Another Top Piece by Jeff Bryant: Juking the Stats in New Orleans

In the summer of 2006, not quite a year after Hurricane Katrina, I traveled for a week to New Orleans.  At the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, I wrote an annual autumn publication for our churches on an issue of racial or economic justice in public schools that we hoped to highlight for them in that particular school year.  I planned to write the 2007 UCC Message on Public Education (released in fall 2006) on what had happened to the public schools in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane—the subsequent layoff of all the teachers, and the beginning of the charter experiment seeded by huge grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others.

With a good map and a rental car, I made my way to a mass of interviews I had set up with parents, former teachers, the former president of the teachers’ union, parent advocates, a civil rights attorney, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, members of Beecher United Church of Christ, and public education advocates who had been identified to me.  My trip changed me.  New Orleans was still completely devastated, and the implications for the city’s poorest citizens were catastrophic.  I did not want to believe that in the United States, politicians would use a situation of massive devastation to undertake an education governance experiment on poor families and their children.

Most of the people I spoke with were still numb with shock.  Many were working during the day and returning at night to pull the walls apart in their houses—to “gut them out” as it was called—so they could begin rebuilding, but almost nobody had reached the rebuilding stage.  One elementary school I saw in New Orleans East remained windowless, with weeds so high they tangled wildly over the roof.  Some public schools that had not even been seriously damaged were shut down without being repaired. Fortier High School, an historic neighborhood high school, had been taken over by Tulane and other universities and turned into Lusher Charter High School, a place where the children of faculty at the area’s universities got preferred entry and most neighborhood adolescents were no longer welcome.  There were a lot of questions about the new Algiers Charter School District.  Few people could cut through all the deals going on to figure out what was really happening, but everybody felt they had lost the institutions they counted on to stabilize life for their children at a time when adults and children alike needed such institutions to cling to.

In the years since that summer I have done my best to keep up with ensuing changes in the schools of New Orleans, but the rhetoric and the manipulation of data by the Recovery School District (RSD) and the Louisiana state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have made it incredibly difficult to get any sense at all really, apart from anecdotal evidence, of the ongoing reality for the children of New Orleans and their parents.

In a new piece published yesterday in the weekly newsletter of the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant describes what has become a serious issue not only in New Orleans but also in public education policy generally in the United States:  “Juking the stats is a practice now so ingrained in the way education solutions are posed to the public that examples are rampant.  But anyone who wants to have a genuinely honest discussion about education policy based on the real facts of the matter—and not statistical distortions achieved through gross manipulation and ‘policy speak’ that covers up realities on the ground—needs to constantly question what policy leaders and their scribes in the press are foisting off as ‘information.’  An especially egregious example of ‘juking the stats’ is the way school administration in New Orleans—where, basically, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity to summarily fire school teachers and turn over the majority of schools to privately managed charter school operators from out of town—is now being marketed to the entire country as a ‘solution’ for public education everywhere.”

This summer, 2014, as the Recovery School District becomes almost entirely charterized without any traditional public neighborhood schools left this fall, there has been considerable press but—again—not much solid information.  Lots of promoters of school choice want everyone to believe New Orleans is the model for the rest of the country—a fully charterized mass of schools from which parents can choose. Finding and assembling hard information has, however, been virtually impossible.

In The Truth about the New Orleans School Model, Bryant  explains just how those in charge have been “juking the stats.”  Quite recently Bryant wrote a piece about New Orleans, only to have his publisher receive a letter from Zoey Reed, Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs at the New Orleans Recovery School District.  Ms. Reed demanded corrections to what she alleges were errors in the piece Bryant had published.

In yesterday’s article, Bryant publishes Ms. Reed’s demand for corrections followed by his own response to her.  His careful response to each of her demands comprises just the sort of analysis I’ve been looking for for a couple of years.  Bryant patches together data from several sources to confront the  lies being disseminated to create the myth that New Orleans has become a model for Detroit and Chicago and Milwaukee.

Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013 the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new. That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Bryant also criticizes the application process for school choice, which he contends does not provide real choice for the majority of families.

It is a complicated story, but I urge you to read Bryant’s important piece.   If you like, skip the reprinting of the letter from Zoey Reed of the Recovery School District.  Then read Bryant’s response very carefully.  The goal is not for you to remember all the details about how data has been manipulated to make it appear that school achievement is soaring in New Orleans.  It is, however, important to recognize that creating a mass of charter schools—each reporting to its own board—and laying off all the experienced teachers in New Orleans has been neither a solution for the challenges being experienced by children living in concentrated poverty nor a quick fix for their schools.  Bryant has pulled together enough hard information about what’s happening in New Orleans to remind us all that we shouldn’t believe everything we are being told by the ideologues who are juking the stats.

Jeff Bryant Interviews New NEA President Who Is Not Afraid to Speak Truth to Power

In its new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the National Education Association (NEA) has a gifted spokesperson for school teachers and for public education.  Eskelsen Garcia knows the issues, connects the dots, and frames a pro-teacher, pro-public education agenda that puts into words the kind of commitment to children and public schools that I have observed over many years to be the priority of the NEA.  In an extensive interview with Jeff Bryant, Eskelsen Garcia discusses her priorities.

When Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about the resolution passed at NEA’s recent convention, a resolution to demand Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s removal, she replies: “I will own this; I share in their anger.  The Department of Education has become an evidence-free zone when it comes to high stakes decisions being made on the basis of cut scores on standardized tests.  We can go back and forth about interpretations of the department’s policies, like, for instance, the situation in Florida where teachers are being evaluated on the basis of test scores of students they don’t even teach… But he (Arne Duncan) needs to understand that Florida did that because they were encouraged in their applications for grant money and regulation waivers to do so.  When his department requires that state departments of education have to make sure all their teachers are being judged by students’ standardized test scores, then the state departments just start making stuff up.  And it’s stupid.  It’s absurd.  It’s non-defensible.  And his department didn’t reject applications based on their absurd requirements for testing.  It made the requirement that all teachers be evaluated on the basis of tests a threshold that every application had to cross over.  That’s indefensible…  The testing is corrupting what it means to teach… They still don’t get that when you do a whole lot of things on the periphery, but you’re still judging success by a cut score on a standardized test and judging ‘effective’ teachers on a standardized test, then you will corrupt anything good that you try to accomplish.”

Eskelsen Garcia clearly connects the dots between today’s federal demands and state legislative policies that are undermining public schools.  Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about a conversation she had with Arne Duncan after the recent NEA convention. She reports that Duncan suggested NEA is not giving the Department of Education enough credit for its efforts to promote preschool and to make college more affordable.  Then she describes, “how I put it to Duncan.  We now have bad state policies that insist, for instance, a child can’t go to fourth grade because he didn’t hit a cut score on a standardized reading test, and the state legislature did this in order to get Race to the Top money.  You can say you didn’t require the state to do that.  But when you required states to base their education programs mostly on test scores, and let states respond with ‘OK, we’ll just do this,’ you encouraged bad policy.  You became the catalyst for something really idiotic.”

At the conclusion of the interview, Eskelsen Garcia speaks about the necessity that NEA, the nation’s largest union, defend the future of public education itself.  “We also know the stakes have changed.  We always had to fight legislators in order to fund us.  Now we have legislators who want to dismantle us brick by brick.  The existence of public schools was always something you could take for granted… Now we know we’re fighting for our existence.”

These days it too often seems to much of the public as though policy just sort of happens—because it really wasn’t the federal government that passed it—but instead it was a response from a state legislature whose members did it to please Arne Duncan and his staff—all  for the purpose of making federal money flow to the state.  It is difficult for the public to parse all this out, particularly because the press can’t seem to sort it out either.  With his friendly handshakes, aw-shucks manner, and federal policies that control laws and programs enacted by state legislatures (due to federal requirements), Arne Duncan is accustomed to deflecting criticism.

Now NEA has a president willing to get the details straight and place responsibility squarely where it rests: in the policies of the department and the implementation of programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, Innovation Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers negotiated between states and staff at the U.S. Department of Education.  And she is willing to tell us we had better pay attention.

Good for Lily Eskelsen Garcia for telling the truth and assigning responsibility for what has to change.  I urge you to read Bryant’s interview with NEA’s new president.

Inventor of Portfolio School Reform Confirms It Isn’t Working Well

The portfolio strategy of school reform embodies the idea of school choice. The provision of a range of privatized charter schools and the elimination of assigned school attendance zones are central to the theory, which was developed by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, whose website declares, “The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.”  Robin Lake, the Center’s director, might be called the mother of this theory that envisions the governance of education through the lens of creative disruption—schools managed like a business portfolio, with new schools continually introduced and failures dropped from the portfolio.

I was impressed that when Robin Lake recently visited Detroit, she was quoted in the Detroit Free Press investigative series on charter schools in Michigan criticizing the management of school choice.  I have always hoped that proponents of privatization might take a second look if it were proven that charters and vouchers are not accomplishing what was promised: closing achievement gaps and significantly and measurably improving the education of children who are struggling in public schools.  I was encouraged to read in the Free Press that Lake agreed with critics that school choice in Detroit these days is a morass.  In Detroit, Lake said charters “have created a lot of new opportunities, and a lot of great new schools are up and running as a result.”  She added, however, that “not enough attention has been paid to quality and equity access in Detroit.” She said that today Detroit has a massive oversupply of schools but “a lack of high-quality seats.”  She said parents “are having a difficult time navigating their options.”  “What’s happening in Detroit is very messy right now.”  “It’s not clear who’s keeping an eye on the city’s schools and making sure that every neighborhood has access to a high quality school.”   Lake’s conclusions, however, at the end of her Free Press interview disappointed me.  She reverted to ideology, minimized the problems she had just described, and affirmed choice and creative disruption: “You don’t want to close off the door to innovation by saying everyone has to have a cookie-cutter approach.” “You’ll end up with the same public schools we’re trying to get away from.”

This month the Center on Reinventing Public Education followed up on Lake’s Free Press critique by publishing a scathing report about the problems Lake observed in Detroit.  Lake and her colleagues, Michael DeArmond and Ashley Jochim  base their conclusions on a survey of 4,000 parents in Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., although the report includes a significant section on the special problems in Detroit.  Here are some of the concerns raised by Lake and her colleagues:

Lack of Access:  “Many parents—especially those in the most disadvantaged circumstances—face barriers that limit their ability to choose a school for their child, including inadequate information, lack of convenient transportation, and uneven school quality.”  The lack of guidance for parents is a problem in traditional public and charter schools today, as many school districts have eliminated assigned attendance zones.  In Detroit, the problem is described for parents as severe: “a lack of information, confusing paperwork, and transportation gaps all make it hard to find a school that will work for their child…  ‘There are no watchdogs in Detroit to make sure parents… get what they need from schools,’ said a charter school leader.’ ‘They’re on their own.'”

Lack of Opportunity:  An over-supply of schools exists in Detroit and competition for students is intense: “The biggest challenge facing parents… is not a lack of choice but a lack of good schools.”  Neither traditional public schools nor charter schools in Detroit are posting significantly increased test scores.  Parents’ education is identified again and again as a barrier to their participating fully and effectively in school choice.  “For example, 40 percent of parents with less than a high school diploma cited problems understanding which schools their child was eligible to attend compared to 24 percent for parents with a BA or more.  Less-educated parents were 72 percent more likely to cite transportation as a barrier and 58 percent more likely to cite problems getting the information they needed to make a choice than more educated parents.”

Fragmentation of Services:  “Who is responsible for ensuring that choice produces a good set of options for families in urban education?  For Detroit and many other cities, the answer to this question is no longer the traditional public school district.  Increasingly, a range of agencies and organizations–including local school districts, state agencies, charter school authorizers, and nonprofit providers—oversee and operate schools in American cities.  These groups compete for students and often have few incentives to cooperate on crosscutting issues that shape how school choice works (or does not work) for families.”  “This state of affairs makes it difficult for city leaders to address crosscutting issues (such as parent information systems or transportation) that affect everyone but are no one’s responsibility.”  School choice exists across states with a range of school governance.  Sometimes a city has one school district, but a city like Phoenix has 28 different school district jurisdictions within the city itself.  “These multi-district systems pose special problems for charter operators who might draw families from a dozen or more nearby school districts.  If a charter operator in one of these cities wanted to coordinate with local school districts on enrollment timelines or collaborate to share data on feeder patterns, for example, they might have to negotiate separate agreements with each school district.”

Lack of Oversight: Because nobody is in charge, oversight is too often entirely lacking.  “… some districts are overseen by traditionally elected school boards, but others are overseen by mayors or states; some charter school authorizers are local school districts, but others are state education agencies, independent boards, higher education institutions, nonprofits, or municipal governments.  In some places such as Ohio nonprofit charter authorizers may contract with for-profit organizations to manage the authorization process… By dispersing oversight authority across many different groups and putting those groups in competition for resources, it becomes much more difficult for city leaders to drive improvements… or address the challenges facing parents citywide.”  A serious problem documented here is that lack of authority for oversight is making it impossible in many cities to put the worst charter schools out of business.

In this report the Center on Reinventing Public Education has published a scathing indictment of the way its school reform strategy is being implemented across America’s big cities.  One would hope to read some accompanying concern about the validity of the strategy itself, but that is not the case in this report: “However it manifests in a particular city, school choice is increasingly the new normal in urban education and shows no sign of going away.”  The authors title the report: Making School Choice Work.

But how to make the theory work?  In their section of recommendations, the researchers plead with those who oversee the fragmented mass of education options to work together voluntarily with good will.  “In many cities, however, the situation is too dire to wait for people to come together voluntarily.  In those cases, state leaders, mayors, and others need to change state and local laws to ensure that districts and charter authorizers oversee schools responsibly and that families do not face large barriers to choice…. In other cases, formal governance changes may be necessary to reduce the number of authorizers involved, take away some agencies’ authority to open new schools, or create specialized agencies or interagency agreements to oversee and administer citywide systems that facilitate choice.”  Of course such reforms are dependent on the politics of state legislatures, where money and influence flow freely, but the report does not acknowledge such political realities.  The report documents that the adoption of portfolio school reform across America’s big cities has opened a Pandora’s box of structural school governance problems that no state or city, to my knowledge, has been able to control.

It is fascinating to me that Lake and her colleagues persist—despite all their evidence that such school choice has brought neither access, nor opportunity, nor coordinated services or nor quality oversight—in declaring that traditional public schools are something that society needs to get away from and parents must have the right to escape.  Why refuse even to consider that traditional public education—with the advantages of a coherent and coordinated system of services and a long and growing history of oversight to protect school quality, financial stewardship, equal access, and equal opportunity—may be the best kind of school governance to serve the needs and protect the rights of the greatest number of children?

Chicago Cuts Funding for Neighborhood Schools, Continues to Implement Unproven Reforms

Last week Chicago’s school board passed a budget for the 2014-20 15school year that, according to the Chicago Tribune, “cuts funding to traditional schools by $72 million while increasing spending by the same amount for privately run charter and contract schools.” The Tribune reports that this budget reduces funding for neighborhood schools for the second year in a row.

Earlier this summer, Pauline Lipman and researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, released a report that examines the impact on Chicago’s families of the city’s school governance changes in the past two decades that have rapidly opened unregulated  charter schools while closing a mass of traditional public schools.  Here is the summary that begins that report:

“On May 22, 2013 Chicago’s appointed Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, turn around five others, and co-locate 17 elementary schools, affecting roughly 40,000 students.  This was the largest number of schools closed at one time in the U.S.  Since 2001, Chicago Public Schools has closed, turned-around, phased-out, or consolidated over 150 neighborhood public schools in low-income African American and Latino communities.  This policy has disproportionately affected African American students and communities.  At the same time, CPS has expanded privately run charter and turnaround schools.  These actions should be understood in relation to CPS’ ‘portfolio’ district agenda in which schools are part of a market of largely interchangeable public and private services, rather than stabilizing neighborhood institutions.”

Lipman and her colleagues conducted qualitative research based on extensive interviews with the parents whose children were affected by the most recent school closures and reassignments.  They conclude: “School actions have hit African American students disproportionately.  Some shuttered schools were iconic institutions of African American cultural and intellectual life… Closing a school is a drastic action.  Schools are stable institutions in communities facing the destabilizing effects of public and private disinvestment, poverty, high unemployment, and housing insecurity.  Closing a school may result in children traveling outside their neighborhoods, siblings attending different schools, trauma to children, and the loss of jobs for teachers, as well as other education workers who are often community residents… Nevertheless the trend of closing schools (and replacing public neighborhood schools with charter and ‘choice schools’) is increasing despite very limited data about either its effectiveness in increasing academic performance or the impact closings have on children, families, and communities.”

Another study released in June by a task force appointed by the Illinois General Assembly to study the impact of changes in school facilities and student reassignments raised similar concerns: “In both the 2012 and 2013 School Actions and Closings, communities of color and the most vulnerable students, including those experiencing homelessness and those with disabilities, were impacted the most by CPS’ Actions.  Approximately 90 percent of the students directly impacted by School Actions and Closings in 2012 and 2013 were African American.  An estimated 2,615 homeless students attended the Welcoming Schools and the schools that CPS closed in 2013; 2,097 Special Education students (those with disabilities and Individual Education Plans or IEPs) were impacted.”

The legislatively appointed Chicago Education Facilities Task Force Report concludes overall: “Since the Illinois General Assembly granted Mayoral Control over Chicago’s public school district in 1995, there has been a concentration of decision making about the nature and direction of public education in Illinois’ largest city, and the nation’s 3rd largest school system.  These decisions have had substantial and sometimes drastic immediate and long standing effects on students, families, neighborhoods and the city.  Once former Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his ‘Renaissance 2010′ initiative in 2003 to create 100 new schools by 2010, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has not only opened new schools (mainly charters); the district has also been closing neighborhood public schools and drastically reconfiguring the public school system in other ways.  Since 2008 alone, four different CPS administrations with average tenures of less than 3 years made far-reaching changes and decisions that Chicagoans will live with for generations.  These decisions have determined which students get to go to which schools; how to maintain school facilities; what the district’s capital spending priorities should be, and determined how and when to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on school repairs, renovations, and new construction.  Yet Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been making these decisions without adequate educational facilities planning or public input.”

The Sun Times reports that, ironically and perhaps understandably, in the new budget just passed Chicago Public Schools will be spending $1.8 million on its communications department.  One would hope this money will support extensive two-way communications with families and community leaders and not merely slick promotion of what has become known as Chicago School Reform—the type of portfolio school governance plan that Arne Duncan managed in Chicago and subsequently brought to us all, when as U.S. Secretary of Education he launched Race to the Top and a series of related “portfolio” school policies.

Another YOUTUBE Video Wafts from Mountain Air of Aspen: Shows Chris Christie’s Arrogance

Here’s a good rule.  If you have political ambitions, don’t go to the Aspen Ideas Festival or the Aspen Institute, get comfortable among friends, get on a panel, and then make insulting remarks about the folks who are the key to your future.

Jonah Edelman disparaged school teachers.  His organization, Stand for Children, has not yet recovered its reputation.  In a new little book about the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, Micah Uetricht tells the story: “In June 2011, Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children, gave an afternoon talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of ‘thought leaders’….  During the talk, Edelman,whose organization initially came to Illinois at the invitation of billionaire former private equity manager Bruce Rauner, spoke with astonishing candor; he explained calmly the backroom politicking necessary to ‘jam the proposal down [teachers and their union's'] throats.’  Soon after its beginnings in Illinois, his organization donated $600,000 to nine state legislative races in attempt to curry favor with State House Speaker Michael Madigan….”   Edelman’s influence helped pass a bill restricting teachers unions by requiring 75 percent of all the members of any teachers union be required to vote to authorize a strike.  Edelman bragged about this accomplishment at Aspen: “‘In effect, they wouldn’t have the ability to strike,’ Edelman says matter-of-factly in the tape. ‘They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold.'” (Strike for America, pp.  59-62)

Jonah Edelman forgot about youtube, where his speech went viral.  You may remember that, partly inspired by Edelman’s challenge, just a year later in June of 2012, 90 percent of the entire membership of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to authorize teachers to strike in September of 2012.

Now, thanks to Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column on Saturday, we all know, once again, that New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie disdains the people of Newark.  This time he said it in a July 24, 2014 panel discussion at the Aspen Institute.  We already knew, of course, that he isn’t concerned about the opinions of the people of New Jersey’s largest city from a speech he made earlier this year, the one in which he declared:  “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”  Newark’s public schools have been under state control for two decades, and Christie is in charge through the leadership of the much despised overseer superintendent he has appointed, Cami Anderson.  But at Aspen he emphasized his contempt.

It is easy to see how Christie could forget himself.  Strauss quotes the description on the Aspen Institute’s website of the event at which Christie was speaking:  “A panel of Republican governors will address the economy, how they are building skills for a 21st century workforce and share their ideas for improving their state’s education, tax and immigration policies.  Featured special guests include Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.  The event will be moderated by Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.”

In the new youtube clip of his speech at Aspen, Christie describes meeting with the new mayor, Ras Baraka, soon after Newark’s May 2014 election.  Baraka is a respected  former high school principal and champion of keeping the schools in Newark public instead of turning them over to charter operators.  Strauss quotes Christie describing his meeting with Baraka: “He came in to talk to me about his agenda and said he wanted to speak to me about the education system in Newark.  And I said to him listen, I’ll listen to whatever you have to say but the state runs the school system.  I am the decider, and you have nothing to do with it.”  You can hear the Aspen Institute audience laugh at Christie’s description of the meeting.

Strauss provides an excellent summary of the what has become a governance crisis in Newark due to the arrogance and political ineptitude of Christie and his appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson:

“Anderson, a former Teach For America corps member has come under intense attack for her ‘One Newark’ district reorganization plan—which includes plans to close some traditional schools; lay off more than 1,000 teachers and hire Teach For America recruits to fill some open spots; and create a single enrollment system for Newark’s 21 charters and 71 traditional public schools.  She has also been blasted for a management style that even reform supporters concede is dismissive, arrogant and ineffective.  This past April, dozens of members of the Newark clergy sent a letter to Christie warning him that Anderson’s reform efforts were causing ‘unnecessary instability’ in the city and that they are ‘concerned about the level of public anger we see growing in the community’ over the issue.”

(This blog has extensively covered the privatization and mismanagement of Newark’s schools by Anderson and her mentor Chris Christie, and the rise of Ras Baraka, the new mayor, in a race where school governance became the pivotal campaign issue here, herehere, here, here, here,  and here.)

Jeff Bryant Thinks Campbell Brown Is Replacing Michelle Rhee as Face of Attacks on Teachers

In a blockbuster story at Salon.com, Jeff Bryant threads together the two key school “deformer” stories of the past week.  Michelle Rhee’s star seems to be fading even as Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has turned herself into an opponent of job protections for teachers, seems to be rising as the darling of those intent on scapegoating school teachers.

Bryant writes:  “For years, Michelle Rhee the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, has been upheld in the media as someone with the formula and fight required to ‘fix’ public schools.  Others–okay, yours truly—have likened her more to an ‘education Ann Coulter,’ providing lots of attention-getting optics for a movement made up of rich and powerful people who press their belief that what ails public education most is ‘bad teachers.’  Supported by shadowy money and shaky science, these wealthy folks have created a ‘blame teachers first’ campaign that seeks to address education problems rooted in inequality and low investment by attacking teachers’ job protections and professional status.  Their efforts are, of course, ‘for the children.'”

Summing up the ways Rhee’s impact and reputation seem to be fading, Bryant links to reports that show her organization, StudentsFirst, has proven to have neither the members nor the organizing clout Rhee has claimed.  He reports that Rhee carries the stain of a likely, but not fully investigated and therefore unproven, scandal in Washington, DC, where it looks as though teachers and school administrators erased  the answers on hundreds of students’ standardized test answer sheets and and corrected them. He describes Rhee’s boasts of rising scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress during her tenure in Washington, DC,  and then reports that rising scores were about the same as those of her predecessors, that DC’s students’ NAEP scores overall continue to be relatively low, and that the test score gap between poor and wealthier students in Washington, DC widened during her tenure.  Bryant concludes his summary of Rhee’s fade with the news from last week that Rhee’s national organization, StudentsFirst, has quietly closed a number of its statewide offices—first in Minnesota, followed by Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa.

At the same time according to Bryant, Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, seems to be rising to prominence as the spokesperson for the same causes that have been championed by Rhee and StudentsFirst.  Brown has launched the Partnership for Educational Justice to underwrite legal costs and a public relations campaign for a planned series of Vergara copycat lawsuits like the one in California, bankrolled by David Welch, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire who opposes teachers unions. The first of these copycat lawsuits was filed in New York last week.  (This blog has covered the Vergara decision and Campbell Brown’s involvement in copycat lawsuits here, here, and here.

Bryant points to a strong convergence of interests between Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown.  Brown’s husband is Dan Senor, an investment banker on the board of StudentsFirst NY.  Brown also seems to be connected with TNTP—formerly The New Teacher Project that was founded by none other than Michelle Rhee.  Like Teach for America, TNTP runs alternative summer certification programs for college graduates who lack training in education.  According to Bryant, “An analysis of the website associated with Brown’s effort to revamp teacher contracts has revealed that much of the site’s content appears to be written by TNTP without any attribution to the group…. Metadata from various documents included in the site list the author as Elizabeth Vidyarthi.  Vidyarthi works for the TNTP communications department.”

Bryant concludes: “With Brown as the new figurehead of the Blame Teachers First campaign, proponents may feel that a fresh face on a stale product is all they need to win over acceptance of their unfounded ideas.  Don’t buy it.”  I urge you to read the material Bryant has compiled here.  You may also want to read the additional article referenced below…

Addendum…   more evidence to undermine the reputation of Michelle Rhee:

In a post just yesterday John Merrow, the reporter for the PBS News Hour, published another of his scathing pieces on Michelle Rhee.  Merrow has criticized Rhee for covering up a cheating scandal while she was chancellor of the schools in Washington, D.C.  In the new piece, Merrow charges:  “Michelle Rhee is smart, talented, hard-working, charismatic and ambitious, but, in the public education arena she is a fraud.  That this truth is not widely acknowledged is a tribute to the PR skills of Anita Dunn of SKDKnickerbocker.”  “In just one year Michelle Rhee spent about $2 million to buy the public relations services of Anita Dunn and SKDKnickerbocker.  It’s a continuing relationship that goes back to early in Rhee’s Chancellorship in Washington….”  (Anita Dunn is the political strategist and public relations executive who served as the White House Communications Director in the first year of President Barack Obama’s first term. This blog has also noted, here, that Anita Dunn’s SKDKnickerbocker has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of public relations services for Eva Moskowitz and her New York Success Academy Charter Schools.)

In this post, Merrow shares the e-mail he wrote that was forwarded by the recipient and ultimately sent to StudentsFirst.  A smear campaign was subsequently launched against Merrow in letters sent to Frontline, the News Hour, PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Merrow was accused of misrepresenting facts, actively digging “dirt” on Michelle Rhee and making false allegations.  Here, he writes, is the e-mail that provided what he calls “the slender thread” for the campaign designed by SKDKnickerbocker to destroy his reputation as a journalist:

“We are editing a powerful documentary about Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who has become a national figure.  After she left Washington, strong evidence of widespread cheating on standardized tests in roughly two-thirds of her schools emerged, along with a paper trail that indicates that the Chancellor declined to investigate the situation, despite being urged to do so by the official in charge of testing.  When test security was eventually tightened—after three years—scores declined precipitously.  In fact, at half of the schools with the highest erasure rates, where scores had jumped as much as 50%, achievement scores are now below where they were when the Chancellor took office.”

Merrow stands by every word of the statement and writes that he resents the three months he had to spend assembling the evidence to defend himself against the allegations and clear his reputation.

Feds Investigating Civil Rights Implications of School Closures in Newark

If you are middle class or rich, you are not likely to discover that anybody is planning to punish your child’s school by closing it.  School “reform” via “turnaround” happens in school districts like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Newark, but it doesn’t happen in Winnetka, Grosse Pointe, Bryn Mawr, Chagrin Falls, or Montclair.

That is because the test-and-punish mechanisms of our federal testing law No Child Left Behind and newer policies designed around its philosophy—School Improvement Grants, for example—impose sanctions (like closing the school, turning the school into a charter school, or replacing the principal and the staff) on schools where the students persistently score in the bottom 5 percent of public schools nationwide.  Such schools are virtually always in the neighborhoods of our big cities where poverty is concentrated—which means that virtually all the children are extremely poor.  In our society we blame the test scores on the school without figuring out how to ameliorate the poverty.  As the editorial board of Rethinking Schools magazine has brilliantly stated: school reform based on high-stakes testing “disguises class and race privilege as merit.”

In a situation like Newark, New Jersey, where the school district has been under state control for two decades and where the state overseer school superintendent, Cami Anderson, reports to Governor Chris Christie instead of the locally elected school board, citizens are using every avenue provided by the democratic process to protect and improve their public schools. They elected school principal and strong defender of public education Ras Baraka mayor in May, even though they knew the mayor can’t control school policy, and they filed a complaint about Cami Anderson’s One Newark school reform plan this spring with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). This despite Chris Christie’s rude rebuke: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”

New Jersey Spotlight reports that the OCR complaint was “filed in May by parent advocates who specifically cited the state-operated district’s planned closing of three schools that have predominantly African-American enrollment.”  On Tuesday, July 22, the OCR released a statement confirming, “that OCR is currently investigating whether Newark Public Schools’ enactment of the ‘One Newark’ plan at the end of the 2013-2014 school year discriminates against black children on the basis of race.  OCR’s investigation began in July 2013.  As it is an open investigation, we cannot share any further information.”

Bob Braun, longtime New Jersey reporter and now Newark blogger, reports that PULSE New Jersey, a group led by Sharon Smith, filed the complaint on May 13, as “part of its commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation.”  PULSE NJ’s letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “Education ‘reformers’ and privatizers are targeting neighborhood schools filled with children of color, and leaving behind devastation.  By stealth, seizure, and sabotage, these corporate profiteers are closing and privatizing our schools, keeping public education for children of color not only separate, not only unequal, but increasingly not public at all.”

Smith commented on OCR’s decision to investigate:  “We are pleased that it is now open and merits investigation.  But now it is about making sure it is a thorough investigation.”

PULSE NJ is working with a much broader coalition, Journey for Justice. Bob Braun quotes Journey for Justice organizer Jitu Brown, who understands Newark’s OCR complaint in the context the policy being adopted in urban school districts across the country of “turning around” low-scoring public schools by closing them: “What has been lacking—not only in Newark, but also in places like Chicago, New York, and New Orleans—is community input to help develop plans for successful public schools.  We have been faced with top-down education policies that have failed because they lack input from the people who are most affected.”