De Blasio Appoints Experienced Educator as NYC Chancellor: A Sign of Hope

In A Brief History of Reform!, life-long and much beloved educator Deborah Meier contrasts the educational philosophies of John Dewey, who believed the school should model and therefore teach democracy, and Ellwood Cubberley, the technocrat who promoted so-called scientific management of schools.  As an educator Meier founded schools that modeled Dewey’s philosophy; Cubberley was the direct ancestor of today’s school reformers.

Today Meier celebrates New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of Carmen Farina, a 40-year teacher, principal, and school administrator—her entire career spent serving the children of New York City.

Clearly Farina and de Blasio have much work to do to curb special favors like free rent for charters and to undo policies like almost universal school choice at the high school level.  This is the policy that the Annenberg Institute for School reform exposed last year for assigning what New York City schools formally designate as “over-the-counter-children” (the children of parents who do not participate in school choice but instead expect the district to make a school assignment) to schools already being dismantled in preparation for closure.  And then there is the school closure policy itself that is already underway to dismantle several of New York City’s comprehensive high schools one grade at a time.  Addressing these issues will be a daunting task.

As we begin a new year, however, there is reason for optimism in New York City.  A forty-year, veteran educator has been appointed chancellor.  It wasn’t too long ago that the outgoing mayor appointed as chancellor Cathleen P. Black, whose work experience was limited to publishing—overseeing Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Good Housekeeping for Hearst Magazines.

“Creative Disruption” Destroys Public Education in Chicago’s Bronzeville

Portfolio school reform is the theory that underpins much of what is happening across the school districts in America’s biggest cities.  It is the idea that a school district should be managed like a business portfolio, shedding the failed investments and resourcing the smart investments.  It is a program of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and it is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  One of its primary features is the practice of closing schools.

Trymaine Lee, who has been covering school reform in Chicago for MSNBC, reflects in this powerful article on the impact of the rash of school closures in recent years on the children and adolescents in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.  “After Parrish Brown graduates from Walter Dyett High School this spring, it’s likely he’ll never set foot in that school building again. Not for a 10-year reunion or to catch up with former teachers or to admire the gleaming trophies inside the school’s display case.  Because if all goes according to the city’s plan, there soon will be no Walter Dyett High School to return to in Bronzeville, an historic African-American enclave on the city’s south side.  ‘They closed my elementary school and now they’re phasing out my high school. One day there’ll be nothing in my community to come back to,’ said Brown, 17.”

Describing Chicago, Lee reports, “Since 2001 the district has shuttered or phased-out about 150 schools, including 49 over this past summer. It was the largest single mass school closing in American history and affected more than 30,000 students who were either displaced or whose schools absorbed the massive spillover.”  According to Lee, 88 percent of the students affected by the Chicago closings are African-American, with 94 percent from low-income families.  Public school closures in Chicago have clustered on the city’s south and west sides, with far fewer schools closed in the white neighborhoods on the north side.

While Chicago’s public school closures have been described by district officials as part of a cost-cutting measure, the school district has continued to encourage the start-up of new charter schools.  According to Lee, “Just last week, CPS proposed the addition of 21 new charter schools.”  The theory behind portfolio school reform is that new, often privatized, schools will open to compete with the traditional neighborhood schools.  The strategy assumes that a school district will be improved through “creative disruption.”

Jitu Brown disagrees.  He is a community organizer with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization that has been organizing parents and students to protest the closure of their public schools.  “This is not about school choice, says Jitu Brown. “If it was really about providing us with choices, we’d have the choice to improve our neighborhood schools. When you shut down neighborhood schools you’re not providing choices, it’s displacement by force.”

Check Out Talking Points Memo Series of Short Articles by Diane Ravitch

Last week the education historian Diane Ravitch was featured in a five-part “Book Club” at Talking Points Memo.  In the series of very short articles—here, here, herehere,  and here—Ravitch shares a taste of her recent book, Reign of Error.  If you haven’t had an opportunity to begin reading Ravitch’s now book, here is a good opportunity to take a look at some of the content.

The first piece, taken from the book’s first chapter, summarizes Ravitch’s critique of where our current, bipartisan conventional wisdom on school reform has gone badly wrong.

The second and third articles are Ravitch’s analysis of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools.

In the fourth piece Ravitch traces the impact of  test-and-punish school reform from George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act to Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program: “The upshot of these two programs, which both rely heavily on standardized testing, is the massive demoralization of educators; an exodus of experienced educators, who are replaced in many districts by young, inexperienced, low-wage teachers; the closure of scores or hundreds of public schools; the opening of thousands of privately managed charters; the growth of for-profit charter schools and online charter schools; a widespread attack on teachers’ due process rights and collective bargaining rights; the near-collapse of public education in urban districts like Detroit and Philadelphia, as public schools are replaced by privately managed charter schools; a burgeoning educational-industrial complex of testing corporations and technology companies that view public education as an emerging market.”

In the final piece, Ravitch reflects on the role of public schooling in a democracy.  “If we mean to educate them, we must recognize that all children deserve a full liberal arts curriculum. All children need the chance to develop their individual talents. And all need the opportunity to learn the skills of working and playing and singing with others.  Whatever the careers of the twenty-first century may be, they are likely to require creativity, thoughtfulness, and the capacity for social interaction and personal initiative, not simply routine skills. All children need to be prepared as citizens to participate in a democratic society.  A democratic society cannot afford to limit the skills and knowledge of a liberal education only to children of privilege and good fortune.”

How Philadelphia’s School Crisis Crushes Opportunity: Money and Stability Matter

“I had connections with teachers, it was relationships I built,” reports Othella Stanback, a Philadelphia high school senior whose high school was closed over the summer.  She knows no teachers at her new school well enough this fall to ask someone to write the recommendations she needs to apply for college.  In Dispatch from Philadelphia: The Brutal End of Public Education Julianne Hing reports for ColorLines on the meaning for students of the school closures in Philadelphia and the implications of similar problems in other struggling city school districts.

“Last year the governor slashed $1.1 billion from the state’s K-12 budget, cuts that particularly devastated Philadelphia’s state-controlled schools.  On the advice of a private consulting group, school officials announced that the district would need to close a stunning five dozen schools, and noted that the district ought to brace itself for dissolution… In the spring, the district closed 23 schools, including Stanback’s.  This fall, students went back to schools with skeletal staff after the district laid off 3,859 people, one of every five district employees.”

At Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia where hundreds of students were transferred this year from closed schools, cuts in previous years have pared the curriculum, eliminating pre-Calculus, honors classes for ninth graders and an advanced writing class. Today the school is served by only one counselor.  In November, after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett finally released an additional $45 million to the Philadelphia schools, 80 counselors were hired by the district, ensuring that every high school has one counselor.  The reporter notes: “Instability is the norm at Ben Franklin now.  Seven weeks into her last year in Philly public schools, Othella’s course schedule has been changed three times.”

Compounding the financial problems in Philadelphia is the imposition by the state imposed School Reform Commission of a “portfolio school reform” plan, prescribed by the Boston Consulting Group.  This is a plan designed with business-model “creative disruption” in mind—open and close schools including private charters in a continuing cycle, rewarding success and punishing failure.  But as the reporter notes, instability and loss are the way this looks to the students, and they are adolescents who desperately need stability in the institution on which they depend.

“Philadelphia is deep into worst-case scenario territory, but it’s not alone.  In cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago—all of them with sizable black populations and long histories of entrenched poverty—lawmakers have responded to budget crises with cuts to public education and market-driven education reform agendas.  In a city like Philadelphia, which has the worst poverty rate of the ten largest U.S. cities, in which 39 percent of the city’s children live in poverty and in which blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be poor…. the consequences of the collapse of the city’s public school system are falling squarely on the backs of Stanback and her classmates.”

Common Core Debate Is Really Just Another Chapter of Test-and-Punish

The debate about the Common Core Standards and the Common Core tests is not really about whether our public school curriculum ought to be more uniform and perhaps more challenging from place to place. That would be a debate worth having.  But really instead the Common Core is the latest chapter in a long story being circulated by our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and others who share his philosophy that teachers and students alike can best be motivated by behaviorist rewards and punishments—competition, pressure and fear.

The driver here is testing—competition for high scores and punishments for low scores—along with the collection of data.  (It is essential to remember that data-driven school reform has arrived at just the moment we have the computer-driven capacity to collect and process data, and this school reform philosophy is being promoted in many cases by the same business entrepreneurs who developed the computers.)  We are told that if we threaten school districts and schools and teachers where students are struggling, everybody will work harder and our children will do better in a world dominated by global competitiveness.  Standards-and-accountability school reform has become so embedded into our national consciousness that it’s hard to remember there might be another way.

If you are looking for an up-to-date review of the issues about the Common Core, read this article by Carol Burris (posted over the weekend on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog).  Burris is an award winning elementary school principal who understands child development and respects the teachers in her school as they try to cope with the pressures of our educational culture dominated by punitive testing imposed from above.

But this morning I want to examine the implications of an educational philosophy based on accountability, testing, and fear.  Two weeks ago, by a lucky chance, I spent a morning visiting three classes at our local public high school.  I describe the work of the teachers whose classes I visited here.  All three teachers demonstrated not only exceptional mastery of their academic content, but also deep commitment to the formation of their students, intellectually, linguistically, socially, ethically, and personally.  These teachers enjoy working with adolescents, engage their students in thinking critically, and create a culture of mutual respect.  My blog post about that high school visit has been read widely here in our community, followed by some comments I’ve heard at the grocery store: “Those teachers are at our high school?”  “I had no idea we had classes like that at Heights!” “Were you scared when you were there?”

All three teachers shared with me their worries about all the testing they believe is undermining their work.  They want desperately to find a way to oppose the time taken by testing and preparing for testing, but they know that in a system designed around competition and punishment, it is difficult for those trapped inside the system to protest.  In our state that keeps cutting funding we have to keep our scores high just to pass our levies.  And in a district with 63 percent of students qualifying for free lunch, and significant mobility into the district from poorer districts, we have lots of catch up to accomplish just to keep scores moving upwards.  In a system dominated by fear, teachers must work doubly hard to keep their classes flexible, nurturing and enjoyable.

Ten years ago, Parker Palmer, who has written extensively about teaching as a vocation, described the same dilemma the teachers at our local high school shared with me last week.  Palmer’s forward to Stories of the Courage to Teach (p. xviii) urges us all to visit a school, watch what teachers do, and listen to what they say:

“If you are not a teacher and are skeptical about their plight or their dedication, I have a suggestion to make: visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers…. Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… 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.”

In the decade since Palmer wrote these words, our society has only intensified our blaming of school teachers. As I read about the debate around the Common Core—and the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant competitions, I have begun to create a discipline for myself.  I force myself to think about how each of these conversations is being shaped by an educational philosophy of behaviorist rewards and punishments and a process of measuring, and competition.  Then I try to think about what it would be like if we just trusted and supported the teachers who have chosen to help our society raise our children.  I would prefer to reinvest all the money now being spent on developing and administering tests in peer-driven staff development programs where teachers like the ones I observed could share their techniques with their colleagues.

School Reform Information Controlled by Funders and Think Tanks? What about the Public’s Right to Know?

In Philadelphia, the state-appointed School Reform Commission got the William Penn Foundation, a philanthropy, to pay the Boston Consulting Group, a contractor, to design the “portfolio school reform plan” that recommended closing public schools and opening charter schools.

Twenty-four public schools were eventually closed last spring.  For the public, it has been hard to parse out which part of Philadelphia’s ongoing school catastrophe derives from Governor Corbett’s slashing $1 billion from the state’s public education budget and what part comes from an ideological, “portfolio” Philadelphia school reform plan that promotes privatization.  (For more on the crisis in the Philadelphia schools this year, check out the three part series earlier this week from National Public Radio, here, here and here.)

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss republishes a piece by Helen Gym, a parent activist in Philadelphia.  Gym writes about the struggles members of the public have experienced as they try to secure access to the list of 60 public schools the Boston Consulting Group recommended for closure.  Gym speculates that these days, while information may be available to the philanthropies funding reform plans and the consultants and contractors designing the plans and other big givers who are trying to influence school reform, the public cannot get access to the information that is shaping public institutions.

Gym writes: “The closing of 24 schools in Philadelphia remains the single most important issue of the year. The closings affected more than 9,000 students and transformed school communities. They also had an impact on political and real estate dealings, with tens of millions of dollars at stake. Last week, city leaders guaranteed a $61 million swap to fast-track real estate deals for shuttered school buildings. News reports indicate that several, mostly unnamed, buyers have shown interest in sweeping up all the properties for a single sum — in one case, an offer of $100 million.  Given the stakes, it is absolutely the public’s right to know what’s in the documents presented to the District.”

“Public Schools Shakedown” Website Exposes Privatizers

The forces undermining public education don’t really take the trouble to publicize what they are doing.  It is all very quiet and very well funded. And if, in polite conversation, you mention the likes of ALEC—or Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education—or the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, people may look at you as though you are spouting conspiracy theories.

But we must summon the courage to mention what is going on, and we need to get ourselves informed enough to be confident about the facts.  The Progressive, a Madison, Wisconsin magazine, helps us with a new project this autumn,  Public Schools Shakedown. Take a look at the in-depth background resources on this website.

Written by Brendan Fischer, the general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC’s Schoolhouse Rock is one of the best pieces I know about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  This is the secretive organization that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators to develop “model” laws that can be introduced in any state legislature. Fischer reports: “at least 139 bills or budget provisions reflecting ALEC education bills have been introduced in forty-three states and the District of Columbia in just the first six months of 2013.”  According to Fischer, “ALEC might best be described as a ‘corporate bill mill’ that helps conservative state legislators become a vessel for advancing special interest legislation.”  Fischer covers the agenda promoted by ALEC’s bills: vouchers, tuition tax credits for private education, the authorization of charter schools by appointed—not democratically elected—state agencies, parent trigger laws that permit parents through a petition process to take over their school and exit from the public school district, expansion of on-line blended learning in classrooms with bigger classes per teacher, and alternative certification programs.

Check out, Funding “Education Reform”: The Big Three Foundations.  This in-depth article and info-graphic demonstrate how the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations have supported privatization across the states.  Jonathan Pelto, a Connecticut writer explains, “The foundations themselves explain their goals and funding strategies through innocuous rhetoric.  For example, the Gates Foundation opines that: ‘We invest in programs with a common aim to strengthen the connection between teacher and student. To that end, we work with educators, policymakers, parents, and communities to expand and accelerate successful programs and identify innovative new solutions that can help unlock students’ potential.’  But the actual agenda becomes much clearer when one examines their actual list of grantees, which includes most of the country’s charter school management organizations, education reform “think tanks,” and advocacy organizations.”

Barbara Minor’s excellent  The Voucher Boondoggle in Wisconsin may at first seem specific to that state.  However, other states including Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana have followed Wisconsin’s lead by robbing the state public education budget for allocations to support private school tuition.  Minor is the wonderful writer who recently published the authoritative history of Milwaukee’s schools: Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.  You will also find an excellent info-graphic, Meet the Bullies, that diagrams the influence of particular philanthropists who have been underwriting advocacy for vouchers and privatization.  Many of them are very likely active in your state.