come to support Secretary Clinton’s bid for the Presidency?

One thing to remember is that, despite my initial support for her opponent, I find a huge portion of the criticism hurled at Secretary Clinton either false or overblown.  The Clintons really have been the target of a now generation long effort to both defame them and to blow up every misstep into major scandal.  Despite her currently dismal poll numbers on trustworthiness, Secretary Clinton has been admirably honest in her campaign statements – this really isn’t even close in comparison to the Republican nominee.  Secretary Clinton has been endlessly accused of corruption, and while I agree that our big donor political system is rife with the corrupting influence of money, it is hardly fair to claim that Secretary Clinton is some extraordinary example.  This is a system of campaign finance that touches most elected officials at most levels of government.  60 Minutes did a story in April about how the need to raise campaign money is so important to remaining in Congress that Congressional Republicans had personal targets of raising $18,000 a day over a six month period.  While I desperately want this system to change, it is not fair to single out Secretary Clinton as some kind of avatar of political corruption merely for having been around for as long as she has.

While her long time associations and past positions have worried me, it is also true that Secretary Clinton has proven herself persuadable on key education issues.   Last Fall, she created a near panic among education reform advocates for saying something that is objectively true: many charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”  This is objectively true by any normal analysis, especially of the high flying “no excuses” schools who claim they “prove” that urban public schools are full of lazy teachers — even while they do everything they can to suspend students they do not want until they leave.  It is also fair to say that Secretary Clinton seems to be trying to have it at least one and a half ways on charter schools, making statements about high quality “public” charter schools and trying to thread a needle on the difference between “for profit” and “not for profit” charters.  These are attempts to dichotomize situations that are often much murkier.  For example, a charter school can be run by a “not for profit” management organization that then contracts services to companies that entirely for profit – and which have ties to the people running the not for profit.  Fraudulent use of public funds is a very real problem across the charter sector and unlikely to improve without strict public scrutiny that charter operators and their investors have mightily resisted.  Further, current school financing situations generally mean that charter schools, as a whole, operate at the expense of their host districts who find that their fully public schools have higher concentrations of the highest need students without accompanying increases in spending to help them succeed.

Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party, however, appear to be making some progress on the issue as evidence by subtle but meaningful changes in the platform.  The original platform language on charter schools was basically more of the same – equating them with fully public schools and insisting that parents have options while offering a relatively meaningless opposition to for profit charters and a weak call for transparency.  The new language inserted:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

This should not be controversial – unless you believe that it is a great thing for schools accepting public money to operate to the detriment of existing schools and to fail to retain their students.  The platform also addressed accountability and testing, adding language that called for testing to meet reliability and validity standards, opposing testing that unfairly labels vulnerable students as failing, using test data to redirect funds, close schools, and in teacher and principal evaluation, and it directly supported parents’ right to opt out of standardized tests “without penalty for the either the student or their school.”

Shavar Jeffries, head of “Democrats” for Education Reform, was not at all pleased.  His statement said the platform had been “hijacked” at the last minute and declared that the platform would harm the nation’s most valuable children.

You have to wonder about someone who thinks calling on charter schools to stop kicking out so many poor and minority children and not financially destabilize their host district and calling for testing to be used in ways that do not actually harm schools and teachers and children is a massive affront to progress.  The good news is that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party as a whole may have begun a slow and ponderous turn from failed policies of test and punish and letting charter schools do whatever they want.

Another issue for teachers to consider is the composition of the Supreme Court.  This term, the court heard Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and the court’s five conservative justices were poised to issue a death blow to public sector unions and to rule that people who enjoy the protection of a union contract did not have to contribute money to the union if they do not join.  Such agency fees are a vital way for unions to still have enough revenue to represent all members even though they cannot mandate membership.  A decision against the CTA would have overturned decades of precedent and only the unexpected death of Associate Justice Scalia prevented the anti-union ruling.  The composition of the Supreme Court should be on teachers’ minds not simply because of the Friedrichs case, but also because of Vergara v. State of California case which is working through appeals and which is inspiring copycat lawsuits financed by dark money.

Where they cannot win with elections and legislation, education “reformers” are trying to break the back of teacher unions and are trying to sue away teachers’ workplace rights in court.  The four justices appointed by President Bill Clinton and by President Obama voted against the most recent case to reach the court.  The four justices appointed by President Reagan and by both Presidents Bush voted in favor.  There is no reason to believe Secretary Clinton would appoint justices markedly different than those appointed by her Democratic predecessors.

Secretary Clinton should also get some recognition for her choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.  Many progressives that I know are not happy with the pick, citing that Senator Kaine has, at best, a mixed record on many issues of sincere importance.  On education, however, he was one of the most promising of Secretary Clinton’s potential running mates.  Simply put, among prominent Democrats, Senator Kaine is not a favorite of education “reformers”.  As Virginia’s governor, he was not a proponent of standardization, high stakes testing, and privatization – the grand trifecta of what passes for education reform today.   Further, Senator Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, is Virginia’s current Secretary of Education and in that position, she has worked to reform standardized testing in the Commonwealth, blaming it for making the achievement gap worse, and she has opposed charter school expansion.

Consider the other possibilities.  New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was reported to be a top contender, and as a rising star in the party, he certainly would have added quite a lot to Secretary Clinton’s ticket, especially with his prodigious political talent.  But he is also a horrible choice on education policy, supporting vouchers, privatization, merit pay, and high stakes accountability testing.  Frankly, I was holding my breath wondering if I could ever be pleased voting for Secretary Clinton in the general election, and while Senator Kaine may not be a fully progressive pick, his selection gives me confidence that on education issues, Secretary Clinton is listening to a much broader and more informed set of advisers than President Obama has.

The issue of listening is actually another reason to be hopeful of a Clinton Presidency on education.  Ezra Klein wrote a fascinating portrait of Secretary Clinton, one that discussed some of her flaws as well, that got to a central strength of her leadership style – listening.  Klein stated that this seemed almost too cliche for him at first, but person after person repeated the same observation:  Secretary Clinton not only listens to others, she does so with a sincere interest in understanding their point of view, and she saves notes and records from those conversations to use when it comes time to craft policy:

It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.

This is substantial, and it makes me consider the very strong possibility that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party’s “evolution” on issues like charter schools and high stakes testing may be more than cosmetic and that they might signal the beginning of a shift away from the era of testing and punishment and privatization.  President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten has long been a supporter of Secretary Clinton.  While some rank and file members of the AFT were critical of the union’s early endorsement and while I do know members who have questioned the union’s efforts to cooperate with education reformers in the past, two things are indisputable:  1) as evidence has come in, AFT has been more forceful on opposing policies such as value added measures in teacher evaluation; 2) President Weingarten had a substantial and sincere role in assisting a ground breaking study by the Badass Teachers Association on workplace issues for teachers.  This study gained major, unprecedented, response from AFT membership, and issues that it highlighted even made their way into the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed last year.  Given Secretary Clinton’s leadership style and given President Weingarten’s role in supporting her this year, it is entirely reasonable to hope that genuine shifts are beginning.

Of course, it is possible that I am entirely wrong.  I accept that.  President Obama certainly said many of the right things about testing and accountability in 2008, only to hurl our schools into even worse policies than those imposed by the Bush administration. The reality is that we are 30 years into a policy cycle premised on accountability rather than equity and 15 years into a policy cycle using high stakes testing as a bludgeon on schools.  The reform side of education today is backed by enormously powerful and enormously wealthy interests such as Rupert Murdoch who claimed in 2010 that education was a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting to be “transformed” by technology.  That’s a pile of potential profits that none of them will simply walk away from readily.  At their best, education reformers tend to be blind to the consequences of creatively disrupting a core democratic institution the way they disrupt wireless communication.  At their worst, they are outright fraudsters enriching themselves at the expense of equity and justice.

The consequence if I am wrong about Secretary Clinton on education is that we continue to argue with the Federal DOE and that we continue to lobby state by state for needed changes from punitive accountability and towards support and growth.  These are arguments that are gaining traction community by community, so if Secretary Clinton turns out to produce no substantive change in education policy, there is at least familiar, if exhausting, work ahead.  Certainly, education reformers have no intention of going anywhere regardless of federal education policy, so we’ll be in this for the long haul.

But what is the alternative in this election?

I have seen friends insist that others make a positive case to vote for Secretary Clinton without mentioning her opponent.  That is an entirely reasonable request, and I hope that I have made a positive, if heavily qualified, case on those grounds.  However, it is also impossible to ignore her opponent in this election.  Whatever flaws Secretary Clinton may or may not have, they are within the normal parameters of American politics.  Donald Trump is far beyond the bounds of acceptability, not merely because of his utter and total lack of qualifications for the job, not merely because of his horrendous temperament, not even because of his documented lies, racism, and sexism — but because he represents a genuine threat to our system of governance. President Trump guarantees a rolling series of Constitutional crises from the moment he is sworn into office.

Some public education voters may be swayed by his promise to get rid of the Common Core State Standards.  Among all of his empty promises, that is quite a whopper as he will possess literally no leverage to change that.  While the CCSS were pushed into place with federal incentives during Race to the Top, the states were the ones that ultimately adopted them in response to those incentives.  Does Mr. Trump propose a DOE grant program to convince states to repeal the standards now?  Actually, that power is pretty much gone as the Every Student Succeeds Act passed last year places extraordinary limits on the Department of Education’s ability to mandate or coerce states into adopting standards and academic content.  Whatever fighting is going to continue over the Common Core standards, it is entirely at the state level now.

What passes for education policy from the Trump campaign was in full view when his son, Donald Trump Jr., addressed the Republican National Convention and blasted our public schools, comparing them to “Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”  He touted school choice and the free market, and he further decried the Democrats as more concerned with “tenured teachers” than with children’s education.

If you really like Campbell Brown’s war on teachers, you will absolutely love the Trump Administration.

Donald Trump’s broader proposals will harm the children in our classrooms.  One of his most consistent proposals is to deport every single undocumented immigrant in the country, an idea that would require massive investments in extra police, extra police powers, mass detention facilities, and emergency courts.  Beyond the stark horror of trying to round up and deport many millions of people, the plan would inflict terrible hardship upon millions of our school children.  Approximately, 1.4% of school children in America are themselves undocumented immigrants, and in 2012, roughly 4.5 million children born in America, and therefore American citizens themselves, lived with at least one parent who was an undocumented immigrant. Donald Trump would inflict unimaginable agony upon them.

American Muslims are only about 1% of our population, but they would take it harshly on the chin due to Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.  Nearly two thirds of adult Muslims in America were born in another country, which means Muslim children in our schools are very likely to have relatives who live abroad — and who would be unable to even visit during a Trump administration.  In addition, Donald Trump continuously defames Muslims in America from falsely claiming that 1000s of Muslims cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center to claiming that Muslims in America “know what is going on and they don’t tell us,” blaming the entire Muslim community for the acts of a very few extremists.  Muslim school children face increasing cases of bias and acts of hate against them — can we imagine what will happen to those students in schools if Donald Trump is President using that bully pulpit to spread his lies and hate?

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech painted a picture of America spinning into chaos, terrorism, and violence.  While the facts do not support these claims at all, he used them to repeatedly claim that he will be a “law and order” President and that “safety will be restored.”  If this does not send chills down your spine, you need to investigate history and ask yourself if children of color in our schools will see “safety” or if they will see even more aggressive and even more antagonistic policing in their communities and in their schools.  Donald Trump’s platform is a manifest threat to millions upon millions of the children in our schools.

All of this is bad enough, but Donald Trump represents a different and even worse threat.  It is unfortunate that we have used the word “fascist” as a political epithet in recent decades largely to mean “I don’t like how conservative this politician is.”  The term has actual meaning and a set of core ideas and themes that are emblematic of actual fascism that is extremely hard to map onto typical American politics with any honesty.  But not this time.  While not “pure” fascism in the traditional sense, both Donald Trump’s acceptance speech and the overall agenda of his campaign hit a distressing number of fascist themes – call it American proto-fascism, but the fact remains that Donald Trump is a genuine threat to our system of governance.

In 1995, Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote an essay about what he called “Ur-Fascism” or “Eternal Fascism”.  Having witnessed the rise of Italian Fascism and being forced to participate in Fascist competitions about the glory of the state and Mussolini, Eco was well equipped to explain central themes of fascism that managed to endure even though they did not manifest as national political forces in Europe of the early 1990s.  Consider some of Eco’s themes of Eternal Fascism and how well they line up with Donald Trump’s speech accepting his nomination:

  • Cult of Tradition: Trump’s portrait of an America falling into violence and chaos was an inherent effort to call for a return to a traditional, nearly mythic, national order.  His signature theme of “Make America Great Again” inherently calls for a period of glory lost to our current generation.  Trumpism sees no advancement except in a return to a mythologized past.
  • Rejection of Modernism: Nearly everything about the world we have made since the end of WWII seems a threat to Trump.  Modern economics.  International agreements. Inclusive immigration policies.  He does not propose reforming them. They are all rejected in favor of a retreat to isolation and protection.
  • Cult of Action for Action’s Sake: Throughout this campaign, Trump has repeatedly emphasized that we must “do something” about all of the problems he claims we have.  He does not have a real plan because that is not the point — we must act and must act now.  Trump’s own son, himself the product of elite private schools and universities, declared his disdain for the educated elite and proclaimed that he and his siblings learned from those with “PhDs in common sense,” indicting expertise in favor of blunt action.
  • Fear of Difference: Trump has thrived on seeking to make his supporters afraid:  undocumented immigrants are murderers and rapists; Muslim immigrants and visitors are potential terrorists; Black Lives Matter protesters are thugs seeking to murder the police and overthrow order.  His support is hugely based upon stoking these fears.
  • Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class: Unlike progressive politics which identifies economic hardships and proposes policy fixes, Trump identifies those same hardships and uses them to whip up more anxiety and resentment and a belief among followers that their rightful place in the economic order has been stolen from them, leading to…
  • Obsession With A Plot: Again, Trump thrives on the resentments of his followers and directs their fear and sense of humiliation towards others who have victimized them.  Again, this should not be mistaken with progressive politics that seeks to address economic insecurity through policy.  In Trump’s speech and campaign, the fault is that others, immigrants, Muslims, minorities,  foreign governments are existential threats to his followers and must be removed or controlled or beaten.
  • Humiliation from Enemies: Consider the typical Trump tack on trade — everyone cheats the United States and gets rich at our expense. In the world according to Trump most of our supposed allies take advantage of us and laugh at us while our adversaries do not respect us and cheat us.
  • Life Is Permanent Warfare: Trump promises swift military action against certain enemies, even to the point of committing overt war crimes, but the themes of war are evident in his constant talk of winning and losing.  To Donald Trump, all of our problems are summed up by how we “do not win anymore” because there are only two possibilities – victory or defeat.  This gives Trumpism another theme of Eternal Fascism:
  • Contempt for Weakness: Whether he is mocking the disabled or proclaiming that “only he” can fix our problems, Donald Trump oozes contempt for anyone he sees as weak and viciously attacks on that front.
  • Everyone Educated to Be a Hero:  Trump promises us that we will “win” as a nation and all of us will prosper as a result. Eco links the Fascist impulse to herorism to a willingness, even a desire, to die which seems absent from Trumpism as of yet, but his appeal to our desire to heroic victory is present.
  • Machismo: Heroic death may be elusive, but macho strutting and bragging is readily available to the Ur-Fascist.  Donald Trump’s hyper-machismo is on full display with its attendant sexism and disdain for women.  This is perhaps one of his most reliable personality traits from his personal life to his business career to his current career in politics.
  • Selective Populism: Fascism requires that individuals give up their individuality for a Common Will.  This is not entirely present in Trumpism as it is still wedded to more typical American conservative ideals of individualism, but in his acceptance speech, Trump openly declared “I am your Voice” and said of our problems that “I alone can fix them.”  Trump has openly proclaimed himself the legitimate voice of his aggrieved and furious followers.
  • Opposition to Corrupt Parliamentary Governments:  Trump does not openly advocate the replacement of our Constitutional system of government (assuming, of course, that he remotely understands it), but his contempt for that government is evident.  He repeats endlessly that are leaders are “not very smart” and that his skills are essential to save us.
  • Use of Newspeak: Trump does not yet have a unique form of speech replacing common language, but Fascist regimes typically use diminished syntax and poor vocabulary that requires little reasoning.  That stands on its own as a description of Trump’s speeches to date.

None of this means that Donald Trump intends to replace the United States’ political order with a fascist regime.  To begin with, he does not possess the paramilitary force that historic fascist leaders surrounded themselves with before ascending to power.  Second, he is seeking the Presidency through our existing political structure even as he derides it constantly.  However, it does point to a truly unique danger of a potential Trump Presidency: he holds views of power, authority, and the social and political order that are antithetical to our system of shared power among equal branches of government.  Consider a President Trump ordering our INS and border guard to begin building massive detention centers and rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants. Now picture him being ordered to stop by a federal judge.  Will he stop?  Will he recognize the judiciary’s authority over the executive branch?  Or will he lash out at the judge and simply proceed?  What then?  Does the court hold him in contempt?  Would Congress impeach him under those circumstances?  What happens when he makes good on a promise of ordering the military to violate international and military law?  Do the Joint Chiefs resign en masse?  Does he go through every general and admiral until he finds someone willing to commit a war crime?

Perhaps our Constitutional system would be strong enough to remove him from office.  Perhaps not.  As a nation, our political order has not faced a threat like this since General Beauregard ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Trump is a potential sledge hammer to America’s Constitutional system, a system for which he displays no knowledge and no regard, and to which his views of both his power and of his governing mandate are entirely antithetical.  Donald Trump portrays himself as the avenging voice of an aggrieved and humiliated population on whose behalf he will remove parasitic outsiders and force all of our enemies to “lose” as we “win” under his leadership.  This is a candidate who promises to smash all norms for rhetoric, policy, and respects for the roles of our institutional limits on the Presidency.  He may not seek to be an actual dictator, but he threatens to stretch our system to the very breaking point.

As teachers, we should be horrified by this.  Our system of Common Schools was established in no small part to promote democratic values and to contribute to the health of our civic sector.  Public schools are working instantiations of the ideal that a healthy civic order provides for the education of all and through that education promotes the wise and beneficial exercise of the franchise:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

– Horace Mann, 1848

Over time, we have seen our schools become the very places were advancement in inclusiveness and expansion of the franchise have played out, but this has required working branches of government: executive offices, legislatures, courts responding to the needs of the day and the petitions of people seeking justice.  A Presidency that threatens to damage those institutions and their balance will inevitably damage our schools as the system that supports them is thrown into uncertainty.

Some may read this and accuse me of trying to frighten teachers into a particular vote.  I will gladly own that accusation, for the prospect of Donald Trump assuming the Presidency is truly frightening.  I do not merely believe he must lose this election; I believe he must lose by a margin that thoroughly repudiates his worldview.

I understand that after the past 15 years, it is very hard for many teachers to support a Democrat for President who has been an ally of many in modern education “reform”.  I also accept that the observations I have made in favor of Secretary Clinton may be unpersuasive for many teachers and for good reasons.  I also hope very sincerely that everyone sees what is truly at stake in this election.  If I am correct that Secretary Clinton is beginning a slow pivot on public education, then her administration offers a chance for education policy to, slowly, move towards support and growth instead of test and punish.  If I am wrong about that, then we continue our familiar advocacy on familiar ground.  It will be painful, and it will lead to more harm of schools and children.  But if Donald Trump is President, it is a certainty that millions more of our students will be caught up in his racist and xenophobic policies, and the very political institutions that sustain public education face serious peril.  On election day, I will vote for the hope of a wiser set of education policies from a candidate who has a genuine gift for listening, and I will vote to repudiate what her opponent represents.

 

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Hillary Clinton, NCLB, politics, racism, Unions

What The Election Taught Me About Ed Reformers

It is March, and one of our nation’s historically great political parties is still on track to nominate a lying, bloviating vulgarian with authoritarian policy proposals, a penchant for re-tweeting quotes from Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini , and a reluctance to condemn the Ku Klux Klan.  For many months, political pundits have consistently predicted his campaign’s demise, and his campaign has consistently refused to match their predictions.  What has been truly astonishing has been the silence of the Republican donor class, a group of billionaires who have, until this race, been able to command the obsequiousness of politicians seeking the Republican nomination.   The New York Times recently reported that as long ago as the last Fall, when Mr. Trump’s candidacy was showing far more staying power than was assumed possible, that an anti-Trump super PAC was proposed to help make the candidate unpalatable to voters – but not a single donor stepped forward.

To be sure, getting caught in the line of Mr. Trump’s fire can be catastrophic for regular people.  The Times also highlighted how Trump’s prolific use of Twitter focuses his ire on targets at all levels.  Cheri Jacobus is a Republican strategist and contributor to a number of media outlets, and when she criticized Donald Trump for failing to participate in the last debate before Iowa, he unloaded on her – and was quickly followed by a swarm of his followers who relentlessly attacked her for days.  In the same report, editor of The National Review, Rich Lowry, admitted that even the top Republican donors are afraid to take on Mr. Trump out of fear of his ability to send a tidal wave of negative publicity at them.

It would appear that the donor class, by and large, are cowards.

I can sympathize with a figure like Ms. Jacobus who, despite her reasonably influential political perch, has to fend off social media attacks on her own.  That is no doubt time consuming, highly disruptive, and, worse, stressful given the attacks ranged from merely nasty to outright sexist and vulgar.  But what, exactly, does a man like Sheldon Adelson fear?  Or the Koch brothers?  Or Paul Singer?  People like this have spokesmen for their spokesmen, yet the fear of being mocked on Twitter drove them away from even trying to oppose a man whose influence on the Republican Party they loathe?  More likely, they fear too much attention focused on their quiet, behind the scenes, roles as Kingmakers and agenda setters within the political system.  Daniel Shulman, who has documented the nearly 40 year long effort by the Koch brothers to change American politics via foundations, grants, and backing candidates for office, wrote in Vanity Fair:

One thing that has held the Koch network back so far, in addition to the Trump backers within their ranks, is the concern that taking on Trump would inevitably draw the thin-skinned tycoon’s legendary invective, which it almost certainly would. If the Kochs go after Trump, rest assured that he will take every opportunity to highlight how he’s being attacked by a cabal of billionaires seeking to control the outcome of the election. And this more or less explains their caution to this point. By taking on Trump, the Kochs risk lending credence to his claims of being an outsider who is battling against a corrupt political system rigged by the elites.

Does this sound familiar to supporters of public education today?

It certainly should.  While education reform has been played out in public, the financiers of those efforts have been less fond of the limelight on the whole.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University has frequently called them as “The Billionaire Boys Club” originally referring to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edith Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundations whose efforts coincided over various aspects of education reform in the past 15 years.  That “club” has many more members now, all working in various efforts to transform school via a combination of common standards and high stakes testing, breaking workplace protections for unionized teachers, and pushing for the expansion of school privatization via vouchers and charter schools.  While some journalism has examined the role of big money in education reform, most of these “reformers” prefer to stay out of the spotlight, channeling money through foundations and 501(c) 3 groups, creating astroturf organizations to pose as teachers genuinely interested in corporate reform, buying politicians who force through laws and budgets favorable to their agenda, and hiring public spokespeople to launch splashy legal and web based campaigns to break teachers’ unions.

But the billionaires backing all of this and using the leverage of tremendous wealth to circumvent democratic processes do not, generally speaking, care to do all of this for themselves and go well out of their way to shield their efforts from public scrutiny.  It is hard to forget the scene of former CNN anchor Campbell Brown going to Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show to tout her campaign against teacher tenure – and steadfastly refusing to even hint at who was funding her efforts.  Her rationale?  Protesters might bother her benefactors:

CB:Yeah, we are raising money.

SC: And who did you raise it from?

CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…

SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]

CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…

SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…

CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.

Just to be clear the “people who were out there earlier today” was a small group of mothers and teachers with hand made signs:

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colbert1n-2-web

This pattern is hardly isolated to Campbell Brown’s efforts either.  While hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson is less shy than most about openly explaining his goals of influencing Democratic politicians to adopt privatization goals, his organization, “Democrats” for Education Reform funnels large sums of cash and influence from a variety of sources, mostly groups like the Walton Family Foundation.  When education reform’s paid advocates found that they had trouble responding to public education supporters on social media, former Obama administration DOE official Peter Cunningham was simply granted $12 million dollars to found the “Education Post” to “create a better conversation” but also, in his own words, to create “the ability to swarm” on social media and to “hire” and “subsidize” bloggers. While Bill Gates is far more visible than most financiers of education reform, one of his biggest efforts to date was managing to organize 45 states and D.C. to adopt the Common Core State Standards without most parents or teachers realizing it was happening – by aiming almost entirely at power brokers and foundations in between election cycles.

Wherever you turn in education reform today, you find a think tank, or 501(c)3, or astroturf group, or pseudo-media outlet being paid handsomely to create the public impression of organic support for reformers’ ideas.  Direct and natural engagement with the public is not one of their stronger skill sets.  Which loops back to Republican donors and their unwillingness to confront Donald Trump.  On the one hand, it looks ridiculous that some of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential individuals are so afraid of negative public attention that they dithered for months, but on the other hand given how successfully they have influenced public policy without having to bother with actual democracy and given how bipartisan majorities of American voters already think the system is rigged in favor the ultra-wealthy, it makes sense that those most blatantly manipulating the system would hesitate to step out of the back rooms and into the public’s view.

The good news for advocates of public education is that Trump’s level of ignorant bullying and outright vulgar bigotry is hardly necessary to make education reformers uneasy about scrutiny.  For Campbell Brown, a few teachers and mothers with Sharpies rattled her ability to lie about teachers’ workplace protections on behalf of her donors. Peter Cunningham needed $12 million in foundation cash to pay bloggers to counter the efforts of working teachers with blogs and on social media who are defending their profession for free.  The vast sums of money spent by Bill Gates to prop up and support the Common Core State Standards have not prevented dwindling support among parents and teachers as they grow more familiar with its impact on schools.  Helping to keep light shining on how the donor class is pushing policy without the public’s consent goes hand in hand with the how harmful those policies have been.  They’ve repeatedly shown that they dislike scrutiny.

We have no reason to oblige them.

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Filed under Activism, Common Core, Corruption, DFER, Gates Foundation, politics

Dear Hillary – 2015 Version

Dear Secretary Clinton:

You have been a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States since April of this year. While your campaign for the nomination is quite new, many in the press treat your eventual victory as fait accompli, and have turned their attention to the growing Smorgasbord of candidates on the Republican side of the contest. Given the nature of Presidential politics today, this is probably good news for you as potential rivals for the Oval Office will now spend months of news cycles savaging each other and weakening the eventual Republican nominee.

It also gives you time to hone positions and messages while the national press endlessly opines on which Republican can win over the Tea Party and major donors simultaneously. I have a few modest proposals on education.

You enter this contest with some disadvantages on national education policy.  Having been a national figure for nearly a quarter century, you have spoken often, and often quite well, on the promise of public education and how we should support it.  However, your public career is also closely associated with neoliberal influences within the Democratic Party, and in education policy, that influence is typified by the John Podesta founded Center for American Progress which is a proponent of standards, standardized testing, evaluating teachers via standardized tests, expanding charter schools that take public money but are privately managed, and eliminating or significantly changing teacher workplace protections. Lately, a number of people have been circulating the 18 page missive you were sent in 1992 by Marc S. Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy which details a comprehensive and far more centrally controlled vision of education with now familiar emphasis on standards creating a “seamless system of unending skill development.”  Dubbed the “Dear Hillary” letter, Mr. Tucker’s vision is seen by many as a precursor of the current system of education “reform” which uses standards and testing to reduce variance among states, constantly talks about “college and career readiness” and making students meet nationally derived standards, holds teachers “accountable” to all students meeting standards, and reduces traditional governance and union influence to create “choice”.

Whether or not Mr. Tucker’s letter actually began the process to the 2015 school reform landscape or not isn’t germane to the fact that many connect his letter to you and ascribe its agenda to your candidacy.  This may be quite unfair, but it is also a reality in the national school reform debate into which you have entered as a candidate.  You must understand the degree to which we face a crisis in confidence among teachers and parents that has been growing for the past 14 years and which shows no signs of dying down by the general election campaign next year.  After years of struggling with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers had hoped that President Obama’s campaign rhetoric would result in recognition that unrealistic expectations and heavy emphasis on test-based accountability had damaged schools and teaching.  Instead, the new administration used the promise of funding and of waivers from NCLB’s most punishing provisions to rush the Common Core standards into adoption across the country and, far from reducing the influence of standardized, to use tests to evaluate teachers.  At the same time, a coordinated effort is underway across the country to challenge teachers’ workplace protections and to use campaign donations to influence politicians to join the fight against teachers’ unions and against traditional public schools.

Madame Secretary, you enter the campaign for the Presidency at a time when teacher morale has dropped precipitously, with those saying they are “highly satisfied” at work falling by 30 percentage points in the last six years.  The federal role in education will play a part in the upcoming election, and an unusual mix of our body politic opposes various aspects of that role for various reasons.  It would be a grievous mistake on your part to misread the criticism as solely the work of right wing activists or, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done, the province of suburbanite mothers offended by the notion that their children are not brilliant. Among those opposed to or concerned with the past decade and a half of education reform are scholars warning that key elements of the reform agenda have little basis in research, parental and advocacy groups concerned about the detrimental influence of reform on curriculum, schools, and children, and a slowly increasing presence in civil rights and community justice groups recognizing that reform is tearing the heart out of communities and threatening equity without involving stakeholders in the process at all.

Your path to the nomination and to the Presidency probably does not require you to listen to these constituencies because deeply connected and extremely influential donors are tied to the reform movement, but your ability, if elected, to hit a “reset” button on our national education debate and to set a course forward that honors all stakeholders in our national education commons does require it. With respect, I would like to offer my own set of priorities for you to consider as you seek office, and I promise that it is briefer than Mr. Tucker’s.

Let states stay or go from the Common Core State Standards as they see fit.  Recently, you spoke with some dismay about how a “bipartisan” agreement to raise educational standards has now become political.  That take on the CCSS situation assumes that there was nothing political about the standards to begin with, and there I must disagree.  It is true that the National Governors Association agreed to take on the proposal to write a set of common standards and did so without falling along typical party lines.  But there are several aspects about the CCSS that were political from the very beginning and which are not made apolitical simply because they were not partisan.  First, the assumption that American education is in deep crisis and that we are “falling behind” other nations is a deeply political assumption that rests on a significant cherry picking of the available data and by concentrating on the worst possible reading of that data.  The “failure narrative” has been a central player in our education debate since the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk in 1983, but its underlying assumptions have been problematic from the beginning.  David Berliner and Gene Glass make it clear that the failure narrative is a deliberate lie that proposes that our entire school system is in crisis when when we have very specific problems with some of our schools and those problems are tightly coupled with concentrated poverty in communities.  The premise that we MUST have common standards if we are to not “fall behind” other nations is a premise steeped in a political agenda to require a massive change in how we administer one of the core institutions of our democracy.

Further, while the organizations that initiated the CCSS may have cut across political lines, politics at the federal level was essential to having 43 states and the District of Columbia adopt them.  When the Obama administration came into office, the CCSS project, already enjoying massive support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, received boosts from the Race to the Top program and offers of waivers from certain NCLB provisions.  How far would the Common Core State Standards have gone without these federal enticements? We will never know, but it is safe to assume that their adoption was given considerable velocity by these incentives which is staggering when you realize that the standards were proposed, allegedly researched, written, signed off on by various committees, and adopted in over 40 states in less than 4 years.  Advertising and political campaigns move that quickly — careful, deliberate, research-based overhauls to K-12 standards in English and mathematics do not, especially if they follow widely accepted processes for including a wide array of stakeholders and maximizing transparency.

How free are states to leave the the “state led” Common Core effort?  That’s an open question. Virginia, for example, never adopted the CCSS, and they have an NCLB waiver from Secretary Duncan’s DOE.  Washington state, however, lost its waiver for not being quick enough to implement another element of education reform — adding student growth on standardized tests to its teacher evaluation system.  How would the current USDOE respond to a state trying to back out of the Common Core?  I do not know, but I do know that if the standards have actual educative value, and many people sincerely believe that they do, then the federal leverage that has been used to put them in place, needs to be removed so that proponents and opponents can have the open and honest debate about common standards that never took place.  States should develop plans for careful implementation and development if they want to stay on board, and time must be given for the development of quality material aligned with the standards.  And states should be feel free to drop the CCSS and take a “wait and see” approach to study how other states’ implementation efforts are going.

But if you, as a candidate, like what you see in the Common Core, then your best way to get them unpoliticized is to recognize the politics that went into their development and adoption, and to give states absolute assurance that they can take their time in making them work or abandon them without consequence.

Reject teacher evaluations based upon student growth models.  The appeal of student growth models is obvious.  Using student testing data, growth models promise to free teacher evaluation from excessive subjectivity and local politics by using sophisticated statistical tools to isolate teachers’ input into the variation among student scores and properly rank teachers by their effectiveness.  Such a tool promises to leverage the power of data into making certain adults are accountable for the most crucial work of school — helping students reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, they don’t work.

Value added models (VAMs) and other related growth models are simply not up to the task of taking a snapshot of student performance in one year of school, completely isolating the teacher impact upon test scores, and producing a stable and reliable measure of teacher effectiveness.  The research body on this is growing and crystal clear: we should not be doing this, and by doing this we are only making it impossible for a teacher with an eye for survival to not teach to the test.

Despite this, Secretary Duncan has not only continued to support growth measures in teacher evaluation, he has proposed measuring the “effectiveness” of teacher preparation programs by the value added measures of their graduates.  In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for and got a revised teacher evaluation system where half of teacher effectiveness ratings are tied to standardized test scores.

If you want to restore balance and sanity to the education reform debate, you will pledge to appoint a Department of Education that backs off of growth measures and actually listens to the evidence that we do not have either the tests or the statistical tools to make this work, and that the consequences in the form of narrowed curricula and increasing the pressure associated with testing are unacceptable.

Praise innovation in education — but only from people telling the truth. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised the Noble Charter School network for having found the “secret sauce” for improving academic performance — based on the schools’ test scores.  It turns out that an ingredient in that sauce is a system of cash fines for even small infractions to its strict disciplinary code, a practice that landed one unemployed single mother with a bill for $3000.

When the idea of a charter schools was first proposed to provide a system of small and innovative schools who would work with the most difficult children and feed their ideas to the system as a whole, it is doubtful that anyone expected schools that would turn its disciplinary code into a revenue stream, but the charter sector is sadly rife with schools claiming superior results while engaging in deceptive practices.  The “no excuses” brand of charters, to which Noble belongs, is especially guilty of this as they continuously compare their test scores to fully public schools in their districts, but then take their population of students, already skimmed via complex application processes for their lotteries, and further trim them with practices aimed at driving away students whose needs they refuse to accommodate.  Matthew Sprowal of New York City found this out when he won a lottery seat at Eva Mokowitz’s Success Academy but was quickly subjected to disciplinary practices that had the Kindergartener regularly throwing up and asking his mother if he would be “fired” from school.  His is not an isolated case in the network that is known for extremely strict discipline and an emphasis on test preparation that can overwhelm the rest of the curriculum.  They are hardly alone in this.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University took a humorous look at the Uncommon Network school in Newark, New Jersey, North Star Academy, and he found that their claims of getting superior results from the same population of children as the district is completely deceptive.  It turns out that North Star has many fewer students who qualify for free lunch, they have half the population of students with disabilities and those they have are almost all low cost – with zero students with autism, emotional disturbance, or cognitive disabilities.  Even more shocking are the indications that those numbers may not simply represent a population that entered the lottery for admission, but it may be the result of selective attrition.  Historically, 50% of North Star student cohorts leave the school between 5th and 12th grade, and that goes up to 60% for African American boys in the school.

You must remember that these are students whose families sought out the school in the first place.

While a few advocates of the no excuses brand of schools admit that this kind of attrition is a feature rather than a bug, the general response from the sector is denial and silence.  This is not innovation.  It is a) the conflation of test scores with actual achievement and learning; b) the use of unethical disciplinary practices to induce an already self selected population to further self select; c) a distorted curriculum emphasizing test scores and specific training for standardized test.  It is likely that many of the surviving students do get a good education overall, but their school leaders should not try to favorably compare themselves to district schools, especially when their model of schooling requires them to have full public schools where students they drive away end up.  For an added insight, consider how KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg struggled to find an adequate reason why he doesn’t send his own children to the school network that he established.

With over 6000 charter schools across the country, I am sure your campaign can find ones that genuinely innovate on behalf of children who have not been well served by their district schools and which take seriously the idea that charter schools are there to demonstrate innovative practices. (Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig has noted Making Waves and University of Texas Elementary as examples). Those schools do not have massive public relations campaigns, but if you are looking to praise schools outside the mainstream system, you should find them, and avoid the “no excuses” brands that routinely lie about their practices and the meaning of their results.

Money matters.  Governor Andrew Cuomo likes to opine that money is not an issue in New York State because of the size of the education budget.  That’s easy for him to say as his term in office has been an ongoing assault on state aid to education and a steadfast refusal to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Settlement settlement from 2007.  Governor Cuomo, who has never proposed an education budget that comes close to finding the still missing education aid, put in a cap on property taxes that limits municipalities from increasing local revenue, and continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to remove promised aid to localities to the tune of nearly $3.1 million per district per year.  The resulting financial shenanigans leave many districts shorted thousands of dollars per pupil per year below the state’s already inadequate and unequal funding promises.

While the federal government funds only a small percent of local educational expenditures, there are promises you can make that will help districts cope with the fact that we fund education in this country by local property values and this takes a significant toll upon school districts with higher concentrations of poverty and devalued property. For example, when the federal government passed P.L. 94-142 in 1975, Congress promised that it would provide money that would cover 40% of the costs to districts for giving full services to children with disabilities.  Districts, schools, and teachers rose to that challenge and the percentage of children receiving special education services rose from 4.3% of students in the 1960s to 11.4% in 1989.  Congress did not, and it has never funded the federal disability law above 20% of costs to districts.

Our schools are estimated to need over $197 billion in infrastructure repairs and investments according to a study by the Institute of Education Sciences, and that figure is estimated at over $254 billion by the American Federation of Teachers.  The federal government provides grants for schools that offer wraparound services, a continuum of community based services frequently lacking in communities with deep poverty.  Such grants could be expanded and more funding added to Title I in order to support such schools and the efforts they undertake for our least served students.  Schools need additional funding to work on class size reductions which have strong support as means to improve academic achievement especially among disadvantaged students.  In fact, most changes that would significantly improve education for the disadvantaged students in our schools require funding increases, but most state are still funding education below 2008 levels.

President Obama used promises of federal funding to wedge in highly distorting education policies.  You should promise education funding to build capacity and growth.

Your money matters too.  In an age when unprecedented money is flowing into politics at every level, it is hard for any candidate to expressly shut off any source of cash, but if you want to be a candidate for public education and the children served by it, you must.  Consider the case of “Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)” and its companion organization “Education Reform Now (ERN).”  While these organizations influence and donate to Democratic candidates for office, both their funding and their intent are not rooted in the Democratic Party.  One of DFER’s principal founders is hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, who described the rationale for his group’s name this way:

The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…

DFER and ERN receive massive financial support from a cast of characters who are not traditional backers of Democrats: The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield.  The causes they support include Koch funded campaigns against unions, vouchers, and privatization of education via the growth of privately managed charter school chains. If you want to see the influence of this kind of funding, look no further than Andrew Cuomo, who has gotten over $65,000 from ERN since 2010 and whose devotion to the cycle of using test scores as the only measure that matters, labeling schools as failing, closing schools, and turning them over to privately managed charters is without equal. This is hardly isolated to DFER,as a range of organizations funded by billionaires seek heavy influence over educational policy in New York. This fundamentally anti-democratic campaign by the hedge fund sector is not based on philanthropy as advertised as they have been figuring out ways to monetize support for charter schools for some time now, and this phenomenon is rampant in the charter sector nationwide.  Other aspects of today’s reforms generate massive revenue streams for publishing and testing giants like Pearson, and Rupert Murdoch himself called K-12 education a “$500 billion sector…that is waiting desperately to be transformed…” by technology.

These potential donors to your campaign are not in education reform because they primarily want to do good.  They are in it because they want to do well, and if you take their cash, you will be as bought and as compromised as Andrew Cuomo, Rahm Emanual, and President Obama.  You are perhaps better situated than any candidate in memory to forgo any single source of funding in favor of taking a stand.

Stand with our teachers. While the emphasis on testing and evaluating teachers with testing threatens our national teaching corps, a parallel campaign exists to remove teachers of the job protections and make it vastly easy to fire them at will. This campaign relies upon misunderstanding of what tenure is and expressly misrepresents the facts to the national media.  Worse, it thoroughly misses a far greater problem in our schools that serve high concentrations of disadvantaged students.  Far from being staffed with stereotypically jaded veterans uninterested in doing their jobs, our schools with high concentrations of children in poverty, are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers when compared to the suburban counterparts. Research shows that young teachers who leave such schools most frequently cite aspects of their working conditions – lack of support from administration, insufficient resources, no time to collaborate with co-workers – as the reasons why they leave.

Removing tenure from those teachers does absolutely nothing to stabilize the faculty in our most difficult schools, and it largely guarantees that such schools will continue to have a temporary workforce whose members never reach their full effectiveness on the job.  Further, removal of tenure protection disallows teachers who need to confront their administration on behalf of their students from doing so; it destroys teachers’ abilities to act as good stewards of their students.

Somehow, these facts do not stop the likes of Campbell Brown from framing the anti-tenure campaign as being for the “rights of students,” but the only logical conclusion from the misplaced effort is that they want teaching to become a far more temporary “career” than it currently is.  Teachers, having their effectiveness rated by invalid statistical measures, will be much more easily fired without the protections of tenure.  A perpetually young and more easily replaced teaching workforce will be both cheaper and easier to manage — a model embraced by the no excuses charter schools favored by many in today’s reform effort.  That breaking teachers’ union protections would also mean breaking the last large middle class unions in the country cannot be a coincidence either.

This is no way to build a profession based upon expertise and a sense of efficacy on behalf of our children.  Do not mince words on this.  Stand with our teachers.

It’s still the economy. Today’s education reform rhetoric calls upon us to adopt massively disruptive changes to how we deliver instruction, how we manage and administer public education for the entire country, and how we conceive of teaching as a profession.  The rationale given for this is very attractive, but it is entirely deceptive.  While reformers are correct that millions of American children, mostly minority, attend schools with low achievement records as measured by standardized tests, and that a great many of those children will not have realistic opportunities to pursue higher education and escape inter-generational poverty, reformers place nearly the entire requirement to lift those children upon their public schools and teachers. The reality is that while an education is likely to play a part in any personal narrative of financial success in America, there have to be genuine economic opportunities on the other side of that education for that narrative to come to fruition.

In 2015, this does not look likely without fundamental realignments in our economic and taxation policies that today’s reformers, backed and financed by billionaires, are loathe to discuss.  For most of the past 30 years, our nation’s workers have increased their productivity and created vast amounts of wealth without seeing any significant increases in their own wages.  The skewing of gains in wealth is so severe that the top 10% of earners currently make more than half of all the wages earned in the country. Will more college graduates make more opportunity?  That seems doubtful when you take into account that the wage benefit for going to college has increased only because wages for those with no college degree have collapsed since the early 1980s.  Even in the much touted STEM fields, entry level wages for qualified college graduates have remained flat for more than a decade.  If there is a significant skills shortage in the American workforce, basic labor economics cannot detect it.  I’ve argued this for several years, and this observation was recently affirmed by Paul Krugman at The New York Times:

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time. “The wages of the highest-skilled and highest-paid individuals have continued to increase steadily,” the Hamilton Project says. Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.

Our workforce today has more education than at any point in American history, but if that is still not enough, the labor market has apparently abandoned fundamental supply and demand.

Now one thing is absolutely clear on the education side of the equation.  Opportunity to gain a strong basic education and to pursue higher education is not equitably distributed, mostly to the detriment of minority children and the rural poor.  Further, education will play a likely role in those children’s success, but we cannot refuse to change anything about our economic assumptions and call upon schools to do all of the lifting out of poverty for children and families, especially at a time when the middle class is shrinking rapidly even as the population’s total education has increased. Your campaign can call for improvement to primary and secondary education, it can address soaring costs for higher education, and it can demand more from our nation’s teachers.  However, if it makes these demands absent any serious examination of our structural inequalities that prevent significant economic opportunities from reaching the vast majority of our children, then it will simply be more of what we have seen since 1983: dire rhetoric, false premises, testing, punishment, turning our public schools over to private operators and to a hidden investor class making money off of the system.

The next time the Whitney Tilsons of our education debate approach you for support of their programs in return for campaign cash, demand to know what they will promise to do to actually be “job creators” whose workers do not require public assistance simply to survive.  Demand to know what investments in our decaying infrastructure they will support via higher taxes on themselves.  Demand to know how they will compensate their workers for the increasing profitability of their ventures that depends upon labor.  Demand to know how they will support an economy that provides actual mobility for the rest of society rather than simply supporting their Gilded Age lifestyles. Demand to know how they will support the right of labor to organize and collectively bargain for wages and benefits, the decline of which accounts for up to a third of our increasing inequality.

I know many teachers, faculty, and school administrators who are willing to do their part for a better and more equitable future for our nation’s youth.  It is time for a national candidate to demand that education reform’s financial backers, who are reaping gains by privatizing our schools, do the same.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, schools, Social Justice

Dear Opt Out: Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Property Values??

USA Today ran a story last week from the Journal News of Westchester County about the growing Opt Out movement.  The article was fairly mild in tone, cited numbers about the unprecedented size of the current testing boycott, and gave time to proponents of the testing mandates and the information generated by the tests.  One quote, however, really stood out from out the rest.  It was from Nicole Brisbane, the New York state director for “Democrats for Education Reform,” who said:

“Schools are one of the biggest differentiators of value in the suburbs. How valuable will a house be in Scarsdale when it isn’t clear that Scarsdale schools are doing any better than the rest of Westchester or even the state? Opting out of tests only robs parents of that crucial data. “

Wow.

For those who are not in the know, DFER is an organization that is not actually made up of grassroots Democrats working for education reform so much as it is a front group for very large, mainly conservative, donors to influence Democratic politicians to support what passes for education “reform” these days.  While DFER has certainly influenced a number of Democratic politicians by funneling campaign contributions made possible by DFER’s funding sources (The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield, etc), it’s stated purpose is to change the positions of Democrats on questions like charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores to those more likely found in the Republican Party.

Whitney Tilson, the billionaire hedge fund manager at the heart of DFER, was actually quite upfront about this:

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

So DFER is not REALLY “Democrats for Education Reform” so much as it is “Billionaires For Education Reform Bribing Democrats to Wreck Public Education,” but BFERBDWPE is hard to make look snappy on a flyer.  That is, however, exactly how NY Governor Andrew Cuomo got to be the poster child for destroying public schools from the Democratic Party side of things.

Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog was especially insightful in his take on Ms. Brisbane’s bizarre set of priorities:

But at least we have a great new reason that all students need to take those tests– without them, the Betters would have one less badge of their Betterness. Testing will help us put Those People in their place. Don’t let your class down! Don’t let the property values drop! Get in there and take a test for the team.

Yup — the NY State Director for the hedge funded political bribery outfit PAC most devoted to high stakes testing essentially told parents in the suburbs to have their children lie back, close their eyes, and think of Scarsdale.  Especially their property values.

While that “reasoning,” and I use the term loosely, is bizarre enough, I’d like to take it just a little bit further.  Ms. Brisbane is, of course, correct that the value of property in a community has links to the perceived quality of the schools in that community.  Towns with school systems that have reputations for excellence and with high percentages of students moving on to desirable colleges do see increases in assessed property values.  Of course, this phenomenon predates not only the Common Aligned state examinations, it predates the entire period of test based accountability introduced with No Child Left Behind.  One has to wonder how the parents of Scarsdale could have ever known anything about their community’s schools before they got the state issued two page report that includes no item analysis whatsoever?

It is interesting that Ms. Brisbane chose Scarsdale as her example, given its long standing reputation as one of the wealthiest communities in the country.  However, you do not have to take my word for that.  The United States Census Bureau curates census data by community, so we can look directly at some key indicators for Scarsdale.  The Village of Scarsdale is 82.7% white compared with NY state which is 65.7% white, and it is 13% Asian with African American and Hispanic populations of 1.5% and 3.9% respectively.  Scarsdale’s population of people speaking a language other than English at home is actually closer to the state average than it’s racial make up with 21.5% of the population.

A staggering 85.7% of the population over 25 has at least a bachelors degree compared with a state average of 33.2%.  Per capita income is $109,044 and household income is $233,311 compared to the state averages of $32,382 and $58,003 respectively.  In NY state, the median value of a home is $288,200, and while the table does not have a specific median value in Scarsdale, the footnote says that it is over $1 million.  Scarsdale’s population living below the poverty level is 1.7% compared to a state average of 15.3%.

A family considering sending its children to Scarsdale schools will likely know something about the village’s school system just because they can afford to live there in the first place. I should also be clear:  I do not believe that someone living in Scarsdale is living there so that he does not have to live with people who are poor or minority.  However, the fact that he can afford to live there means that he does not live with very many people who are poor or minority by default.

Ms. Brisbane, however, wanted to know how parents in Scarsdale will COMPARE themselves to other communities, even in Westchester county.  Fair enough.  Westchester has had historic problems with integrating lower income and minority families within the county, so let’s look at the nearby city of Mt. Vernon next.  Mt. Vernon is 63.4% African American and 14.3% Hispanic.  23.1% of people over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, and the percentage of people over 25 years of age with a bachelor’s degree is below the state average at 26.4%.  Per capita income is $27,454 and household income is $49,328. While the median home price is $392,300, only 37.7% of the population are home owners. 16% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Demographic information from the New York State Education Department shows some stark contrasts that match or actually amplify the census data.  Scarsdale High School is 89% white or Asian while only 1% of the school is of Limited English Proficiency and there are so few economically disadvantaged students that the data is suppressed to prevent them (him? her?) from being personally identified.  Mt. Vernon High School is 79% African American and 17% Hispanic, higher than the averages for the city overall.  While only 4% of the school is LEP, 65% of the students in the school are economically disadvantaged, meaning their family qualifies for public assistance programs such as free and reduced price lunch. A family of four qualifies for reduced price lunch at 185% of the federal poverty level or $44,863.

The same NYSED web site reports school data on student graduation rates and on the Regents exam.  (Yes, Ms. Brisbane, I am relying on a test-based comparison, using a long established EXIT examination used in the state of New York that predates the additional annual testing required by NCLB.  I will admit that your hypothetical home owner or potential buyer would have some interest in how certain school performance markers compare in different communities — I am also pointing out that these markers already exist).  In Scarsdale, graduation rates are essentially 100%, and the percentage of students who earned 75 or higher on the English Regents exam and scored 80 or higher on a math Regents examination was 81% in 2014; the state average was 38%.  In Mt. Vernon, the 2014 graduation rate was 47%, down from 54% the prior year.  In 2014, only 3% of the graduating cohort reached the English and math scores of 75 and 80 or higher, down from 8% the prior year.  Interestingly, Scarsdale’s very small African American and Hispanic populations do not score as high as their white and Asian classmates on the Regents examination with only 60% of African American and 65% of Hispanic students reaching the “aspirational” levels.

It is worth noting that I began by looking at the race and income characteristics of these communities, but since the negative impacts of poverty on educational outcomes is well known, the fact that Mt. Vernon has a school population that is much poorer than Scarsdale’s means the diminished graduation outcomes are not unexpected.  In fact, it mirrors a national phenomenon that finds when there are greater concentrations of students in poverty, testable outcomes are much lower than in communities with few students in poverty.

poverty stupid

This is where education reform advocates like to accuse their critics of fatalism and saying that there is “nothing we can do” to get better educational outcomes for children in impoverished communities.  I will agree with the premise that geographic location and income level should not be seen as determinative, and the comparison between Scarsdale and Mt. Vernon should not be taken to mean the graduation rates and diminished achievement data in Mt. Vernon should be acceptable.  However, the point of this blog is to demonstrate that there is quite a lot of data available with which one can compare Scarsdale and another community in Westchester County, and that such data has been available for many years before the Common Core aligned examinations came along.  There is, in fact, very little that these tests will tell us in community by community comparison that we do not already know.

There is something that we do know, however, and it is something that Governor Cuomo continues to do far too little to address.  Namely, the Mt. Vernon school district was shorted almost $2300 per student in state foundational school aid in the 2014-2015 school year.  So while it is all nice and well that Ms. Brisbane and her bosses at BFERBDWPE want to be able to tell a tale of communities whose homes are made more valuable by student test scores, there is another tale they fail to acknowledge: that of schools populated with students in poverty whose budgets have been repeatedly starved.

Meanwhile, Ms. Brisbane’s Scarsdale parents can take comfort in the knowledge that six residents in the Class of 2013 alone got into Harvard University.  They could have found that out without the Common Core tests too.

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Filed under Common Core, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Social Justice, Testing

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

Donna Brazile, Ted Strickland and Jennifer Granholm To Defend Public Education

Opponents of current reform trends in education (and even just those with some skepticism) have had few ways to get their messages out in the past decade.  While charter school chains have found wealthy investors and enthusiastic politicians, public school teachers have traditionally relied upon their unions to publicly advocate on their behalf.  However, until very recently both the AFT and the NEA have openly supported reforms such as the Common Core State Standards despite rank and file concerns, and both unions offered endorsements to Democratic candidates who have openly courted the same money that has backed charter school expansion, CCSS and evaluating teachers by high stakes tests, many teacher concerns have had limited means to reach the public.  Add to that a media that has seemed completely incapable of asking a single teacher about the combination of reform forces that have potential to greatly damage public education, it has been lonely work to try to raise alarms.

That may be changing.

First, there are some in the media actually asking hard questions about how such a narrow slate of characters have managed to push nearly all 50 states in the same curriculum direction without having a robust public debate.  The luster of charter schools as the proposed cure all for urban education is coming under question with more and more reporting of the opportunists who have rushed into the poorly regulated sector of education.  As Common Core has begun to reach classrooms with plans to begin mass testing of students and to implement value added measures for teacher evaluations, union leaders have backed away from initial support of the standards themselves.  They are joined by a small but growing movement of parents at the grassroots who are choosing to “opt out” their children from the increasing testing regimen that has characterized education reform of the past decade and a half.

These are all developments that promise to change the direction of our education reform discourse.  But it is likely not enough.  Proponents of Common Core, mass testing, test-based teacher evaluations and the rapid expansion of charter schools have the ears of major media figures, federal and state governments and are able to call upon deep pocketed allies to pummel those who try to slow down their goals.  Eva Moskowitz’s allies unleashed more than 3 million dollars in a 3 week advertising blitz against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio when he dared give her only 80 percent of what she wanted.  They also seem to recruit new front people easily — former NBC and CNN personality Campbell Brown has joined Michelle Rhee’s campaign against teacher job protections by taking the Vergara lawsuit on its first cross country tour to New York.

The balance of voices is changing.

The AFT announced the formation of a new lobbying group, Democrats for Public Education that will be chaired by former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and DNC vice-chair Donna Brazile.  Ms. Brazile addressed the AFT convention:

Why does this change the balance?  For starters, it says that the leadership of America’s teacher unions is pivoting from hoping that reforms will be both disruptive AND productive to realizing that many reforms threaten the very nature of public education.  More importantly?  It provides media allies for defending public schools and their students and teachers.  Although the research on many reform efforts’ problematic outcomes is solid and growing, voice and access has been much slower.  What does Donna Brazile bring that academic research and the concerns of parents and classroom teachers does not?  Access.  Ms. Brazile’s phone calls get returned.  Mr. Strickland and Ms. Granholm are known in all 50 state capitols and Washington.  While Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and pro-reform politicians have had the media’s ears all to themselves and have, to date, successfully portrayed their opponents as not caring about kids, now there is an organization headlined by well-connected and well-known allies to provide the alternative perspective.  In an age of media driven by sound bites 24/7, that matters.

How did Democrats for Education Reform, the hedge-fund financed group that has donated to numerous Democrats in exchange for support of charter school expansion, respond to the announcement?  “Welcome to the jungle, baby” was it.

Think about that for a second.  They could have written about welcoming a public debate.  They could have written about their “disappointment” that such prominent people could not see the value of their ideas, but that they look forward to engaging the public.  They could have written a spirited defense of charter school innovation for students.

Instead, they offer what could be Gordon Gekko’s back-up tag phrase.  Someone is either arrogant or worried — and someone is not thinking about the kids first and foremost.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, DFER, Media, politics, Unions

Four More Things To Tell President Obama

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post wrote last week that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had a meeting with teachers over lunch.  Her column provided space for the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, Justin Minkel, to offer his insights into how the meeting went and what the President and Secretary heard from the teachers present.  Mr. Minkel, who is a member of both the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Center for Teacher Quality and who blogs for Education Week and for CTQ, wrote cogently and intelligently about four key points:

1. There’s Nothing Wrong With the Kids

2. “Responsibility and Delight Can Co-exist”

3. It’s not about good and bad teachers.  It is about good and bad teaching.

4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate, and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do the same things.

These are outstanding points, and I thank Mr. Minkel and his fellow teachers for communicating them directly at such a high level.  There are, of course, many other points that the President and his Secretary of Education need to genuinely hear and know.  I would like to offer my own four points to build upon these:

1. You are looking for teacher effectiveness in all the wrong places

Teachers matter.  Nobody should ever suggest otherwise.  But No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top both represent sustained efforts to locate how teachers matter in standardized test scores, and since Race to the Top, the strongest proxy for teacher effectiveness written into state and federal policy has been annual student progress on standardized testing. This is a flawed approach for several reasons.  To begin with, the tests that are designed to demonstrate if a student has mastered a body of knowledge or a set of skills are designed for that purpose and that purpose only.  As Dr. Nunoz of Concordia University Chicago notes, testing and measurement is a precise field and it is improper and inaccurate to use an examination for a different purpose because it would not be designed the same way.  The American Statistical Association released a statement on value added measurements earlier this year that clearly stated that the association does not believe any examination currently used to measure teacher effectiveness meets the strict criteria necessary for such a test, and they noted that most studies on VAMs find that teachers’ input only accounts for between 1-14% of the variability among student results on such tests.  Looking for teacher effectiveness in the results of standardized examinations is essentially playing dice with teachers’ futures.

Even the research that claims such models are useful is suspect.  As Dr. Jesse Rothstein of U.C. Berkeley found, even the Gates Foundation funded research on “Measures of Effective Teaching” makes claims that are poorly supported by their own data. Despite the MET study’s endorsement of VAMs, Dr. Rothstein notes that “teacher evaluations based on observed state test outcomes are only slightly better than coin tosses at identifying teachers whose students perform unusually well or badly  on assessments of conceptual understanding (p. 5),” and goes on to note that teachers whose students did well on standardized exams did far less well on measurements of critical thinking.  Using standardized examinations as a measure of teacher effectiveness can reward a weak teacher who focuses on test preparation and punish a highly skilled teacher who emphasizes higher order thinking and creative problem solving.

Teachers, of course, do make a difference for students.  And there are teachers who do not teach well, and there are teachers who excel at the work.  But the impact of that teaching is simply poorly represented in paper and pencil standardized examinations.  It can be found in student produced artifacts that explore rich content in creative and insightful ways.  It can be found in a classroom that “buzzes” with the constant hum of excited work.  It can be found in the individual lives of children who are inspired to explore a field they never knew held interest before.  It can be found in the children who find a mentor and reliable adult among the body of teachers in a school and stick with their education when nobody thought they could.  It can be found the eyes of a student whose talents and passions are affirmed for the first time in his or her young life.  This is what happens in millions of classrooms across the country on a daily basis that cannot be captured on a standardized examination.

Taylor Mali, teacher and poet, captures quite a lot of that nicely in this poetry performance:

2. It’s the poverty

You’ve been told by a lot of current reformers that talking about the extraordinary difficulties of educating children born into poverty is just “making excuses” for “bad teachers”.  I cannot say not only how much this refrain hurts  teachers who have dedicated themselves to working with our most needy students, but also how much it hurts those very same students.  It places upon the teachers a burden to, on their own, lift children of poverty to a level playing field with their more advantaged peers.  It thrusts upon those children schools that keep cutting out critical thinking and aesthetic enrichment in favor of test preparation because of draconian  layoff and reorganization threats while offering the students a brutally unlevel playing field if they graduate. I can think of few practical jokes more cruel than this.

Poverty is not an “excuse”; it is a fact that broadly impacts the earliest childhood of 22% of our young people.  It is a fact that we do much less to alleviate poverty’s deprivations than our peer democracies in the West.  And because our residential income segregation is very high and has risen by over a third since 1980, it is a fact that poverty disproportionately impacts specific schools and school systems.

And it is not a fact that is fully constrained to those meeting the federal definition of poverty.  Income, housing and food insecurity impact the lower middle class, many of whom are clinging to that status solely because of federal assistance programs and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  In 2011, only North Dakota and New Hampshire had child food insecurity rates below 15%.   The Hamilton Project report also notes that food insecurity can have potentially life long consequences in both educational outcomes and economic security, but teachers are going to be held accountable for children who will suffer lower birth weights, worse lifetime health outcomes and lower economic outcomes because Congress refuses to fund expanded SNAP benefits that amount to less than half of the cost of USS Gerald Ford.

This is not meant to “excuse” those teachers and administrators who give up on children in poverty or near poverty and do not do their utmost to educate, inspire and mentor those in their care.  However, it is intellectually and morally bankrupt to ignore that our much lamented gap in PISA can be located almost entirely within our poverty level, and to blame teachers and schools for failing to single-handedly overcome a phenomenon much larger than our schools and about which the billionaires driving today’s “reforms” refuse to discuss.

3. There is no “secret sauce” for educating our most struggling children

Former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel opined that Noble Network of charter schools in Chicago had the “secret sauce” for motivating students to perform.  An element of that recipe?  Collecting $400,000 in disciplinary “fines” from its students since 2008.  Advocates of the rapidly expanding charter sector of education like to paper over such practices, but it is vitally important to expose them because while their sponsors and leaders like to hype test performance, they often achieve those results at the expense of up to half of their students.

This should be absolutely clear: with 1000s of charter schools across the country, there must be many schools and teachers who do a genuinely great job with the students in their care.  Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by the high profile charter schools that are essentially corporate entities and that tout themselves as miracle factories based upon high test scores.  They consume public dollars, refuse public accountability, have astonishing attrition rates usually at the expense of the neediest children enrolled in them, and have formed powerful lobbies to influence politicians to continue to favor charter schools over fully public schools.

This is not to say that none of these schools do a good job of educating the students that they do accommodate and that there are not students and families who are sincerely grateful to be in those schools.  But it does mean that they cannot legitimately claim to have found any “secret sauce” for educating our neediest students when they engage in extreme cream skimming, refuse to let the public examine their finances and rely upon their extremely wealthy patrons to strong arm politicians on their behalf.  To put this in perspective:  In 2012, the NEA spent $13 million in campaign contributions total across the country, and the AFT spent $5.9 million.  Success Academy Charter’s supporters spent $3.6 million in THREE WEEKS just because Mayor de Blasio slowed down the expansion of the network.

Truly working with our neediest takes far more than advertising and cherry-picked student bodies.

4. Arts and the humanities matter

Despite very shaky evidence to back up the claim, we have been treated to nonstop rhetoric about our “crisis” in graduates with STEM degrees, and policy has pushed hard to create more pipelines for people to enter such fields regardless of the actual employment picture for them.  There is, however, evidence that in the age of test based accountability, we have marginalized endeavors that are critical to both our civic life and our general well being.  Social studies instruction has shrunk from 9.5% of instructional time to 7.6%, meaning that our students spend less time today learning history and engaging in critical thinking about their civic life.  While instruction in the English Language Arts has increased because of its status as a tested subject, there are legitimate concerns that the emphasis on reading informational texts in the Common Core State Standards and associated testing, will drive more classrooms away from reading great works of literary fiction and poetry.

And then there is the long term and precipitous decline in arts education which fell below 50% for 18 year olds in their childhood education in 2008.  That means that half of the children in America born in 1990 received no arts education in their entire education K-12.  Research is very clear that participation in the arts has a wide range of academic benefits from higher test scores to higher rates of college completion among low income students.  Eliot Eisner of Stanford University notes the lessons that the arts teach such as: making judgments about relationships, seeing multiple answers to problems, accepting multiple perspectives, complex problem solving, learning that cognition is not limited by language, seeing large effects from small differences, and thinking through materials to fruition of an idea.  It is not hard at all to see the connection between these capacities and the capacities that lead not simply to STEM competencies but also to STEM understanding and innovation.  No wonder, then, that there is a small but growing movement to “move from STEM to STEAM” and place arts at the center of our drive for more STEM education.

While this is admirable, it is also not enough to envision the importance of the arts and humanities as a partner to scientific and technological advancement because they possess their own warrants.  Eisner’s “ten lessons” also include:  teaching children how to say what “cannot be said” via “poetic capacities,” experiencing things that cannot be experienced in any other way and exploring one’s capacity for feeling, symbolizing what is important in society.  The arts and humanities, therefore, enrich us in ways that cannot be measured via test based accountability but which are part of our essential humanity.  That 50% of our young people experience no arts education means that their education was fundamentally inattentive to their humanity.  As we advocate for literature, poetry, music, visual and performing arts for all children, we must remember this — the arts and humanities cannot become yet another preserve of the wealthy and we cannot allow test based accountability to squeeze what is left of them from our public schools.

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Filed under charter schools, Common Core, DFER, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs