Tag Archives: Campbell Brown

The Truthiness of Campbell Brown

Former news anchor turned education reform advocate Campbell Brown has established herself as one of the more aggressive public personalities arguing against teacher unions and in favor of school privatization.  After leaving CNN in 2010, Ms. Brown reemerged as an antagonist of teacher unions, taking to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to accuse New York City’s United Federation of Teachers of protecting teachers accused of sexual misconduct.  It was a devastating line of attack against a favorite target of would be education reformers – a well-funded and politically connected labor union favoring its membership over ethics.

Of course, it wasn’t really true.  Curiously, Ms. Brown seemed entirely unaware of the actual requirements in the UFT contact in effect at the time of her accusations.  This information was made crystal clear when Ms. Brown tried to publicly back UFT President Michael Mulgrew into a corner on the issue – and got seriously dressed down for her misrepresentation of the union’s position and actions:

Mr. Mulgrew: “We have made sure that on an allegation, a single allegation, a teacher must be removed.  If the principal wants the teacher removed, or the administrator, they must be removed from any contact with children. They then have a 30 day investigation period. If they are found guilty of any sort of sexual impropriety, any sexual impropriety, the administrating officer has no choice but to fire him. And those are the things that we put into our contract – that they must be fired if they are found guilty of any sexual impropriety. So I know you like to say things in certain ways, but I have found many of your allegations to be misleading.  So I am very proud of the fact that we take very seriously that on a single allegation – a child can say it in a flippant moment — that that teacher will be removed from any contact with a student, and if they are found guilty of any sort of sexual impropriety – any – there is no discretion: they must be fired.  And that is my answer to you.”

Ms. Brown: “So to clarify…”

Mr. Mulgrew: “That is my answer to you.”

Ms. Brown also came under fire for failing to disclose, as is typical in ethical journalism, her family connections to education reform and, specifically, anti-union education reform.  Her husband is Dan Senor, who was a figure in the Bush administration serving as the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and at the time of Ms. Brown’s relaunching of herself as an education advocate, he was an adviser to the Mitt Romney campaign and a board member of Students First, New York – the Empire State branch of Michelle Rhee’s anti-union organization.  Ms. Brown decided her best reply was to be snarky about the entire question of ethical journalism.

Ms. Brown returned to bring Vergara vs. The State of California style lawsuits against teacher tenure in New York and other locales, funneling dark money donations into her new organization “Partners for Educational Justice”.  The new campaign came with a fresh round of publicity and interviews where she tried to make her case to the public.  These were, charitably, as fact challenged as her previous efforts to paint the UFT as an organization dedicated to protecting sexual predators.  According the Michigan State University education professor Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Ms. Brown was wrong on almost every relevant point of fact, misrepresenting the staffing challenges faced by urban school districts (they have trouble retaining experienced teachers rather than being plagued by incompetent ones with tenure), arguing that teachers must be bad in urban districts because standardized test scores are low (in reality, teachers are important but no research solidly ties quality of teaching to standardized test results), and citing wildly out of date information on how long it takes to remove a tenured teacher from the classroom (177 days is not 830 days no matter how often that talking point is repeated).

Shortly after launching her lawsuit, Ms. Brown also started her education “news” website called the “The74,” which oddly sounds like a nightclub but is supposed to “represent” the roughly 74 million Americans under the age of 18 in the country.  The website is expected to operate on a budget of $4 million annually, and is funded by donors such as  Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, and Jonathan Sackler who serves on the board of the New Schools Venture Fund — all reliable sources of charter school support.  From that platform, she has been billing herself as a viable host for education issues in the current election cycle, hosting a Republican candidate discussion in August last year – and blaming the national teacher unions for the fact that no Democratic candidates agreed to appear at a similar forum later in the Fall.  Jersey Jazzman demonstrated the long list of entirely viable reasons why Democrats might not want to participate in what would obviously have been an anti-union, pro-privatization event hosted by a media figure whose relationship with facts has been sketchy.  But blaming unions is sort of a reflex for Ms. Brown by now.

Most recently, Ms. Brown took to  Slate with a video giving “advice” for the next President of the United States.  In it, she said that two thirds of American eighth graders “cannot read or do math at grade level.”  In response, Tom Loveless, an expert on student achievement and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, demonstrated that her facts were inaccurate in an exchange on Twitter:

Former Principal and current head of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris, explained the depth of Ms. Brown’s error in The Washington Post.  During the exchange on Twitter, Ms. Brown admitted that her “source” for the claim about American students’ grade level skills came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) where, yes, roughly one third of American 8th graders meet the cut scores for “proficient” and “advanced” with two thirds at “basic” or  below.  As Burris notes, NAEP does not consider “proficient” to be synonymous with “grade level” skills and expectations.  In fact, if you read the description of “basic” performance in the 8th grade reading NAEP, you will see a description of competent if not outstanding reading ability:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate information; identify statements of main idea, theme, or author’s purpose; and make simple inferences from texts. They should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text. Students performing at this level should also be able to state judgments and give some support about content and presentation of content.

To set up the NAEP proficiency as an appropriate grade level benchmark as Ms. Brown does is to entirely muddy the discussion and debate about how our schools are doing.  Such sleight of hand techniques seem deliberate and designed to paint a misleading portrait of our schools for reasons that have little to do with improving them for most children.  Regardless of motives, one thing is completely clear: anyone trying to portray NAEP results – or PARCC and SBAC results for that matter – as an established proxy for what grade level expectations should be in our schools is either seriously misinformed or a liar.

Carol Burris spoke very cogently about why this matters beyond the question of truthfulness as well:

If you set an unreasonable cut score on state tests and pressure teachers and kids to meet it, it can work against student learning, especially for students who struggle.  Sizeable numbers of kids will learn less than they might if the instructional pace and content were developmentally appropriate and well sequenced.  This is especially true in the younger grades. You can always differentiate instruction if you need to for the kids who excel, but if you hold struggling learners to a standard they cannot meet, frustration, not learning, happens.  Inappropriately difficult standards also promote drilling for the test, adult cheating and the narrowing of the curriculum as explained in this Politico New York report on the test-driven, Success Academy Charter Schools.

Despite the important arguments and issues of genuine substance, Ms. Brown seems determined to not learn about the education policies she has inserted herself into as both an advocate and an arbitrator. Given an opportunity to respond directly on her statements about student achievement, Ms. Brown offered perhaps the most childish and taunting string of non-sequiturs I have seen since I last taught 7th grade.  She called the reaction to her use of “grade level” “histrionic,” misused the expression “begs the question,” taunted “is that all you’ve got?”to her critics, declared that public education advocates have “lost” on charter schools, tenure, and “special protections” for abusive teachers,  and said the reaction “screams desperation.”  She declared that any “reasonable person or parent” knew what she meant by her statement.  She declared that she was subject to personal sexist attacks.  She claimed critics were “feigning outrage” over her misuse of terminology and facts because they “profit off the system’s failure.”  And for good measure, she compared New York University Professor Diane Ravitch with Donald Trump.

And your mother, I guess.

Ms. Brown’s self assurance is a bit odd here.  The charter sector may be growing, but so is awareness of the scandals growing from scant oversight of finances and practices.  Anti-union forces may have won the first round of Vergara v. California trying to sue tenure out of existence, but they lost the appeal.  Ms. Brown’s comment about “special protections you want for abusive teachers” is literally just blather since she didn’t have her facts correct when she started the argument.

More interesting, however, is the complete absence of an actual argument.  Ms. Brown grudgingly acknowledges that her specific language was incorrect, but she denies that anyone was really impacted at all by it.  Mostly, she just insinuates that her critics are losers and complains about the tone of their comments to her.  To be sure, she has received some personal, even heated, criticism in the course of these debates (although before equating Dr. Diane Ravitch’s occasional criticisms of her to what Donald Trump unleashes on his critics, she might want to consult the record).   These issues, however, are of national importance, and Ms. Brown has a repeated and enthusiastic habit of getting critical facts dead wrong on issues that impact 3 million professional teachers and their 50 million students.  From her assertion that the UFT happily protects child molesters to her statements about tenure to her claims about the percentage of American children reading and doing math at grade level, she is consistently and damagingly wrong.

Perhaps the actual facts are inconvenient for her cause, but smug snarkiness when called out for substituting “truthiness” for truth is hardly an argument.


Filed under Media, politics, Unions

How to Appreciate Teachers

It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher.  If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.

(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)

Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today.  Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved nachesHistorically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?

Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work.  Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy.  No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all.  If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.

How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long?  A few suggestions:

Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals.  Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age.  In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment.  I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones.  In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.

For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice.  In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them.  79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.

The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously.  Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year.  Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment.  Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans.  We can get there, but only with a  genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.

Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning.  Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow.  It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it.  It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?

  • Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
  • Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time.  While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
  • Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities.  They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities.  Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs.  Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
  • Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students.  Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
  • Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to  the amount of $197 billion.  This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.

The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well.  If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.

Fund all of this: That might sound obvious, but it is something that has apparently escaped the federal government and our nation’s governors.  Despite the economic recovery, governors across the country from both parties still have not restored education spending to pre-2008 levels and some are still cutting.  New York remains billions of dollars annually below agreed upon funding levels from nearly a decade ago (although it did spend almost 2 million dollars arguing in court that it shouldn’t have to), and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that the money doesn’t matter.

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.

Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.

Money matters. Having more helps and yes, having less hurts, especially when those who need the most get the least.

Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.

It’s just that simple.

Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.

Across the country, there is a genuine war being waged with dark money against teachers’ workplace rights.  Hoping to build off of the initial – and now thankfully reversed – success of the Vergara lawsuit in California, former news anchor Campbell Brown has taken a pile of undisclosed money to fund similar efforts across the country for the purpose of turning all teachers into at will employees.  The fact that most of her arguments do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny does not appear to matter to her backers who continue to funnel money into her efforts. Worse, those same backers appear entirely disinterested in how incredibly complicated teachers’ workplaces are and how many competing interests intersect in their work – which Peter Greene very cogently explained is one of the most important reasons for the due process protections of tenure:

A private employee serves one master — the company.

A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.

I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher.  It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible.  Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.

So it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days.  They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and  genuinely support what makes that work possible.


Filed under classrooms, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Funding, Media, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Chicago is Everytown, USA


The Chicago Teachers Union took to the picket lines on the morning of April 1 for a one day strike, highlighting the dire financial conditions of their schools because of the state budget impasse caused by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and contract disputes caused by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Teachers and supporters marched in front of public schools before shifting their protests to state universities facing financial catastrophe because of the budget crisis in Springfield.  In typical fashion, no politician took responsibility for the continued stress facing public schools and universities.  Mayor Emanuel protested that he is doing all that he can with what the state government is willing to give, and Governor Rauner issued a boiler plate statement claiming the teachers were victimizing students and their families with a display of “arrogance.”  These statements are rich coming from the mayor who has made closing public schools the centerpiece of education agenda and from the governor who has kept the entire state without a budget for nine months because lawmakers won’t fully endorse his plan to break unions — resulting in a crisis in higher education funding that makes many Illinois families reconsider attending state universities — and whose idea of getting desperately needed funding to urban schools involves “re-purposing” $300 million of special education money for general education funding.

CTU’s action is welcome both for its clarity and for its signal that organized teachers are not going to go along with a governor who holds all of a state hostage to get his anti-labor priorities passed — or with a mayor whose school improvement ideas begin and end with privatization.  The only real question is not why Chicago’s teachers took to the picket lines but rather why a hell of a lot more teachers have not done so across the nation?

President of the Americans Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten said, ““This governor is bankrupting public schools so they won’t effectively function for kids….If you can’t solve things through the normal processes, if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.”  Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis tied the strike to larger labor issues across Illinois, “For every single working person in this entire state, somebody’s got to lead the way. It happened to fall to CTU.” She could have easily been talking about several dozen states and the assault on public education that has unfolded across the country.

Let’s review only part of the national roll call:

Attacks on public K-12 and university education are not limited to these examples. Total per pupil funding for elementary and secondary schools remains, adjusted for inflation, below 2008 levels in all but 13 states because of both state aid cuts and loss of local revenue from property taxes.  In 27 states, local funding for K-12 schools rose but could not make up for continued cuts in state aid.  25 states continue to provide less money per pupil today than they did before the Great Recession, and 12 states cut general education funding just in this past year.  Higher education has done no better with all but three states funding their public universities below 2008 levels, both on a percentage of previous funding and on a per pupil basis.  Although 37 states spent more per pupil in the 2014-2015 school year than before, the national average increase was only $268 per student.  Perversely, state schools have had to increase tuition while cutting programs and staff, and now, for the first time, tuition makes up a larger percentage of public university revenue than state grants.  Attacks on teachers’ workplace protections have gone nationwide, hitting courtrooms with dark money funded campaigns where they cannot gain traction among lawmakers, and it appears that only the untimely death of Associate Justice Scalia prevented the Supreme Court from gutting decades of precedent on public union funding.

Once again, the question must be asked:  Why aren’t many, many more teachers across the country joining their sisters and brothers in Chicago in demonstrating that their voices are still there and can speak loudly when they speak together?  It isn’t just the future of their work that is still clearly at stake – it is the future of every child they teach. President Weingarten said, “….if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.”

Chicago is Everytown, USA.


Filed under #FightForDyett, Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Corruption, Dannel Malloy, Funding, One Newark, politics, Social Justice, 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:



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.


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

Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

Hey, New York Times, I’d like to offer a deal.  Please stop letting Frank Bruni write about school. In fact, get a clever programmer who can arrange so that any time he writes the words “school” “teacher” or “student” his keyboard gives him an electroshock.  In return, I will never again complain that you charge my family $20 a month for an electronic subscription that doesn’t include the cell phone app and which still has advertising.  I’ll even promise to refrain from leaving comments on any David Brooks column where he opines about the nature of character.

Do we have a deal?

I have good reason to want Mr. Bruni off the education beat.  In 2013, he briefly suggested that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was “impolitic” to place opposition to the Common Core State Standards upon “white, suburban moms” who don’t want to find out that their children are not brilliant — just before he jumped in and declared that Secretary Duncan was right to be concerned that “a laudable set of guidelines” would be rejected for making kids work too hard, characterized most opposition to the standards as “welling hysteria” from the right and left wing, and chided parents concerned about the increasing lack of joy in school with declarations that portions of school ought to be “relatively mirthless” while blaming stories of students breaking down from stress upon their parents. A year ago, he jumped into the teacher tenure debate with a breathtakingly one sided column that could have read as a press release from Campbell Brown’s anti-tenure lawsuit — shocking, given his personal friendship with Ms. Brown — and relied upon precisely ONE former Teach For America alum and current State Senator from Colorado as a source.  Mr. Bruni went even further in late October last year with an entirely uncritical review of former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s book on education, despite the fact that Mr. Klein is a serial misleader about his personal biography and that his record as Chancellor does not actually stand up to scrutiny.  Mr. Bruni tossed 27 words about respecting teachers into the mix while calling on them to “partner” with people like Mr. Klein who want to diminish their workplace protections and offer pay for increasing standardized test scores while completely ignoring issues like persistent and rising poverty.

So when it comes to education, and to teachers in particular, Mr. Bruni is something like William Kristol opining on foreign affairs — always wrong and frequently advocating for disasters.

Mr. Bruni was struck over the weekend by Times education reporter Motoko Rich’s story on the nationwide scramble to find credentialed teachers and the precipitous drop in college students seeking teaching degrees:

And he followed it up yesterday in his on Opinion page column, “Can We Interest You In Teaching“?  His opening laments the state of affairs in the teacher preparation pipeline and supposed competing draws for potential teachers:

When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere, to professions that promise more money, more independence, more respect.

That was one takeaway from a widely discussed story in The Times on Sunday by Motoko Rich, who charted teacher shortages so severe in certain areas of the country that teachers are being rushed into classrooms with dubious qualifications and before they’ve earned their teaching credentials.

It’s a sad, alarming state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be. Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, as Rich reported.

Keep in mind, this lamentation of the lack of “honor” given to teaching as a profession comes from someone who has repeatedly taken the standard reformer line that all of the ills in our education system can be traced back almost entirely to teachers themselves and who has advocated for policy makers who diminish teachers’ workplace protections and their autonomy and who want to tie opportunities for greater compensation to standardized test scores.  It should be no real surprise, therefore, that Mr. Bruni’s exploration of the growing teacher shortage is focused not upon what people have done to teaching over the past 15 years in the name of “reform” but upon the profession itself.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr. Bruni has expanded his usual Rolodex for this column and has consulted with people actually connected to the world of teachers and teaching.  His spoke with Randi Weingarten who is the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union with over 1.5 million members.  He also spoke with a representative of “Educators Rising,” a project of Phi Delta Kappa International seeking to help guide young people to teaching as a profession. PDK is a professional association in education which runs various programs for teachers, collaborates annually with Gallup on a poll of the nation’s education perspectives, and publishes Kappan Magazine, a forum on practice, policy, and research.  Among the members of the PDK boards advising Educators Rising is Dr. Sharon Robinson, President of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.  So Mr. Bruni actually sought input from sources that know a few things about teachers and schools (even if Educators Rising has a logo unfortunately reminiscent of Enron’s).

Sadly, he “balanced” that by seeking input from “Educators 4 Excellence,” one of those imitation grassroots outfits that all have suspiciously similar web page design and sprang up right about when Bill Gates was spreading around tons of money to promote the Common Core State Standards and assessing teachers by value added modeling.  And, sure enough, E4E’s “declaration” includes language endorsing teacher assessments using value added modeling of standardized test scores, a method which is only slightly more reliable than throwing darts randomly at a wall.  Mr. Bruni also spoke to Kate Walsh, the head of the self-appointed national “watchdog” on teachers and teacher preparation, National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization whose caliber of research into the state of American teacher preparation is so rigorous that they mostly read course catalogs and syllabi available online without bothering to visit a single campus. This “method” of “research” is so weak that it produced errors throughout their entire original rating report at such a laughable rate that the organization should be shunned by anyone who bothers to check their record.  So while Mr. Bruni actually spoke to some people who know about teachers and schools, he balanced them with the usual suspects of agenda driven and fact deprived actors.  This is a bit like writing on climate change by speaking with scientists at NOAA and then seeking “balance” from the public relations office of Exxon.

Both Walsh and Evan Stone of E4E basically reiterated very old talking points of teacher professionalization.  Stone claimed teachers are concerned they will be “doing the same thing on Day 1 as they’ll be doing 30 years in” and called for a “career ladder” in teaching while Walsh repeated her contention that most students see teacher preparation as an “easy” major and steer away from it.  Making teacher preparation more rigorous is a well trodden path now that we are 32 years past A Nation At Risk, and Walsh flatly ignores or discounts the decades of work to increase teacher preparation standards and increase clinical practice time for prospective teachers in favor of her organization’s shockingly weak research.  Stone’s contention that teachers want a gradated career ladder is not an especially strong one, and while there is validity to a career structure that places experienced teachers into mentoring and leadership roles, most of the pathways that have been proposed over the years would, of course, require significant investments of time and resources that are notably absent from many reformers’ plans.  None other than Michelle Rhee herself decided that National Board certification was something prestigious but not worth the cost while she was Chancellor in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bruni’s representative from Educators Rising, Dan Brown, suggested that teaching could use its own “Flexner Report,” the document from the early 1900s that set medicine to its current high status in society.  I am at loss to imagine what another round of report writing would do that we have not already had from the Carnegie Corporation, The Holmes Group, John Goodlad, The National Commission on Teaching and America’ Future, or the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.  For three decades, researchers and policy analysts have advocated for and demonstrated value of various ways to improve teacher preparation that reflect the necessary balance of theory, pedagogy, practice, and contact with skilled veterans who inform preparation through their own teaching.  Policy makers, however, have rarely seen fit to fund it.

The biggest disappointment of the article is Mr. Bruni’s conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT.  It was not because President Weingarten missed the important message, but that Mr. Bruni gave it so little notice.  President Weingarten stated that teachers wanted “a voice, a real voice,” and she referred Mr. Bruni to the AFT’s collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association on the Quality of Worklife Survey.  Mr. Bruni, however, given a wealth of information on teacher concerns, only mentioned being left out of decision making as source of stress.  What did Mr. Bruni miss?

  • 79% of teachers feel disrespected by public officials.
  • 77% feels disrespected by the media.
  • 73% feel their workplace is often stressful.

While stressed teachers did feel they had less decision making power, Bruni missed that:

  • 55% said negative portrayals of teachers and schools in media caused stress.
  • 71% cited adoption of new requirements without training or support as causing stress.
  • Time pressure was a major source of stress.
  • As were mandated curricula, standardized testing, and lack of administrator support.

He also failed to notice:

  • A full 30% of teachers said they have been bullied in the workplace.
  • Including, 51% of teachers with disabilities, 38% of LGBTQ teachers, 36% of ethnic minorities, and 38% of religious minorities.
  • 26% said that in the past month their mental health was not good for 9 days or more.

Having a voice in decision making is certainly an important part of treating teachers as professionals, and it may even be true that teaching could be made more attractive with certain changes to the professional environment and professional preparation of teachers.  However, it is absurd to speculate that a reported teacher shortage is truly tied to these issues when we have had a similar career structure for teachers for decades without seeing such dramatic declines in number of college students willing to become teachers.  What Frank Bruni misses entirely is that teaching is deeply wrapped up in a sense of vocation as well as professionalism.  People going into teaching have always accepted that they are giving up some economic and social status in favor of enacting a career where they believe they can make a substantial difference in people’s lives.  They are drawn to teaching by positive experiences with teachers and with learning, and they develop a fondness and respect for school and its mission.

But with the clear evidence that reform efforts of the past 15 years to place the entire burden of lifting children out of poverty upon schools and teachers have led to serious degradation of workplace life, it is hardly surprising that young people who would be normally driven by their sense of purpose towards education would look elsewhere. They are seeing fewer and fewer role models who are allowed to practice their profession and their craft to not merely raise test scores, but to inspire and ignite young minds.  The data from the Worklife Survey should scream this message to anyone who looks at it, but instead Mr. Bruni chooses to emphasize warmed over servings of 1980s and 1990s era professionalization literature.

Instead of looking to make teaching look more like medicine, we should consider how to make teaching look like teaching again, and that will begin by listening to what teachers have to say about their working conditions.


Filed under Media, NCTQ, schools, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

The New York Times Ponders An Emerging Teacher Shortage

Motoko Rich of The New York Times wrote a feature article for today’s print edition on the looming teacher shortage and the nationwide scramble to fill available teaching positions.  Predictions of a future teacher shortage are hardly new.  Consider this Senate hearing in 1997 where the then frequently made prediction that we would need “2 million new teachers over the next 10 years” was repeated by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts:

This chart is a good summation as to what the current conditions are. This year, K-12 enrollment reached an all-time high and will continue to rise over the next 7 years. 6,000 new public schools will be needed by the year 2006 just to maintain current class sizes. We will also need to hire 2 million teachers over the next decade to accommodate rising student enrollments and massive teacher requirements. And because of the overcrowding, schools are using trailers for classrooms and teaching students in former hallways, closets, and bathrooms. Overcrowded classrooms undermine discipline and decrease student morale.

The prediction seemed a lot less dire when compared to the fact that, at the time, we credentialed about 200,000 new teachers every year — or roughly 2 million over 10 years. This time, however, it might be different.

Ms. Rich’s article cites that budget cuts following the Great Recession led to dismissals across the country, which may have led to fewer college students willing to accumulate debt for uncertain job prospects.  Further, with the economic recovery showing sustained growth over the past few years, there may be a larger array of more attractive job prospects for the college educated.  Whatever the cause, the result is that school districts are having to dig deeper into the labor barrel to find people people willing to teach or even to find people with the appropriate credential to teach.  Ms. Rich’s article pays special attention to California which had 45,000 teaching candidates seeking credentials as the recession came on in 2008, but since then the number of candidates in programs has dropped more than 50% to barely 20,000 in 2012.  The Golden State used to issue roughly 20,000 credentials a year, but by 2012 that number was 15,000 – there are currently 21,500 spots open this year.  Ms. Rich cites federal data showing a 30% decline nationwide in the number of people seeking to become teachers.

This fact, and the potential reasons behind it, makes this teacher shortage potentially very different and one to which we should pay close attention.  While it may indeed be true that we had a hiccup due to uncertain job prospects during the Great Recession and that competition from growing technology fields could be factors in this shortage, Ms. Rich did not examine another possibility that might make this shortage far harder to overcome with typical labor market responses:

We’ve made teaching suck the past 15 years.

I just wrote about the groundbreaking collaboration between the Badass Teachers Association and the American Federation of teachers on the Quality of Workplace Life survey released this Spring.  While the 30,000 respondents to the 80 question survey were not statistically sampled, their input is an important first step towards understanding the consequences of our current education reform environment.  From physical and mental health to support and respect from policy makers and administrators to workplace bullying and harassment to time and training for new curriculum demands to over testing to their general enthusiasm for their profession, teachers sent loud and clear warnings that there is a crisis in teachers’ working conditions.

It isn’t hard to imagine why.  For two 8 year Presidencies, we have, via legislation and policy, made increasing demands that our schools and school teachers raise their students to overcome inter-generational poverty with practically no additional help whatsoever and under the threat of punitive school and job level sanctions.  We have narrowed the curriculum so that non tested subjects play a smaller role in our children’s education.  We have a counter factual but extremely well funded by dark money campaign to sue away teachers’ modest workplace protections and weaken their unions.  We have state after state in the Union insisting on using value added modeling of student standardized test scores for teacher evaluation and retention despite the long known fundamental flaws with that approach.  We have prominent governors of both major political parties declaring open warfare on teachers and calling public education a “monopoly” that needs to be broken up or going on national cable news to declare that the “national teachers union” needs a “punch in the face.”

Can I say for certain that there is a causal link between these phenomena and the growing claims of a teacher shortage? Not at this time.  But the possibility did not escape journalist David Sirota:

What is especially worrying is how this time, talk of a teacher shortage could potentially become very long term unless we pivot quickly on school policy.  We have had more a full generation of students K-12 who have grown up in schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  These students are the most tested and potentially test exhausted students in our nation’s history.  The BAT/AFT survey shows that their teachers may be facing unprecedented workplace expectations and stress at a time when school budgets are only beginning to recover, if at all, from cuts made during the Great Recession.  And no matter how professional and upbeat a manner teachers strive to portray for their students, nobody can keep that up every day without fail.

We know that the decision to become a teacher is historically one that is deeply tied to a student’s experiences in school itself. A prospective teacher learns to appreciate school and develops early, usually very incomplete, ideas and ideals about what it means to be a teacher from over 13,000 hours spent with teachers teaching from Kindergarten until the end of high school.  David Hansen explains teaching as vocational work, deeply rooted the individual seeking to become a teacher:

It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

What kind of positive vocational sense can we expect young people considering teaching to develop in a school system beset by narrowed curricula and diminished teacher autonomy, by calls to eliminate poverty without any assistance whatsoever, by dishonest campaigns to break their unions, and by national politicians insulting them at every turn?

In 2006, David Berliner wrote eloquently on “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform” where he strongly questioned the “one way accountability” system set up via high stakes standardized testing:

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

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

Our consistent failure to heed Dr. Berliner’s warning may now be resulting in a genuine shortage of teachers, not merely of teachers being credentialed but of potential teachers in the pipeline eager to join the ranks.  Things need to change.  Now.


Filed under Chris Christie, Funding, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

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.


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

Mr. Petrilli Goes to Albany

Michael Petrilli is the President of the conservative education think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  As such, he is a major voice in support of much of today’s education reform agenda, notably The Common Core State Standards, opposing teacher unions, and the expansion of charter schools and their networks.  It was surprising to some when he turned up as the invited keynote speaker at the New York State Council of School Superintendents Winter Institute.  Mr. Petrilli was himself aware of the potential controversy in his invitation to speak, and abruptly changed the title of his talk from “How to End the Education Reform Wars” to “How to Survive the Education Reform Wars.”  Diane Ravitch of New York University notes the irony of this reframing due to Mr. Petrilli’s prominent role in fomenting the “education reform wars” in the first place (Think of Dick Cheney giving advice on how to survive political and military turmoil in the Middle East).

Interestingly enough, there are some bright spots in Mr. Petrilli’s talk. The most notable was his declaration of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to boost standardized testing to a full 50% of teacher evaluations as “insane” and citing that even other “reform leaders” are moving to using those measures less.  This is a positive statement from someone in Mr. Petrilli’s position, even if he gives it scant time in his speech, and hopefully it based on the body of research that plainly shows how value added measures of teacher effectiveness are pretty much bollocks.  It is also possible that someone sees the growing backlash against testing and the evaluation systems that encourage teaching to the test as threatening the entire reform agenda. Whatever his reason, it was notable that Mr. Petrilli chose this forum to condemn Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plans. Mr. Petrilli also spent time critiquing some of his fellow reform-minded allies:

But on the other side, some of the reformers have equally extreme views. They say that public schools are failing unless each and everyone one of their graduates are college AND career ready. Each and every one.


Keep in mind that our highest performing state, Massachusetts, gets only fifty percent of students to that lofty standard. Should we aim to get more students college and career ready? Absolutely. Do I believe that the Common Core standards, if faithfully implemented, will help? Absolutely. Is a school failing if it doesn’t get every single student to that lofty standard? Of course not

I could spend time quibbling with Mr. Petrilli’s definition of “that lofty standard.” Massachusetts was using the MCAS in 2014, so I assume Mr. Petrilli is referring to the Bay State’s top in the nation National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results – which never mention “college and career readiness” because it is the NAEP, not Common Core.  Massachusetts was top of the nation in the 8th grade NAEP for 2013 with 48% of students reaching proficient and advanced in reading and 55% in mathematics — proficient represents solid academic performance and an ability to apply that knowledge in real world, analytic situations, so that is a heck on an accomplishment.  Given that 39.4% of Massachusetts adults over the age of 25 have a BA and that the Bay State economy seems to be picking up real momentum, it seems Massachusetts is poised to be a net exporter of college educated adults. Regardless, Mr. Petrilli is correct to note that reformers clinging to some kind of magical thinking that Common Core and a lofty enough set of expectations will get all kids ready to attend college are not playing in a world that resembles reality, so a sincere thanks for that.

Much of the rest of his address is complete bollocks, however.

Peter Greene does his usual indispensable review of the whole talk here, where he does an especially good job pointing out how Mr. Petrilli sets up some nice fantasy anti-reform activists who want to believe that poor kids cannot learn:

Petrilli uses the new fave talking point for reformsters in which he characterizes the pro-public-education folks (and name checks Diane Ravitch) as those who have given up, think that education is hopeless in the face of poverty, believe that schools cannot do any better. This is the new improved straw man version of dismissing reform critics because they “use poverty as an excuse.” It’s a snappy rhetorical point, but it’s a lie, a deliberate misreading of what folks in the pro-public-ed camp are saying.

It’s a particularly galling point coming from the man who has explained on more than one platform that the proper role of charters is to rescue those students who are deserving, snatching them from the midst of the undeserving mob. It’s galling from charter fans in general, as their whole point is that public schools are hopeless and we should not waste another cent trying to help them do better.

But it’s also insulting to the millions of teachers who are in the classroom day after day, doing the best they can with the resources they have. Hey, teachers– if you’re not succeeding with all of your students, it has nothing to do with obstacles and challenges in your path. You just don’t believe enough.

I can’t improve on that except to affirm how utterly disingenuous it is to take people who are trying to point out that our most most struggling schools typically try to work with populations that have heavy concentrations of poverty and that we have long known the lasting impacts of poverty and to portray that as saying “there is nothing schools can do.” Let’s clear this up:  Mr. Petrilli, when I and other critics of your version of education reform raise the issue of poverty and its demonstrable impact on children and the schools they attend, we do not do so to say that there is nothing that can be done.  We do so because if we as a society are truly concerned about whether a child in poverty can do her very best in school, then perhaps we should be concerned about whether or not she can EAT TODAY.  That means giving her school a lot more to work with in terms of special resources and staff, and that means the rest of society stepping up and taking responsibility for alleviating the deprivations she faces outside of school as well.  That’s why we resist your brand of “reform,” Mr. Petrilli.  It has to do with facts, not ideology.

Mr. Petrilli insists that Common Core is necessary because our standards were a joke before them:

Let me say a few words about this. As many of you know, I’m one of the strongest supporters of the Common Core out there. I’m the conservative they send to red states to testify and urge other Republicans not to drop these standards. And I support these standards because they are pegged to success for our young people—success in college or a good paying job.

That’s important because our earlier standards were set so low that they were sending false signals to kids and to parents that all was well, when it wasn’t. That kids were on track, when they weren’t. You know this. Those old standards and tests were set at such a low level that you could be reading or doing math at the 20th or 30th percentile nationally and be considered proficient.

The assertion that Common Core is “pegged to success” in terms of college and career readiness is one of the articles of faith among reformers, but it is also entirely unproven in practice as of today, and the opaque nature of their development does not provide evidence of how that confidence came about.  The statement also belies an odd faith in the seamlessness from standards to practice to achievement that is not so apparent in the world of education.  Consider Massachusetts again.  The top performing state on the 2013 NAEP was also recognized as having very high quality state standards before adopting the Common Core.  Now consider Texas.  According to Mr. Petrilli’s own organization, the Texas English standards from 2008 are of higher quality that the Common Core standards.  Yet in the 2013 NAEP, Texas, having remained with its own standards, was only above 7 other states in 8th grade reading.  Texas has made some improvement since the adoption of those standards, but it has hardly been dramatic.  Perhaps the teachers of Texas simply don’t believe enough, but my suspicion is that it takes a lot more than “high quality standards” to leverage change.

Mr. Petrilli pivoted his talk with a strangely insulting set of points for his audience:

But let me level with you: We’re frustrated with you too. For sure, we understand that your hands are often tied by union contracts, state regulations, and more. I’ll get to that in a bit. But we do see examples of areas where you are not taking advantage of the authority you DO have to do right by kids. My friend Rick Hess writes about Cage Busting Leaders. Some of those cages are of your own design.

The number-one example, of course, is around teacher evaluations. This whole national push for teacher evaluations came about because research showed that the vast majority of teachers were being given glowing evaluations. And it was clear that in many schools, those evaluations were not being treated seriously. Principals did a couple of fly-by observations a year, and that was it. It wasn’t enough to provide good feedback to teachers, and it sure wasn’t enough to identify teachers who might need to be encouraged to leave the classroom.

It is a fascinating approach to speak to an audience and tell them that they are essentially not doing their jobs, but perhaps the Superintendents were encouraged with the following words of sympathy:

Now, I have more sympathy for you than most reformers. As I see it, you’d have to be crazy as a principal in New York State to give your teachers bad evaluations. Because in New York State, it’s damn near impossible to actually fire a teacher. So if that’s the case, why make an enemy by giving a bad evaluation? It’s better to work the system to send that teacher somewhere else. Until and unless lawmakers here in Albany decide they want to make it significantly easier to fire a teacher, they better get used to seeing reports of lots of glowing evaluations.

Isn’t it nifty how this works out?  Superintendents and principals are not doing their jobs at all, but they get at least a little tea and sympathy because, after all, they may not be lazy — they may just be fearful of the mess that might happen if they did their jobs!


Let’s look at the claim that it is “impossible” to fire a teacher.  It is a common claim, one that anti-tenure activists like Campbell Brown like to repeat as if they are reading from the Gospel, but it is really true?  If your standard is the basic at will employment agreement that corporate managers and CEOs enjoy, then I suppose it is true.  Instead of simply calling an employee into the office and telling her to pack up her desk because security is escorting her off the property in ten minutes, school administrators actually have to employ a process and demonstrate cause to remove a tenured teacher.  That may take time and some effort, but it is hardly impossible.  Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University examined Campbell Brown’s favorite claim that it takes over two calendar years to remove a tenured teacher in New York and found it wanting:

This statistic, which Ms. Brown peppers in all of her speeches, appears to be from a research brief of the New York State School Boards Association. This brief was based on the results of a self-report survey to which only 59% of districts responded and in which New York City (the largest district) was not even included. Jessica Glazer has written about whether or not the numbers are even accurate, and Bruce Baker points out, importantly, that quality may vary significantly between districts. Further, since the data was collected, after 2008, the state made efforts to reform tenure laws, changing the minimum years from two to three. Now, according to one report, only a slim majority of teachers receive tenure on the first attempt, and, in 2013, disciplinary cases took, on average, only 177 days statewide.

Considering the importance of teacher tenure for actually effective teachers — such as protecting them so they can speak out on behalf of their students and colleagues as documented in the link — the fact that removal takes effort should not be a point of contention, but Mr. Petrilli, and others like him, suffer from CEO envy in these matters.  CEOs have enormous power within the corporate world, overseen only by a board of directors.  So if you are the CEO of Apple, you can order everyone to focus like a laser on a handheld computer and release it even if the handwriting recognition software is not ready for prime time.  Then if you are the former CEO getting his job back, you can kill the whole project even though it has been greatly improved and will eventually provide you with the technology that will take over the phone market.  You can do all of this because you are the CEO and disruption by your will is in your tool kit.  School leaders work within organizations that are best characterized as “loosely coupled” which means that although organized hierarchically, schools allow significant autonomy among individuals, allow locally derived adaptations for changing conditions, and can have smaller parts of the system break down without damaging the entire system.  Leaders within such systems need different skill sets than corporate leaders, and simply imploring them to more aggressively remove ineffective probationary teachers, as Mr. Petrilli, does is insufficient to the task of being a real instructional leader within a school system, a role that requires significant rethinking of the role of principal from administrator to staff developer with resources coordinated and time allotted across the entire system.  “Fire them while they are young” just doesn’t cut it.

But is Mr. Petrilli’s contention even true?  Is it true that principals and superintendents don’t give tough evaluations because they know they cannot remove an ineffective teachers?  There’s a possible explanation that is left entirely unexplored in his talk: namely, the scoring bands for teacher evaluation in New York were set so that teachers who did not score as ineffective in any category could still be labeled as ineffective.  Principal Carol Burris explains that here as well as the different system that was imposed upon New York City by then Commissioner John King.  In the 2011-2013 scoring bands, it was possible for a teacher to get a low “developing” mark from the state test and the locally selected test measure, get 58 out of 60 points on the “other measures” and be labeled “ineffective.”  Not one score band in the ineffective range, but ineffective regardless.

So is it possible that principals and superintendents have not been vigorous enough in teacher evaluations because they dread the work of trying to remove an ineffective teacher as Mr. Petrilli contends?  Possibly – if you have a low opinion of their work ethic and professional pride.  It is equally possible that principals and superintendents know that the score bands are set up in a way that teachers can be found ineffective without having a single measure in a range that is labeled ineffective.  Cognizance of that inherent unfairness could easily skew observation scores upwards, especially for school leaders who have multiple and diverse other tasks to attend to.

Mr Petrilli’s biggest whopper comes near the end when he laments the assumed sea of red tape that holds back schools and claims the success of charter schools is attributable to their freedom from such requirements.  Then he tells superintendents to demand the same “freedom”:

The notion with charter schools is that the only way to cut this Gordian Knot is to start fresh, to opt out of the regulatory framework, and the union contract framework, entirely. And create a whole new paradigm.

And if you are frustrated by comparisons between your schools—your over regulated, hyper unionized schools,and the autonomous charter sector—you are right to be. But here’s my advice: Don’t fight em, join em. Ask for similar freedoms. Ask for similar autonomies. And if that fails, use chartering to advance your own goals. Stop fighting with one hand tied behind your back—tied up with red tape. Cut the ties. Come out swinging.

Here is CEO envy all over again, and it is wrong because someone’s (presumably, Petrilli’s) “red tape” is another person’s “Free And Appropriate Public Education” — just one of the many regulations that the “no excuses” brands of charter schools routinely opt themselves out of in pursuit of higher test scores.  Here we have Michael Petrilli, who has never been a teacher, a school administrator, or a qualified researcher, advising the superintendents of New York to push to free themselves from regulatory requirements that were put in place to protect vulnerable children in the first place.  And he tells them to seek this “freedom” to emulate a sector that he has openly and repeatedly said is right to restrict itself to “the strivers” and to rid itself of students who do not measure up.  We know what this looks like in practice — a Kindergarten child with manageable attention deficit throwing up in the morning because he is afraid he will be “fired” from school. 

Even without the emotional and ethical argument, we also know that charters as they are managed now in many urban areas make the local school system worse off for everyone else.  After the charter schools compete for space and other resources and after they effectively skim off the easiest to educate children and push out the ones who are not, you have district schools that have no say in how charters are managed and are left with demographics that are more disadvantaged, more disabled, and less able to speak English, all of whom need many more services from diminished remaining resources.

For Mr. Petrilli to come out and exhort his audience to demand allowance to act similarly and then to advocate, as he did on Twitter, that district public schools should be allowed to push out students as they see fit, is asking for a school system that is pathologically unwilling to work with anyone it doesn’t want to:

It would one thing for charter advocates like Mr. Petrilli to say the cream skimming is okay if he were to similarly advocate that the district public schools, working with the much higher needs students, had resources poured into them so they could accomplish the mission of educating the most needy.  Smaller class sizes, co-teaching, increased numbers of paraprofessionals, increased certified special education teachers, language programs, speech and physical therapy, social workers, health and nutrition programs, renovated facilities — tellingly, none of this made the list of things Mr. Petrilli told superintendents should go to bat for.

Because something else was missing from the speech — money.  Michael Petrilli was talking to a gathering of New York superintendents, a group of school system administrators who have seen their budgets plummet due to a state property tax cap and budget games in Albany that have cost the AVERAGE school district millions of dollars a year in state aid.  I do not know if the Superintendent of Hempstead was in the audience, but if she was, I do wonder if she feels like she needs to be a “cage busting” leader more than she needs Albany to not short her school district MORE THAN $6400 PER CHILD THIS YEAR.  It is something of a sick joke to talk to a group of district leaders about how to “survive the education reform wars” and offer no insight into how to fight to keep their school aid from being raided year after tedious year.  It is not remotely funny to advocate that they push for policies that, objectively, would require huge increases in local and state spending to make happen in a thoughtful and remotely helpful way and to still remain entirely mum about money.

I am sure Mr. Petrilli got polite applause. 

I would not be surprised if he got a significant number of eye rolls.