Lacking Experience, What Will Trump and DeVos Do to Rural and Small Town Public Schools?

I am fascinated by an article that appeared the Washington Post over the weekend: Where School Choice Isn’t an Option, Rural Public Schools Worry They’ll be Left Behind.  The reporters take us to East Millinocket, Maine, where: “The small parking lot outside of Schenck High School was crammed with cars, all there for the basketball game, the town’s featured event that night…  This small, remote high school is perhaps East Millinocket’s last and most crucial community pillar. Even before the local paper mill shut down three years ago, the town had suffered a stark economic decline because of the mill’s dwindling profits and the widespread poverty that followed. With a shrinking tax base and an aging population, Schenck High faces an uncertain future. Washington has long designed education policy to deal with urban and suburban challenges, often overlooking the unique problems that face rural schools like this one.”

The reporters include a map of the 50 states that identifies six states where over 55 percent of the students attend rural schools: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Maine. The article explores this question: How will the Trump administration—which has promised its priority will be to enhance competition and school choice by expanding vouchers students can carry to private and parochial schools and by expanding privately operated (but publicly funded) charter schools—do that in a town like East Millinocket, Maine?  That is, of course, the question that Maine Senator Susan Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski kept asking during the Senate’s debate on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our U.S. Secretary of Education, and they both voted against the confirmation because they were not satisfied with the answers they received. Jose DelReal and Emma Brown, the Washington Post‘s reporters, add that almost 9 million of the 50 million public school students across the United States attend rural schools.

I am especially interested in this article because, while today I live in inner-suburban Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up in a small town in northern Montana, one of the largely rural states identified by DelReal and Brown. My town of 10,000 people isn’t classified as rural, but within a hundred miles in all directions were the tiny communities where fewer than ten or fifteen students made up the high school graduating class every year. Even in my small (not rural) town, the schools were a central institution. High school basketball games were packed on frigid Friday evenings, and the high school football team played on a field surrounded by small hills and a sort of terraced roadway on which fans from the community (not just parents) would park to watch the games in their heated cars. After all, the temperature was sometimes below zero even in football season. While today, my husband and I buy tickets to hear the Cleveland Orchestra and attend plays at the Cleveland Playhouse or Great Lakes Theater, in my hometown, everybody bought tickets to see the plays produced by the high school, and students and the community alike came to the high school, the town’s only auditorium, to listen when Community Concerts brought a musical event to town. One time when I went for my regular checkup, my doctor congratulated me for making the high school honor roll, which at that time was regularly published in the newspaper.

Schools in small towns and rural communities may have trouble offering salaries that will attract teachers to remote areas. DelReal and Brown explain: “Rural schools have trouble recruiting and retaining good teachers and principals because housing is so limited, pay is so low and working conditions are difficult… Trump has decried failing public schools that are ‘flush with cash,’ but many rural schools—hobbled by a poor local tax base and weak state support—struggle with tight and often shrinking budgets.”  Neither can rural schools offer the kind of broad curriculum provided in the huge suburban high schools. There are real advantages, however. The students are known and cared for by the teachers who also live in their neighborhoods, and even people in town track students’ accomplishments. The superintendent of schools in East Millinocket, Maine adds another reality in his interview with the Post‘s reporters: “If you shut down schools, you destroy a town… There wouldn’t be any viable base for anyone or anything here.”

So… what might a federal administration committed to expanding a school choice marketplace through competition do for a place like East Millinocket, Maine?  It’s not hard to imagine.

The online academies are the first thing that come to mind. These are the schools children and adolescents can attend in the privacy of their own homes on the computer. The U.S. Department of Education might dangle incentive grants for states to create competition in rural school districts by bringing in e-schools—perhaps even encourage states to save money by making online education the only thing available in areas too remote for the schools to be consolidated together or with a larger district. The federal grants would come with baubles—tablets and computers provided to students and enhanced broadband that would benefit not only the schools but also be available to residents in the region. Consider the marketing and branding potential of such a project.

There are a couple of serious problems, however.  The virtual e-schools we have today have proven themselves abysmal compared to other kinds of education. The students are not learning nearly as much, for example. Just a year ago, after several years of support for an experiment with e-school charters, the Walton Foundation’s education program officer announced that based on a major, three-part, Walton Foundation-sponsored investigation by Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), the Walton Foundation would be seriously reconsidering making grants for online charter schools: “The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading then their peers in traditional charter schools, on average. This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states.  If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing. ”

Another problem with online charters has been epitomized by Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a huge Ohio virtual school operated by two for-profit, privately held companies owned by William Lager, a powerful Republican political contributor. There is evidence at ECOT of a serious online truancy problem. The Ohio Department of Education has documented that ECOT, which collected $100 million from the state in 2015 alone to educate about 15,000 students, needs to repay $60 million, because a lot of those students were not logging on for the state-required five hours per day—or even 20 hours per week. ECOT has argued that it is merely required by an old, 2003 agreement with the state to provide 920 hours of curriculum per year but not required to prove that students are actively engaged with that curriculum for 920 hours. Because the state legislature and the governor’s office and the elected state supreme court are all dominated by the Republican Party, and because ECOT’s operator William Lager has been investing regularly and heavily in campaign contributions to Ohio Republicans, it seems that online education in Ohio cannot be regulated effectively. The $100 million dollars, including last year’s $60 million non-recoverable overpayment for ECOT’s phantom students, is coming right out of the state’s education budget and hence reducing funding for the state’s public schools.

We can only hope that President Trump and Betsy DeVos, neither of whom has a bit of experience with public schools as a student or parent or teacher, will spend some time in these public institutions and pay some attention to their mission and their contributions to their students and to the vast array of communities they serve. The UCLA education professor and writer Mike Rose has made visiting public schools all across the United States and writing about these visits a centerpiece of his professional career.  In his little book, Why School?, Rose explains that public schools everywhere are embedded in the communities they serve—something impossible for e-schools: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practices.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, p. 216)

Rose’s perspective on the broader policy debates about education comes from reflecting on the time he has spent in public school classrooms:

“So much depends on what you look for and how you look at it. In the midst of the reform debates and 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 of the common public school…

“The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done day to day across the nation—the feel and clatter of teaching and learning… Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions… Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here. Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life…. The free-market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance abut all things public…

“We have to do better than this. We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education. One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life I have witnessed. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language…

“There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good…. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, pp. 201-206)

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What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Back in 2009, I happened to be at a meeting at the U.S. Department of Education, where Arne Duncan’s newly appointed staff were outlining the direction the Obama administration would pursue in education.  Jim Shelton caught my attention that day.  Shelton spoke what sounded to me like a foreign language, and he proposed to take the department someplace it had never been.  He was the Department’s new head of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, and he led the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) as well as Promise Neighborhoods, the program that said it would replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone.  He led work on evaluating teachers and building school choice and learning technology.  And he rose during his tenure, that ended with his retirement at the end of 2014, to become deputy secretary, second in command to Arne Duncan.

I started thinking about Jim Shelton last week because I saw a new piece written by Shelton himself and published by EdSurge, a letter in which Shelton announces his plans for the next phase of his career: “I will be joining the leadership team at 2U, Inc. as its first Chief Impact Officer.  For those not in the ed tech space, 2U is a rapidly growing provider of technology and technology-enabled services that enables leading nonprofit colleges and universities to deliver their high-quality degree programs online.  Some of its partner programs include UNC’s MBA, USC’s master’s of social work, and Georgetown’s master’s of nursing programs.”  Training social workers and nurses online?  Shelton continues: “At the outset, some would have claimed 2U’s business model unlikely to succeed at all let alone produce one of the few ‘unicorns’ in the education arena.  However… the better leaders recognize that moving into this space requires not only significant technological capability but also agility, ongoing resources and experienced change management capacity… 2U is building the culture and core capabilities of a next generation learning company with emphasis on results, data, transparency, student and faculty experience and value to student and employer.  The underlying systems and processes are robust and have the potential to provide a sustained advantage.”

Shelton is one of the people who brought the language and ideas of business and technocracy to Arne Duncan’s Department of Education along with the methodology of philanthropy as a replacement for the style and substance of government.

According to a Department of Education biography, Shelton majored in computer science at Morehouse and subsequently earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened charter schools and based it all on test score data.  He became a partner for the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division.  To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer.  In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer directly into government. At the time, in a blog called Schools Matter, Kenneth Libby worried about that: “Considering the Gates Foundation does not have a profit motive and is fantastically wealthy, it is unlikely a former Gates Foundation employee would use their new position to funnel money to their former employer.  They could, however, show favoritism towards projects supported (either currently or in the future) by the Gates Foundation, a kind of meld that does not necessarily serve the best interest of the public. This is particularly relevant because the Office of Innovation and Improvement directs competitive grants instead of simply formula-driven funding streams.”

And education policy copying the foundation model is exactly what Duncan’s Department of Education began creating—with guidance not only from Jim Shelton but also from Margot Rogers, Duncan’s chief of staff, who also received a waiver to come directly from the Gates Foundation.  Joanne Weiss who later replaced Rogers came directly from the NewSchools Venture Fund.  The style and substance of the policies that came with these new “thought leaders” at the Department of Education became the huge grant competitions—Race to the Top and i3, competitions for money that had once been part of the Title I formula that awarded funds to school districts according to the number of children in poverty and additionally their concentration in particular districts due to segregation by race and class.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch describes the symbiosis that developed between Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Now that the ideas promoted by the venture philanthropies were securely lodged at the highest levels of the Obama administration, policymakers and journalists listened carefully to Bill Gates.  In a 2009 interview with Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, Gates signaled a new direction for his foundation.  Hiatt wrote, ‘You might call it the Obama-Duncan-Gates-Rhee philosophy of education reform.’  It was also the Bloomberg-Klein-Broad philosophy of education reform.  Gates said that his foundation intended to help successful charter organizations such as KIPP replicate as quickly as possible and to invest in improving teacher effectiveness.  Gates asserted that there was no connection between teacher quality and such things as experience, certification, advanced degrees, or even deep knowledge of one’s subject matter  (at least below tenth grade).” (p 219)

Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education under Jim Shelton also came to promote the methodology of philanthropy by which the government would grant funds competitively to states, school districts and nonprofit organizations to help them address educational problems.  In 2009, in a piece called The Innovation Administration, Dana Goldstein explained that Obama’s federal stimulus package designed to address the economic collapse in 2008 was a model of social innovation: “At its core, social innovation refers to the belief that for-profit institutions should be the model for nonprofit ones, and that nonprofits, in turn, can be more effective protectors of social welfare than government.”  Goldstein had reservations at the time: “But it’s entirely possible that social innovation is little more than a federal foray into a B-school fad that may be, during an economic crisis, insufficient to addressing the scale of the social problems facing the American public.”

The programs that made up the federal stimulus package were competitive: Race to the Top created losing states as well as winning states by redirecting funds that had been previously distributed across all fifty state school systems to the select states that provided the best applications.  The i3 program was a competition for nonprofit organizations that promised to partner with schools to promote what were thought to be promising innovations; as a competition, it also created losers as well as winners.  And from the very beginning, these programs involved the foundations.

Joanne Barkan describes what happened with the launch of Race to the Top: “The ‘stimulus package’ included $4.3 billion for education, but for the first time, states didn’t simply receive grants; they had to compete for RTTT money with a comprehensive, statewide proposal for education reform.  It is no exaggeration to say that the criteria for selecting the winners came straight from the foundation’s playbook…. To start, any state that didn’t allow student test scores to determine (at least in part) teacher and principal evaluations was not eligible to compete.  After clarifying this, the 103-page application form laid out a list of detailed criteria and then additional priorities for each criterion… But they still faced the immense tasks of designing a proposal that touched on all aspects of K-12 education and then writing an application, which the DOE requested (but did not require) be limited to 350 pages.  What state has resources to gamble on such a venture?  Enter the Gates Foundation.  It reviewed the prospects for reform in every state, picked fifteen favorites, and, in July 2009, offered each up to $250,000 to hire consultants to write the application.  Gates even prepared a list of recommended consulting firms.  Understandably, the other states cried foul; so did the National Conference of State Legislatures: Gates was giving some states an unfair advantage; it was, in effect, picking winners and losers for a government program.  After some weeks of reflection, Gates offered the application money to any state that met the foundation’s eight criteria… Who says the foundations (and Gates, in particular) don’t set government policy?”

Jim Shelton’s i3 innovation grant competition modeled the kind of program that patched together government and philanthropic dollars to support not-for-profit organizations working with schools to implement particular reforms.  In her 2013 book, Follow the Money, Sarah Reckhow explains how the i3 application process worked: “The i3 program required a 20 percent private grant match for any federal funds awarded.  To facilitate matching, the Department of Education coordinated directly with philanthropies for funding the i3 program.  Initially, 12 foundations—including Gates, Carnegie, Ford, Wallace, and Walton—committed $500 million to ‘aligned investments’ with the i3 program.  These foundations created an online Foundation Registry for the i3 program, which grew to 40 participating foundations.  All of the applicants selected by the Department of Education for i3 grants were able to secure private matching funds.” (p. 152)

Then in 2011, after the original i3 grants had been awarded,  Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton were the featured speakers at an event held by the Aspen Institute for the losers in the original i3 competition. Alyson Klein in Education Week described the i3 program and the way the Department of Education was scurrying to help the losers: “The competition, intended to help districts and nonprofit groups scale up promising practices, attracted 1,698 applications.  Just 49 winners were awarded grants…. That left a lot of prominent runners-up, including some well-known education nonprofit organizations, such as NewLeaders for New Schools, a New York City-based group that trains principals….”  So Aspen convened the losers at a conference with potential funders.  “For its part, the U.S. Department of Education isn’t playing a direct matchmaking role between the almost-winners and philanthropies, said Suzanne Immerman, the department’s director of philanthropic engagement.  But it has encouraged philanthropies and other funders to take a second look at all of the proposals that didn’t ultimately receive federal dollars through i3. It has posted applications for the i3 program online, as well as those for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative…. The department also worked with philanthropies to create an online i3 registry, which is meant to connect funders and applicants… Aspen invited 212 nonprofits, school districts and other i3 applicants who nearly made the cut….”

And what about the rush to try what’s new without any evidence that what we are trying will work?  A persistent and unanswered charge about the whole “education reform” movement is that it has been experimental.  Despite all the talk about the need for a research base, most of the reforms imposed by the Bush Department of Education under Margaret Spellings and deepened and enhanced by Duncan’s Department of Education lack a substantial basis in research.  In a piece published in 2009 by Brookings, Innovation, Motherhood, and Apple Pie, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst worried that the emphasis on innovation at the expense of tested ideas in programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and i3 would undermine education: “Effective innovations enhance a desired outcome, whereas ineffective innovations do not… Most education innovations exist around the midpoint of the effective-ineffective dimension due to lack of evidence, i.e., they have not been evaluated or have not been evaluated with an approach that provides credible evidence.  They may work.  They may not.  We do not know.  Unless effectiveness is thought of as a central dimension of innovation, the current innovation zeitgeist will subject the nation to yet another era of fad and fancy in education rather than continuous improvement.”

Jim Shelton’s journey at the the U.S. Department of Education is over, but after a trip, it is a good thing to think about the experience.  And it is important to remember how to get home.   A well-funded system of public schools remains the best institution to meet the many complicated and diverse needs of the mass of our children and to protect their rights through accountable public institutions. The federal government’s role in this system has historically been to intervene with money and oversight when states have not met their obligation to serve all children. We haven’t heard much about any of that on our recent trip.

New Yorker Profiles Jeb: School Privatizer, De-Regulator, Promoter of Competition

Alec MacGillis’ in depth report, Testing Time: Jeb Bush’s Educational Experiment, in The New Yorker this week, doesn’t really add to the facts Lindsay Layton recounted in the Washington Post earlier this month.  Layton described Jeb Bush’s education legacy as governor of Florida and founder and chair of the non-profit Foundation for Excellence in Education: “issuing A-to-F report cards for schools, using taxpayer vouchers for tuition at private schools, expanding charter schools, requiring third-graders to pass a reading test… encouraging online and virtual charter schools,” and (she quotes Jeb’s own words), “fighting government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies… that trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”

But you won’t be reading MacGillis’ new profile for the facts, which have been well established by now.  MacGillis’s focus is to connect Jeb’s public work as Florida’s governor with the many non-profit and for-profit endeavors he has launched since he left office.  Jeb Bush has after all made education a centerpiece of his work for many years now.  While “Bush is being viewed as a moderate in the emerging Presidential field,” MacGillis describes the analysis of an adviser to former President George W. Bush: “Jeb is more introverted and more ideological than both his father, George H.W. Bush, whose policies are driven more by personal associations than by doctrine, and his brother whose conservatism is more instinctual than considered. It was Jeb who signed the nation’s first ‘Stand Your Ground’ self-defense law, and fought to keep Terri Schiavo on life support.”  This is the backdrop against which MacGillis traces Bush’s long record as a school privatizer, testing enthusiast, and proponent of disruptive—often on-line—innovation.

Jeb Bush is quoted as bragging, “Florida has the largest, most vibrant charter-school movement in the country.”  MacGillis continues, “By 2006, Jeb’s last year in office, there were more than three hundred charter schools (for-profit and nonprofit) in Florida, with more than a hundred thousand students, most of them in big metropolitan areas such as Miami and Tampa. But the state made only sporadic efforts to track their performance. The 1996 law called for annual statewide reports on the schools, but none were produced until November of 2006.  Test scores in lower grades were found to be slightly higher than at traditional pubic schools, and slightly lower in the higher grades. The reading test-score gap between black students and white students in elementary grades decreased at about the same rate as in traditional schools but in the charter high schools the gap widened.  However, direct comparisons were difficult, because the charters took about twenty percent fewer low-income and special-needs students.  It was even harder to track the impact of vouchers, because the private and parochial schools that accepted them were not required to administer state tests.  As Bush saw it, some schools and companies were inferior, but that situation would sort itself out over time.”

Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, launched in 2008 after he left public office, is described as what ed tech companies like Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s Amplify and Pearson, the testing and publishing giant, have come to count on as “an ideal platform to promote a range of ideas and products to state officials.”  Patricia Levesque, the Foundation’s director, has used her influence to connect state commissioners of education who are part of the Foundation’s Chiefs for Change with leaders of corporations promoting on-line education, curricula and software and to make the Chiefs for Change into sales people for these products in other states.  We learn of Bush’s business connections to Voyager, the company that created the ill-fated Reading First—the phonics-based reading curriculum adopted by the U. S. Department of Education under No Child Left Behind, one of the earliest mandates of the law that was eliminated because Reading First did not seem to be teaching children across the country to read.  In 2011, Bush got financially involved—reaping an annual salary of $60,000—with Academic Partnerships, a company whose aim was to “persuade public colleges to attract more students by outsourcing to the firm their master’s-degree programs in fields such as  business and education.”  MacGillis also traces Bush’s long and stalwart support for the Common Core Standards.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education is known for its lavish summits.  Here is MacGillis’s description of the most recent, just last November: “In the corridors, hundreds of state legislators, education commissioners, activists, and Bush aides mingled with education-industry executives and lobbyists. Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, who is now an anti-teachers’-union activist, walked through the hall with a cup of coffee in each hand. Joel Klein was there to pitch Amplify’s latest products, including a tablet app that features the actor Chadwick Boseman reading from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. The ‘donor meetings’ between the state commissioners and company executives were held all afternoon in a conference room. Later, attendees drifted to the hotel bar, where they waited to hear Condoleezza Rice speak at a banquet that evening. Tony Bennett (former Indiana Chief for Change) walked through the lobby.  After he lost his bid for reelection in Indiana he briefly served as Florida’s education commissioner, but resigned after the Associated Press reported that he had tweaked the rating of an Indiana charter school founded by a major G.O.P. Donor. (An inspector general later cleared him of any legal violation.) He was consulting for the test-prep company ACT Aspire, which is co-owned by Pearson. ‘In this incredible land of opportunity,’ Bennett said, ‘why shouldn’t someone who served his country get to serve in another way?'”

MacGillis tells the story, rich in detail, of Jeb Bush’s commitment to standards-based accountability, privatization, free markets, competition, de-regulation, and on-line instruction.  There is a lot here about making money and promoting business partners—the   story of an aggressive business tycoon—but nothing about teachers or children or what education ought to be about or what needed to happen to improve the public schools of Florida.  MacGillis’s profile surely will help fix the image of Jeb Bush as the presidential candidate with a long term commitment to free-market ideology and making money through the enterprise of education.

This blog recently covered Jeb Bush work in education here and here.

Sides in Polarized Education Debate Reflect Different Moral Frames

George Lakoff is the cognitive linguist who has published a series of books (Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics, for example) about how people think about issues of public policy.  People don’t form political opinions, according to Lakoff, by examining empirical evidence.  They don’t evaluate how particular policies and programs are really operating in their communities or in the nation or the world.  Instead they vote their core values as those values are incorporated into the meta-narratives—frames—by which they understand how the world works.  Lakoff writes: “The debate is not a matter of objective, means-end rationality or cost-benefit analysis or effective public policy.  It is not just a debate about the particular issue…. The debate is about the right form of morality….” (Moral Politics, p 169)  If you want to speak to someone’s heart—and therefore that person’s vote—you must evoke the moral frame by which they understand how the world works.

On Monday, in her Washington Post Answer Sheet column, Valerie Strauss published a thoughtful piece along these lines from Arthur Camins, who examines the moral assumptions and values of those who promote creative disruption in education as the key to innovation.  (This blog has considered the issues around education policy based on the theory of creative disruption here.)  Camins wholeheartedly agrees with Lakoff about the role of values and morals in decisions that affect education policy: “It appears that the battles over what counts as better for education in the United States will be decided, not by the relative strength of evidentiary arguments, but instead by who most successfully claims the moral high ground.  Public acceptance of policy prescriptions does not turn on technical determinations, but on values identification and moral judgments.”

Camins believes today’s school “reformers” value individual merit, hard work, and motivation via competition and filter their understanding of what’s possible and how to get there through this lens: “Success (defined as beating the competition), reformers appear to reason, is influenced by competitive advantage, which derives from application of fixed capacities (some have it, and some do not) that are motivated by extrinsic reward.  As a result, policies focus on hiring and firing able teachers rather than on developing them.  ‘No-excuses’ charter schools filter out those who do not fit in or have the ‘grit’ to struggle through… Individualism and a failure to consider more equitable socio-economic structures lead reformers to an inequality vision that is extraordinarily constrained…. increasing the chances of some students to escape from poverty.  Reformers accept inequality in the United States, with its vast wealth disparity and competition for limited resources and rewards as inevitable, if not motivational, in an unquestionably superior system.  Hence, evidence of limited impact of charter schools, their tendency to increase segregation and the apparent folly of firing a few presumably ineffective teachers in order to have systemic impact are not viewed as problematic.  Systemic impact was never the goal.  What they envision passing through their filter is improved chances for some motivated children who with a stronger education will have a competitive advantage over the rest of the children stuck in schools that simply cannot be improved.”

Camins writes, “Maximizing competitive advantage represents a core value, while disruptive innovation is a moral choice about means, in which moral certainty about achieving goals excuses the collateral damage of getting there.  This vision accepts inequality as inevitable, if lamentable.”

Camins believes we must examine the moral issues behind the policies if we are to have any hope of correcting the damage of today’s school “reform.”  “An alternative core value is maximizing economic, social and political equity.  These values support an effort to alter the current structures to create an equitable society.  Such values lead to different moral choices about means, including ensuring a public education system in which: all students are known, valued and respected by adults and peers; all students develop their talents and expertise to be successful in work, life and citizenship; and, policy and decision makers are answerable to the public in order to ensure the common good.”

About today’s school “reformers” Camins writes: “I have little hope of dissuading these ardent reformers.  I do hope that shedding some light on the nature of their ideological filters will influence public perception and undermine the credibility and traction of their policies.”

I urge you to read and consider Camins’ thoughtful piece.

70 People Brave Frigid Weather to Raise Concerns about School Choice

Wednesday was so cold in greater Cleveland that schools were closed across the region, but by 7:00 PM, 70 people had arrived at our high school cafeteria whose doors had been opened for the second week of our community conversation about Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error.  (You can read about our first session here.)

A retired, and much beloved, high school guidance counselor driving in from rural Newbury reported that as he made his way to our meeting, his car radio blared an ad from Ohio’s most notorious on-line academy, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT): “Schools across Ohio are closed due to the weather, but our school is always open.  At ECOT your child will never miss school because of cold weather.”

“Can you imagine,” asked a school administrator, “what people would say if we spent part of our school district’s budget for radio advertising?  People would say we were wasting the taxpayers’ money, but nobody ever says that about ECOT!”

After the meeting, as people bundled up to go home, I asked several of them how they felt about the conversation they had been having.  Had talking about the book caused them to think any differently about challenges for public education?  Had any particular concern developed for them as they were reading and discussing?  Here is some of what people told me:

  • “I know something about the use of data in education. It used to be that we consulted data positively to inform our teaching, but now we seem to collect data with a negative purpose.  All schools have assets that benefit the children, but because test scores focus our attention on the deficits, today we think of schools that don’t post great test scores as lacking assets.  That just isn’t true, but we haven’t learned how to measure and document what our schools really contribute to the lives of our children.”
  • “I was so naive about charter schools.  The moment I began to read about the investment of foundations and venture funds and the potential investment opportunities just in the real estate, I was shocked.  Why have we permitted all these powerful people to influence public education so much?  The unfairness of it!  I have realized we are in a battle today to save public education.”
  • “When you think of a charter school from the point of view of the individual child and family, it can seem to make sense.  But when you think about the system, that’s where it all falls apart.  It seems to me that traditional public schools are in danger of becoming schools of last resort for the poorest children or those with special needs.  This is dividing our society more and more.  Public schools as a unifying force will be gone.”
  • “The focus on competition in school choice plans really struck me.  I have always thought the whole purpose of public education in our society has been to serve every child.  That is what the statement, “leave no child behind,” was always supposed to mean.  Our goal today has changed because choice always creates losers as well as winners.  There is no way to make sure that all choices are good choices.”
  • “Competition works in a whole lot of different ways here.  They have a system where school districts compete for their ratings based on test scores—you know, Excellent all the way down to Academic Watch.  But in our discussion last week we learned that standardized test scores are influenced a lot by family income.  So the rich, outer suburbs are all rated Excellent while the cities are rated Academic Watch.  It’s a set-up.”
  • “I hadn’t put all this together.  I have had a sense that bad things are going on, but these meetings have helped me put the pieces together. The awareness seems so essential.”

By coincidence the chapters that had been assigned for our Cleveland Heights conversation this week—dubbed School Choice Week by its supporters—were all about the privatization of public education.  We read chapters about Michelle Rhee, charter schools, on-line academies, the Parent Trigger, vouchers, and the historic importance of democratic governance of education. Our convening 70 people on a frigid January night to learn more about these topics during School Choice Week definitely has to be considered an act of protest.

New Orleans Charter Experiment Leaves Behind Poorest and Disabled

The Great Charter Tryout: Are New Orleans’s Schools a Model for the Nation—or a Cautionary Tale? asks reporter Andrea Gabor. You are likely to remember that after Hurricane Katrina deluged the city on Labor Day weekend of 2005, the schools in New Orleans underwent a city-wide charter school experiment with encouragement and funding from Margaret Spellings, who was then U.S. Secretary of Education, and huge grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Naomi Klein described the mass layoff of New Orleans’ public school teachers and the subsequent rush to charterize the district as the defining metaphor for her 2007 best seller The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision… 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.'”

One could wonder how it would all work out in the years immediately following the hurricane, but now, eight years after the New Orleans charter school experiment began, Gabor helps us take a hard look at the evidence: “Figuring out what has taken place in the New Orleans schools is not just a matter of interest to local residents.  From cities like New York to towns like Muskegon Heights, Michigan, market-style reforms have been widely touted as the answer to America’s educational woes… New Orleans tells us a lot about what these reforms look like in practice.  And the current reality of the city’s schools should be enough to give pause to even the most passionate charter supporters.”

Gabor reports that the mass layoff of local teachers in 2005 has led to importing of many young, short-termers.  In 2011, 42 percent of teachers in the Recovery School District had less than two years of experience—22 percent, one year or less in the classroom.  “In part to help with this lack of experience, charter schools train teachers in highly regimented routines that help them keep control of their classrooms.” Describing Sci Academy, one of New Orleans’ most successful charters, Gabor reports: “Each morning at 8 AM the teachers, almost all white and in their 20s, gather for a rousing thigh-slapping, hand-clapping, rap-chanting staff revival meeting, the beginning of what will be, for most, a 14-16-hour workday.” At Sci Academy, students are expected to “SPARK check!” on command.  “The acronym stands for sit straight; pencil to paper (or place hands folded in front); ask and answer questions; respect; and keep tracking the speaker.” Anthony Recasner, a child psychologist who was deeply involved with another of New Orleans charters before he left to manage a local child advocacy organization, now questions the behaviorist culture the competitive charters have created: “The typical charter school in New Orleans is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids… Is that really what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

Gabor critiques Louisiana’s accountability system, which focuses relentlessly on the college matriculation rate of each high school’s graduating class as the one factor that matters most in a high school’s state ranking.  What about the children who barely get accepted at a college?  Although many are likely to drop out of college, they will have accrued college loans they’ll never be able to pay off.

Will students who struggle and students with special needs get enough attention when the primary focus of many schools is graduating kids who are accepted at a college?  The high school dropout–pushout rates are telling. “Indeed, behind Sci Academy’s impressive college-acceptance rate were some troubling numbers.  The school’s first graduating class was 37 percent smaller than the same class had been in the ninth grade—even though some students came to the school after freshman year and filled seats left vacant by departing students.  The attrition rate has improved; the class of 2013 was 28 percent smaller than it had been in the ninth grade.”

Gabor reflects: “In the 1990s, the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, was built on a progressive curriculum that used experiential projects and electives… to foster a love of learning…  The progressive roots of the charter movement have been swamped by the new realities of a competitive charter marketplace.”