The Edu-Tech Billionaires Promote “Personalized” Learning That Lacks the Personal Touch

I was relieved when I read the Los Angeles Times‘ editorial a couple of weeks ago about the newfound humility of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as regards its education philanthropy. Recounting the history of billions spent on failed projects like the small-schools initiative, the initiative to evaluate teachers and reward the best with merit pay, and the investment to develop, publicize and spread the Common Core standards, the LA Times editorial board writes: “Tucked away in a letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week, along with proud notes about the foundation’s efforts to fight smoking and tropical diseases and its other accomplishments, was a section on education. Its tone was unmistakably chastened. ‘We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change,’ wrote the foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman… ‘It is really tough to create more great public schools.'”

The only problem is that it isn’t quite true that Gates has disappeared from the world of education “reform.” Gone are the days, of course, when Arne Duncan hired Jim Shelton, right out of the Gates Foundation to lead the Office of Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education. But the Billionaire Boys continue to work behind the scenes.

Today the focus is “personalized learning,” the Orwellian name its proponents are calling computer-driven learning.  And, no surprise, Jim Shelton has come back to lead the philanthropically-driven effort, but this time he’s working with the Gates Foundation from a perch as head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, what Benjamin Herold at Education Week calls “the philanthropic and investment arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.” “The head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, former U.S. deputy education secretary Jim Shelton, previously worked as a program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for more than seven years.”

Here is Herold’s description of the new project: “Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students. The grant marks the first substantive collaboration of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative…. Their joint award was given in April to New Profit, a Boston-based ‘venture philanthropy’ organization. New Profit will in turn provide $1 million, plus extensive management advising, to each of seven other organizations working to promote personalized learning… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a traditional nonprofit foundation. Instead, it’s an LLC. That organizational structure allows for direct investment in for-profit companies and political lobbying and donations, as well as philanthropic giving.”

Reporters for Inside Philanthropy, who call the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative CZI, add that since Shelton took over a year ago, “CZI’s work on personalized learning has evolved rapidly, and now has a number of parts. Developing and promoting the technology for personalized learning is a central focus. In March, Shelton wrote on Facebook that CZI is ‘building a world-class engineering team with a commitment to developing breakthrough products and practices that support personalized learning.’ More specifically, it’s creating a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which ’empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests.’  This platform was developed by a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a leading charter school provider. It’s now used by 130 schools, 1,100 teachers and 20,000 students, according to Shelton. But CZI is dreaming even bigger… Shelton described the philosophy here more broadly: ‘It turns out when you let people choose, their level of engagement and motivation goes up.'”

And, explains Inside Philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made a grant to Chiefs for Change, a network of local and state school superintendents convened by Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has pushed all sorts of ed tech contracting. “Chiefs for Change will use the funds to support the new Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Inside Philanthropy concludes its report: “What can be said is that personalized learning, facilitated by new technology, obviously tracks with Mark Zuckerberg’s own background and world view. And it reflects a techno-optimism at the core of CZI’s work. ‘We believe engineers can help turbocharge and scale solutions to facilitate social change,’ the organization says.”

In a new analysis for the NY Times, Natasha Singer is a little more skeptical about The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools, including Facebook’ s Mark Zuckerberg: “The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.”  She continues: “If Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg has his way, children the world over will soon be teaching themselves—using software his company helped build. It’s a conception that upends a longstanding teaching dynamic. Now educators are no longer classroom leaders, but helpmates… Mr. Zuckerberg has described how it works. Students cluster together, working at laptops. They use software to select their own assignments, working at their own pace. And should they struggle at teaching themselves, teachers are on hand to guide them. ‘When you visit a school like this, it feels like the future—it feels like a start-up.. You get the feeling this is how more of the education system should work.'”

Let me be very clear.  Students need to learn how to use technology. Even as a relatively computer-illiterate blogger, I compose on a laptop. I recently found an old kitchen mug to store all the pencils that have been lying around the house, and I carried them up to the attic. And technology is a wonderful tool for exploring and researching and calculating.  School should incorporate technology beginning in the elementary years.

But there is something very important missing from these articles about Zuckerberg and Gates and Shelton and the huge grant to New Profit.  In Education Week, Benjamin Herold quotes the Gates Foundation’s program officer commenting on the new work with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “It’s 100 percent collaborative… We’re looking for ways to work together and to coordinate when it’s appropriate.”  If this is a collaborative project about how students are going to learn in the future, I wonder about the very important people whose voices seem to be missing from the collaboration: teachers.  If this effort were really collaborative, wouldn’t you think the edu-philanthropists might have folded in some contributions from experts at Teachers College or Bank Street or the state teachers’ colleges? What about engaging the wisdom of advisory panels from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers? Teachers might bring a focus to the kind of classroom leadership, student mentoring, and classroom management that is going to be needed for this “remaking” of education.

And finally there is the really personal part of learning.  While the tech edupreneurs might dream about each child’s “personal” exploration through the computer, lots of us worry about protecting the personal relationships between children and their classroom peers and their real live teachers—in small enough classes where those relationships can flourish. We must insist that, just as patients in hospital beds need doctors and nurses (assisted by technology of course) to care for them, children be provided well-trained, experienced teachers to build classroom communities and nurture learning.

In a recent book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator Steve Nelson shares his concerns about so-called “blended” and “personalized” learning: “My objections to technology are mostly directed to the misuse with young children and to the alarming tendency to substitute technology for real human interactions… The world’s greatest problem is not a shortage of people who can write computer code… Our challenge is to develop humans who have the fluid intellect, creativity, imagination, aesthetic sensibilities and ethical convictions to save the world from the sorry mess we have created. That’s the purpose of education… Relationships are central to learning, both as a contributor to the release of dopamine, but also as a critical social context for language development as articulated by Vygotsky, Bruner, et al.”

Nelson continues: “The colorful images that often accompany education articles or on school websites show children sitting in small cubicles, smiling at their computers, with little human interaction at all…  The symbolic representation of life is not the same as life itself. Perhaps the greatest harm done by technology is an act of omission. Every hour of screen time, whether in school or at home, is an hour not spent in some much more important activity, especially those things that involve real human engagement…. (T)echnology is just the most recent manifestation of the industrial model of education.  Inherent in the technological model of education is economy of scale. It must be impersonal, and people and parts must be interchangeable. It must be replicable…  Most importantly, it must be profitable.” (First Do No Harm, p. 126-133)

Kansas Legislature Overrides Brownback Veto: Raises Taxes, Passes New School Funding Formula

Something stunning happened on Tuesday night in Topeka.  John Hanna of the Associated Press reports: “Kansas legislators Tuesday night repudiated the tax-cutting experiment that brought Gov. Sam Brownback national attention, with even fellow Republicans voting to override his veto of a plan reversing many of the income tax reductions he’s championed…. The state will increase its personal income tax rates and end an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners. Legislators expect the changes to raise $1.2 billion in new revenue over two years to close projected budget shortfalls totaling $889 million through June 2019…. Under the new tax laws, Kansas will return to having a third income tax rate for its wealthiest filers, something cuts in 2012 eliminated. The top rate will be 5.7 percent, as opposed to 4.6 percent now.”

Even before passing the tax hikes—in the wee hours of Tuesday morning—the Kansas legislature also addressed the school funding crisis, passing a new and more equitable funding distribution formula, and increasing revenue dedicated for all-day Kindergarten.  Legislators hope that the new plan, which will increase public school spending by $293 million over two years will be acceptable to the state’s supreme court that, in March, again found the system unconstitutional and demanded that the legislature correct school funding by June 30 or shut down the public schools. There is some worry that even the new plan won’t be enough: “The justices did not say exactly how much funding must increase when they set a June 30 deadline for lawmakers to pass a new school finance law.  But attorneys for four school districts that sued the state in 2010 have said the increase needs to be much larger, and Democrats have argued that the minimum is phasing in a $400 million increase over two years.”  We’ll have to watch for the  Supreme Court’s response.

There is also something else in the school funding plan that is objectionable to a number of legislators—an expansion of the state’s tuition tax credit voucher program.  John Hanna explains: “Democrats and many GOP moderates also object to a proposal in the school funding plan that would expand a program giving income tax credits to corporations that donate money to private-school scholarships for students in poorly performing public schools. GOP conservatives created the program in 2014, and this year’s proposal would allow individuals and partnerships to claim the tax credit as well.”

The Washington Post‘s Max Ehrenfreund, analyzing the Kansas legislature’s repudiation of Brownback’s stubborn dedication to tax-slashing, reminds readers that voters in last November’s election—people who had been living through the economic collapse that has ensued since Brownback cut taxes in 2012 and 2013—defeated several ultra-conservative Republicans and replaced them with moderates.

Ehrenfreund also explores the broader, national implications of this week’s political shift on taxes in Kansas: “Tuesday’s vote was a rebuke not only for Brownback, but also for Republicans in Washington who have advocated similar cuts in taxes at the national level—including President Trump. Although Republicans in Kansas are giving up on the experiment, Trump and his allies are hoping to try again. The principles Trump endorsed during the campaign and in the early stages of his presidency are broadly similar to those enacted in Kansas.  As Brownback did, Trump has proposed bringing down marginal rates, getting rid of brackets and giving a new break to small businesses.”  Ehrenfreund reminds us that Brownback called his tax reform, “a ‘real-live experiment’ in conservative governance. Yet the economic boom Brownback promised has not materialized, leaving the state government perennially short on money and forced to reduce basic services.” “Last year, Kansas’s gross domestic product increased just 0.2 percent, federal data show, compared to 1.6 percent nationally.  That was an improvement for Kansas, though: At the end of 2015, the state was in what many economists would describe as a recession, with the economy contracting two quarters in a row.”

Brownback, however, remains unrepentant. In a late report John Hanna, covered Brownback’s news conference following the legislature’s override of his veto: “Republican Gov. Sam Brownback says the income tax increases legislators enacted over his veto will be bad for the long term health of the state’s economy.  The governor said during a news conference Wednesday that he believes the increases will slow job growth and discourage companies from moving to Kansas.”

Nick Johnson, the senior vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, disagrees with Brownback: “Governor Brownback promised the tax cuts would be a ‘shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,’ but reality has been far different.  Rather than spur a boom, the Brownback plan merely gave a tax-cut windfall to the rich and raised taxes on many lower income people while sending the state’s finances into a tailspin. Kansas’ finances are now in crisis. State reserves are drained, and Kansas faces a $900 million budget shortfall. Two bond rating agencies have downgraded Kansas due to its fiscal problems, and the state’s education system and other crucial services have suffered as the state struggled to afford to invest in people and communities.  Kansas’ five year experiment shows us what happens when we try to tax-cut our way to prosperity.”

I guess the members of the Kansas legislature noticed, and finally did something to begin correcting the problem.

New Orleans’ Charter School Transformation: the Very Definition of Injustice

When I look back, I can see that the year between September of 2005 and September of 2006 was when I realized deeply and in the most unforgettable way how powerful people can transform the systems we take for granted and in the process disempower the vulnerable.

In November of 2005, I couldn’t believe it when I learned—while bodies were still being discovered in the attics of New Orleans’ flooded and abandoned houses and while most people were staying with relatives in far away places or FEMA trailers in Houston—that the state of Louisiana had changed the law to seize the city’s public schools and fire all the teachers as part of a complicated school governance experiment driven by ideologues in the U.S. Department of Education, the state of Louisiana, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I had naively imagined that the goal would be to get families back to town as soon as possible and get children back in school under the secure guidance of the teachers those children knew.

Others were alarmed as well. Naomi Klein used the seizure and mass charterization of New Orleans’ public schools as the very definition of what she called “the shock doctrine”: “New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’… I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)  Leigh Dingerson and the Center for Community Change published a short resource titled, Dismantling a Community. And later, in a book published by the Teachers College Press, Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City, Kristen Buras shared the voices of New Orleans’ high school students describing what had been done to their schools.

In July of 2006, I was able to spend a week in New Orleans and to write about it.  I listened to all kinds of people including experienced teachers—replaced by Teach for America recruits—who had lost their profession and lost their livelihood. Tracie Washington, a civil rights attorney, told me she worried about fragmentation of services in the mass of charter schools: “The schools cannot be effectively compared and evaluated because there are too many types, too many curricula, too many tests, too many everything.”

I learned that a special exception had been made to the theory that charter schools ought to be non-selective.  New Orleans had been permitted to create charters with admissions tests and other selection screens—seizing the public, neighborhood Alcee Fortier High School, for example, and, with a big investment from Tulane University, converting it into selective Lusher Charter High School with an admissions preference for children whose parents taught at area universities. A former public school teacher told me: “Selective schools will show promise because they are selecting students who will show promise by testing well.”

Now, a dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, we have another opportunity to listen to the people in New Orleans describing what has happened to their schools.  Last fall, the national NAACP passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools, and the civil rights organization has been holding local hearings on that resolution. In April, the NAACP chose New Orleans, where the mass charter experiment was launched, for one of its hearings, and Bill Quigley, a long New Orleans resident, esteemed professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans, and Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, listened as people told their stories.

Here is Bill Quigley’s report:  “The New Orleans hearing… featured outraged students, outraged parents, and dismayed community members reciting a litany of the problems created by the massive change to a charter school system. The single most powerful moment came when a group of students from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools took the podium and detailed the many ways the system has failed and excluded them from participating in its transformation.”

Quigley summarizes: “(T)he NAACP heard that the charter system remains highly segregated by race and economic status. Students have significantly longer commutes to and from school. The percentage of African American teachers has declined dramatically leaving less experienced teachers who are less likely to be accredited and less likely to remain in the system. The costs of administration have gone up while resources for teaching have declined. Several special select schools have their own admission process which results in racially and economically different student bodies. The top administrator of one K-12 system of three schools is paid over a quarter of a million dollars. Students with disabilities have been ill served. Fraud and mismanagement, which certainly predated the conversion to charter schools, continue to occur. Thousand of students are in below-average schools. Students and parents feel disempowered and ignored by the system.”

Quigley emphasizes lingering bitterness about the elimination, in late autumn of 2005, of New Orleans’ entire teaching staff: “The first casualty of the abrupt change was the termination of the South’s largest local union and the firing of over 7000 mostly African American female teachers. Attorney Willie Zanders told the NAACP of the years of struggle for those teachers which, though initially successful, ended in bitter defeat years later. The city’s veteran black educators were replaced by younger, less qualified white teachers from Teach for America and Teach NOLA. The change to charters reduced the percentage of black teachers from 74 percent to 51 percent. There are now fewer experienced teachers, fewer accredited teachers, fewer local teachers, and more teachers who are likely to leave than before Katrina.”

In his brief and well-documented report, Quigley also summarizes some history: “One of the more dramatic and well-documented problems in the changeover to charters is the absence of services for students with disabilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued over disability violations in 2010… Children with disabilities had been denied enrollment altogether, forced to attend schools ill-equipped or lacking resources to serve them, and suspended without procedural protections.. After suit was filed it took an additional four years to set up a system to uphold the educational rights of students with disabilities. Now, there is a district-wide consent decree in place overseen by an Independent Monitor who reports to the Court. Yet, the disability problems remain. In 2017, a charter was rebuked for suspending a student who the school thought was depressed…  At another charter, since closed, the State identified egregious special education violations. Staff reused to screen students, tried to keep them from enrolling, put them in rooms with nothing to do, deprived students of their services, and faked records to cover it up.”

I urge you to read Bill Quigley’s fine report on the recent  NAACP hearing and the history of New Orleans’ charters over the past dozen years.  In every way Quigley’s essay reinforces what I heard when I visited New Orleans in 2006. I spoke with the Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, which had already lost control of all but a handful of the public schools to the state Recovery School District slated to manage the charter conversion. Sanders described what he thought was the meaning of the seizure of New Orleans’s public schools: “We need to keep the public in public education. Bureaucracy has come to connote ‘slow’ and ‘barrier.’ I am against that as well as out-dated rules. But you can have a system without those things. We have thrown out the system. The only people who can make it when there is no system are those who already have access to resources.”

House Trumpcare Bill Guts Medicaid Funding Used by Public Schools to Pay for Special Education

President Donald Trump and members of the House of Representatives celebrated after the House passed the new Trumpcare bill last Thursday. But there is much in the new law not to celebrate, including this: Tucked into the bill is a little-noticed cut in Medicaid funding for the expensive services school districts are required to provide under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for students who need speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, medical services, or specialized school transportation.

Here is Stephen Koff, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Washington Bureau Chief: “Ohio schools could lose millions of dollars they now get to pay for speech and physical therapy, behavioral services, student evaluations and other special education services, because of changes to Medicaid in the congressional bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. The money assists about 61,000 students in 580 Ohio school districts. In 2013, the last year for which final figures are available, the federal government sent Ohio schools an estimated $47.25 million for the program.”  That is merely what Medicaid paid that year for necessary services in one of the 50 states.

Here is Erica Green for the NY Times: “School districts rely on Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor, to provide costly services to millions of students with disabilities across the country. For nearly 30 years, Medicaid has helped school systems cover costs for special education services and equipment, from physical therapists to feeding tubes. The money is also used to provide preventive care such as vision and hearing screenings, for other Medicaid-eligible children.”

Green explains that the bill the House passed last week to repeal and supposedly replace the Affordable Care Act  “would cut Medicaid by $880 billion, or 25 percent, over 10 years and impose a ‘per-capita-cap’ on funding for certain groups of people, such as children and the elderly—a dramatic change that would convert Medicaid from an entitlement designed to cover any costs incurred to a more limited program.”

Stephen Koff explains the problem in plainer language: “(T)he bill… would change Medicaid, a joint federal-state program for low-income Americans that expanded under Obamacare, and lead to a cut in Medicaid funding. Unknown to many Americans, Medicaid helps support special education programs in schools. The Medicaid in Schools program helps pay for services to children with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), ‘including but not limited to behavioral health, nursing, occupational therapy, targeted case management and specialized transportation,’ state documents say.”

A report last week for the Center for American Progress explains: “Part B of the IDEA guarantees children ages 3 to 21 access to special education services in their public schools… (F)unding for Part B falls well below the cost for services, and school districts use a combination of other local, state, and federal funding sources to meet children’s needs… Each year, school districts collectively rely on $4 billion to $5 billion in Medicaid funds to support special education services for children eligible for Medicaid.  Schools use these funds to pay critical personnel such as speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists, as well as to provide assistive technology and transportation for children with special needs.  Many schools also provide developmental screenings to students through Medicaid….”

In the Plain Dealer, Koff quotes a statement released by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown: “Whatever your opinion of the Affordable Care Act, we should all agree that forcing schools to choose between laying off special education therapists that students depend on and increasing class sizes or reducing AP and elective classes for other students is wrong.”

The U.S. Senate will soon be considering Trump’s request to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Although in March and April, as the House of Representatives prepared to consider a healthcare plan, some advocacy groups did raise concerns about threatened cuts in essential special education services paid for by Medicaid, many of us have remained unaware of the problem. Please become conversant with the issues described in this post, inform your colleagues and friends about this serious matter, and be prepared to speak with your U.S. Senators when the healthcare law debate reaches the Senate.

How Did We Stop Honoring School Teachers? Why Does It Matter?

In the past month I have had the same heartbreaking conversation with school teachers from several different school districts. These teachers describe the following reality: school administrators—under intense pressure to raise test scores to protect their own jobs and to protect the reputations and rankings of their school districts—are exerting intense pressure from the top which sometimes includes threats, curriculum packages imposed from on-high, and consultants in classrooms correcting teachers’ practices in front of students. One teacher described a colleague reduced to tears because she was made to wear earbuds in the classroom and be corrected (by consultants in the back of the classroom) on her teaching technique while she was working with the students.

Today when we think about school teachers, we have been conditioned to believe that the biggest mission of those who would improve schools is to get rid of bad teachers.  But weeding out bad teachers is not the biggest problem, which is that morale in many public schools is so low that many teachers—including excellent teachers—are just giving up and changing careers.  In lots of states there are teacher shortages because fewer and fewer college students consider teaching to be a desirable career.

Sure there are some weak teachers; we all remember our worst teacher. Nobody thinks employing poor teachers is a good idea. But good administrators have the means to counsel these people out of the profession and the teachers’ unions themselves have developed peer mentoring along with peer assessment programs that are helping teachers in local school districts improve the practice of all teachers and encourage the poorest teachers to find other work.

Public policy is largely to blame for today’s crisis in teacher morale. The federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, driven by accountability but very little in extra resources to support the professionals who staff our schools, was designed to “incentivize” teachers through fear.  School ratings were tied to what was supposed to be ever-rising test scores. The law threatened teachers to work harder and smarter and blamed teachers when the test-score needle didn’t move quickly. Then Arne Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers—to permit states to stop some of the law’s most punitive requirements—were awarded to states when they complied with additional, Duncan-approved, federal requirements that included tying a large percentage of teachers’ formal evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. Nearly 20 years of punitive federal policies have had precisely the effect that could have been predicted, even if it wasn’t the law’s stated purpose. There has been a collapse in our society’s trust in teachers (even if polls continue to show that parents admire their own child’s teacher). Teachers were supposed to work harder and smarter, but because all test scores didn’t significantly rise, many people seem to have concluded that teachers don’t work hard and aren’t very smart.  It is as though we’ve had a national ad campaign to smear school teachers.

Here is Parker Palmer—whose books explore the idea of teaching as vocation—writing 20 years ago and predicting why our test-and-punish policies would be so damaging to teachers: “Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back. We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever ‘solution’ has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine, and in the process we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who could help us find our way.” (The Courage to Teach, p 3)  “(I)n every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning… Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.  They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves… The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 10-11)  I wish all teachers would read or reread Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, for these days our teachers are disheartened.

I wish the rest of us would sit down and read or reread Mike Rose’s wonderful 1995 book, Possible Lives.  Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, spent four years touring America’s public schools. Here is how he describes the book in the preface to a 2005 edition: “This book is a documentary of the possible, recorded from a journey through America’s public schools. The good classroom is the focal point of the journey, and we will spend time in many of them, learning about our children, their teachers, the surrounding communities, and the idea of public education. In doing so, we will learn about America itself. Such a journey seems more needed now than when Possible Lives was published just more than a decade ago.  In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools, the fractious, intractable school politics, the conservative assault on public institutions, and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school… I’m… struck by how the teachers in this book talk to young people. By turns, their exchanges with students are comical, sober, challenging, inviting, probing, quizzical, supportive—in short they take their students seriously as thinkers, as young people with a mental life and a desire to be competent… The way a teacher talks to students—the way any of us talk to each other—either opens up or closes down thought… Implicit in the activity of the teachers in Possible Lives are theories of teaching and learning…. (N)ew teachers (not to mention parents or any adult who works with children) need an orientation to cognition and learning that encourages a nuanced perspective on the developing mind.”  Possible Lives profiles good teachers from across America in cities, small towns, and even a one room country school.

In a 2015 piece published in The American Scholar, Rose once again reflects on the teachers he observed while writing Possible Lives.  Rose describes the professional challenges teachers face every day in their classrooms, this time contrasting today’s technocratic emphasis on gimmicks and the sequencing of particular techniques to the real work of a teacher: “If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques… What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores… Techniques don’t work in isolation.  The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but it depends on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught, children’s typical responses to this material, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, and the alternative explanations and illustrations that might help them.  A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, is influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them… This pinched notion of teaching (through a sequence of techniques) combined with a ‘no excuses’ stance toward low achievement yields a troubling response to economic inequality: the belief that the right kind of education can overcome poverty.”

Rose summarizes the qualities of the fine teachers and classrooms he observed: “For all of the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities.  These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers would want them for their own children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect.. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Several years ago, I was invited by a friend on the staff of the high school in my own community to visit classes for a morning. This is an inner-ring suburban public high school, majority African American with well over fifty percent of students living in poverty. My own children graduated from this high school, which is why I was so touched to be invited back for a visit. I spent an hour in several fine classrooms, but one stands out as an example of the kind of classroom Rose describes. The class is what is called at our high school a social studies elective, a political philosophy class for high school juniors and seniors. It is significant that this class is not required for Ohio’s graduation exam requirement, which allows this teacher some freedom. The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion, and the teacher handed out copies of a list of fifteen questions to guide the day’s conversation. He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting students to name the questions they would like to discuss. One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room. The teacher made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students. Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions. No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that. What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy. At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged the students to think about that question as they finished the book.  I came home admiring the intellectual safety of that classroom where earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.

Really, the national branding of teachers as failures might have caused you to wonder if such classrooms exist any more. Schools today are also relatively guarded places. Because of the school shootings in recent years and all the worry about school security, you likely won’t have an opportunity to make a visit to your community’s high school. Once again, however, Parker Palmer is reassuring. If you can find a way to visit one of your community’s schools, “Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization that they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills. But you will also witness teacher after teacher transcending these conditions and caring for young people in remarkable ways… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (Parker Palmer’s “Forward” to Stories of the Courage to Teach by Sam Intrator, p. xviii)

False Claims and Fraud Keep on Surfacing in the Charter School Sector

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are fans of the marketplace. Privatizing education is their thing.  That is why it is so useful to consult some experts—in this case Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists who, in their newest book American Amnesia, warn about problems with marketplace thinking:

“That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries. The eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote enthusiastically about the ‘invisible hand’ of market allocation. Yet he also identified many cases where rational actors pursuing their own self-interest produced bad outcomes…. Economists have been building on these insights ever since to explain when and why markets stumble and how the visible hand of government can make the invisible hand more effective. The visible hand is needed, for example, to provide key collective goods that markets won’t (education, infrastructure, courts, basic scientific research); reduce negative spillover costs that parties to market exchanges don’t bear fully…. encourage positive spillover benefits that such parties don’t take fully into account such as shared knowledge; (and) regulate the market to protect consumers and investors….”  (American Amnesia, pp. 4-5)

Trump and DeVos extol the free hand of the market despite what we learn week after week about negative spillover costs and self-dealing when charter operators are tempted by pots of government money and inadequate oversight. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss introduces a new report from Carol Burris, of the Network for Public Education, with this bit of background: “President Trump’s first federal budget proposal seeks a $168 million increase for charter schools, which is a 50 percent funding increase from the current level set by the previous Obama administration… A 2016 audit by the Education Department’s Inspector General’s Office found that the department—which awards multi-million-dollar grants to states for the creation and expansion of charters—had failed to provide adequate oversight of some of its relationships with charter management organizations.”

Burris’s report, which Strauss then reprints in full, examines a chain of charter schools well-known for its high test scores. But, as we learn, there is something fishy going on: “One of the best illustrations of the ‘non-public’ nature of charters is the much heralded BASIS charter schools that began in Arizona, a state with extremely lax charter laws. A close look at BASIS provides insight into how charter schools can cherry-pick students, despite open enrollment laws. It also shows how through the use of management companies profits can be made—all hidden from public view.”  BASIS schools were started up by two economists in Tucson, expanded to Scottsdale, and later to Texas and Washington, D.C. Boasting a curriculum based on Advanced Placement classes and tests, they have been highly acclaimed for their rigor.

Hacker and Pierson use the economist’s term—negative externalities— for negative spillover costs or negative side-effects which are costs to society that may not be noticed or may be forgotten, whether the charter is launched by the visionary educator or by the crafty profit-maker seeking to educate children privately at public expense. The test scores of the students at a particular charter school are the yardstick society most commonly uses to judge the school, but what about the side-effects on society that may be much broader than the experiences of one group of children inside the school?  As Trump and DeVos seek to privatize more schools, what are some cautions that ought to be considered due to the negative externalities associated with the charter sector as it stands today?

One negative externality at BASIS is that the schools do not serve all children, as public schools are required to do.  BASIS schools have managed to imbalance their student populations to ensure that their students are very high test-scorers: “The proportional over-enrollment of Asian-American students and under-enrollment of Latino students at BASIS charter schools is startling. But differences in the students served do not end with race and ethnicity.  In 2015-16, (in Arizona) only 1.23 percent of the students at BASIS had a learning disability, as compared to 11.3 percent of students in the state. BASIS schools had no English Language Learners.  And in a state in which over 47 percent of all students received free or reduced-priced lunch, BASIS had none…. (I)t chooses not to participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program… Because BASIS provides no transportation, where it places schools—along with the lack of a free-lunch program—discourages disadvantaged students from applying.”

Another  negative externality  is that the school shapes its student body by failing to admit enrollees after middle school: “The ‘rigorous’ curriculum of BASIS prevents prospective enrollees from transferring in after middle school. Students must take six Advanced Placement exams and pass at least one with a score of 3 or above in order to graduate. However, they are required to take more AP classes than that, beginning in middle school. There are comprehensive tests that must be passed or students are retained (in grade)… Even after getting into BASIS, however, there is less than a 50 percent chance the students will stay to graduate. During each successive year, students leave when they cannot keep up with excessive academic demands. Like the ‘no-excuses’ charter schools found in cities, the attrition rates at BASIS middle and high schools are extraordinarily high. Of a cohort of 85 students who began eighth grade in BASIS Flagstaff during the 2011-12 school year, only 41 percent (35) remained to enter twelfth grade in 2015-16. In the flagship school, BASIS Tucson North, a seventh-grade class of 130 became a class of 54 by senior year. The same pattern exists in every BASIS charter high school in the state.”

Burris also explains a third negative externality—the profits being made (at public expense via the tax dollars BASIS schools collect) by Olga and Michael Block, who started BASIS and then turned management over to the for-profit, limited liability company that they now own and that operates BASIS. Because the company is private, their salaries cannot be discerned, but there is some indication of profits being made. As Burris reports: “According to a 2015 study by the Grand Canyon Institute and Arizonans for Charter School Accountability, BASIS schools spent an average of $2,291 per pupil on administration while the average public district spent just $628 per pupil.”

Beyond correcting for mere side-effects of running separate systems side-by-side for educating children—the public system and then systems of charters and vouchers—there is the danger of fraud and self-dealing when privatized schools operate without adequate oversight and regulation. This week’s example is, finally after years’ of investigation, the arrest of Benford Chavis, who operated a charter chain—the American Indian Model Schools—in Oakland, California. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Chavis “faces six felony counts of mail fraud and money laundering, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco. Chavis allegedly applied for and received more than $1 million in federal grant funding from 2006 to 2012 that he said would be used for the charter schools.  The money was instead used for lease payments on properties Chavis owned… Chavis faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three counts of mail fraud and 10 years for each count of money laundering.” Chavis has been under investigation since 2013,  is no longer associated with the schools, and now lives in Lumberton, North Carolina. He is said to have been a controversial presence in the schools he operated: “Students were often publicly humiliated and forced to attend Saturday school and detention. Chavis drew both national scorn and praise for his tactics.”

Michelle Rhee coined the attack on public school teachers and administrators—that they prioritize adult interests and fail to put students first. Benford Chavis is an example of a more common phenomenon: charter operators who put profits first. He is said to have engaged in overtly criminal behavior. But in too many cases, self-interested operators stay just inside the law or prevent adequate oversight by investing in contributions to the legislators who would have to enact regulations to prevent both negative externalities and self-dealing.

Unlike Trump and DeVos, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson believe government itself is best suited to educate our society’s children: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic and civic outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.” (American Amnesia, p. 65)

Public Schools Transformed by Stable Leadership, Challenging Curriculum and Caring Relationships

Recently I listened online to a lecture sponsored by the American Educational Research Association in which Dr. Charles Payne, a sociologist and professor of urban education at the University of Chicago explains what public schools can do to help their students thrive academically even despite what we know are the constraints posed when their families and their neighborhoods are extremely poor.  Poverty, Payne says, poses enormous challenges to children’s thriving at school, but if the curriculum is extremely challenging and the children are known by the adults at the school and feel supported by these relationships, many children can thrive academically.

Payne documents his address from the academic research literature, but what might be seen as a case study for his theory of school improvement appeared in Sunday’s NY Times: an article by David Kirp, the University of California at Berkeley public policy professor who has been visiting public schools in the Union Public School District, located in the eastern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Beneath the improvements in Union Public School District—how the District has made its curriculum more rigorous and created a web of relationships that support students—Kirp highlights an additional factor that usually gets less attention. The superintendent who transformed and strengthened this school district retired in 2013 after 19 years and the new superintendent isn’t looking to move on.

In contrast to the theory of disruption that has pervaded corporate school reform and that is also at the heart of Betsy DeVos’s belief in privatization is stable, deliberate, and incremental school improvement. Kirp explains: “Superintendents and school boards often lust after the quick fix.  The average urban school chief lasts around three years, and there’s no shortage of shamans promising to ‘disrupt’ the status quo. The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students.  This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better. Union’s model begins with high-quality prekindergarten, which enrolls almost 80 percent of the 4-year-olds in the district.  And it ends at the high school, which combines a collegiate atmosphere… with the one-on-one attention that characterizes the district.”

Christa McAuliffe Elementary boasts a STEM curriculum—science, technology, engineering and math—for all students.  Kirp describes a 7-year-old who, like his classmates, has developed an algorithm for a video game. The teacher has prescribed the conditions the algorithm must produce: “(A) cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, ‘Aw.'”  Emily Limm, the director of the STEM program, tells Kirp the district offers STEM classes to all students, not just those deemed gifted: “It’s not unusual for students struggling in other subjects to find themselves in the STEM classes. Teachers are seeing kids who don’t regard themselves as good readers back into reading because they care about the topic.”

Over a decade ago, in 2004, the district also undertook to make its schools full-service, wraparound Community Schools: “These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities—art, music, science, sports, tutoring—that middle-class families routinely provide.  They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.”

Kirp emphasizes the stability for students: “Counselors work with the same students throughout high school, and because they know their students well, they can guide them through their next steps.  For many, going to community college can be a leap into anonymity… But Union’s college-in-high-school initiative enables students to start earning community college credits before they graduate, giving them a leg up.”

You can read Kirp’s article to learn about the improvements in test scores, attendance, and the high school graduation rate.  The important point, in addition to the strong curriculum and the web of personal connections that make all students feel known at school, is that the school district’s accomplishments have not come from some kind of quick turnaround.  Kirp quotes Cathy Burden who led the district for 19 years prior to her retirement in 2013: “None of this happened overnight. We were very intentional—we started with a prototype program, like community schools, tested it out and gradually expanded it. The model was organic—it grew because it was the right thing to do.”