Has America Decided to Educate Promising Children and Leave the Rest Behind?

In what seems to me the most chilling moment in The Prize, Dale Russakoff’s new book (discussed in yesterday’s post here) about the catastrophic five-year school reform experiment imposed by Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on Newark, New Jersey’s schools—the moment when teachers at a charter school co-located in the same building as a traditional public school ask Mayor Cory Booker how he plans to help and support the neighborhood school also operating in their building—Booker replies, “I’ll be very frank…. I want you to expand as fast as you can.  But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way.  We need to close them and start new ones.'” (p. 132)

This is the same book in which a school administrator admits that charters cream the most able children of striving parents and tells Russakoff that 60 percent of Newark’s children are likely to remain in traditional public schools. What Mayor Booker, Governor Christie and philanthropist Zuckerberg are selling is school reform for the purpose of saving some children and leaving many of the most vulnerable behind. Such a school reform philosophy tacitly accepts the idea that our society is incapable of educating all of our children, and because we can’t save all children, we’ll at least try to educate those most likely to succeed.

While there is considerable research pointing to social and educational programs likely to expand opportunity for a mass of our society’s children, a lot of people can’t think beyond limited programs aimed to lift up promising children.  Others cynically doubt school leaders who outline expensive ideas that are far more ambitious.  I worry about the dearth of leaders willing to ask us to find the will to leave no child behind, and I worry more about broad skepticism when strong leaders do propose promising plans.  Have we as a society lost the belief that we can educate all children?

Skepticism persists about Mayor Bill deBlasio’s education plans, despite the successful launch of a major expansion of pre-kindergarten in New York City. Last week the New York Daily News reported, “DeBlasio boosted the Big Apple’s pre-K capacity from 19,000 seats in 2013 to more than 80,000 seats in 2015 by expanding existing programs and funding a slew of new ones.” “Kids from areas with median incomes that are below the city average of $51,865 account for 62% of registrants in the free, full-day programs that kicked off Wednesday.”  Many have urged DeBlasio and Farina to slow down on plans announced earlier this year for the NYC schools significantly to increase the number of full-service Community Schools that set out to support families with services located right at school that can include medical, dental, and mental health clinics; after-school programs; Head Start and Early Head Start; summer enrichment, and parental job training.

As reported by Chalkbeat NY, in a major address last Wednesday, DeBlasio announced more plans for broad improvements in NYC’s public schools, including expanding the number of second-grade reading specialists across the district and ensuring that children in all high schools have access to algebra by ninth grade and advanced courses in science.  Such reforms are urgently needed in New York, for while NYC’s  previous mayor Michael Bloomberg emphasized small high schools with more personalized services, a July, 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs exposed shocking deficiencies in many of those small schools: “Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry.  More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science…  Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet the (graduation) requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.  The result is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system, one that parents frantic to get their children into top high schools are acutely attuned to.”

Chalkbeat’s article about the new initiatives DeBlasio proposed last week printed a laudatory comment on deBlasio’s announcement from Zakiyah Ansari, an influential parent advocate, but the reporter wonders about the cost—a projected $186 million, and asks: “Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding?  And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers? ‘Those are lovely goals,’ said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, ‘but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.'”

Interestingly, Mayor deBlasio and Carmen Farina’s priorities mirror the recommendations of Professor Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland, in a brief published last week by the National Education Policy Center. King Rice’s brief seeks a way to restore the mission of public education articulated by Horace Mann, “the 19th century champion of publicly funded universal education,” who “persuasively reasoned that education is the ‘balance wheel’ of the social structure.  He argued that education should be ‘universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.’ While much progress has been made in establishing a universal education system since Mann spoke those words over 150 years ago, substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes continue to undermine his vision—and ultimately our society… Grounded in the erroneous assumption that schools alone can close the achievement gap, NCLB and the policies in its wake have emphasized high stakes test-based accountability, school choice, school reconstitution, and other largely punitive strategies to prompt school improvement.”

To restore Mann’s vision and close gaps in opportunity, King Rice cites research grounding four recommendations:

  • “Policymakers and the general public should recognize the broad goals of education including civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, cultural competency and awareness, and social and economic opportunity.  Student achievement, while important, is a single narrow indicator…
  • “Policymakers should ensure that all schools have the fundamental educational resources they need to promote student success: effective teachers and principals, appropriate class size, challenging and culturally relevant curriculum and supportive instructional resources, sufficient quality time for learning and development, and up-to-date facilities and a safe environment…
  • “Policymakers should expand the scope of schools in high-poverty neighborhoods to provide wrap around services including nutritional supports, health clinics, parental education, extended learning time, recreational programs, and other services needed to meet the social, physical, cognitive, and economic needs of both students and families.  Expanding the services and resources offered by schools has the potential to dramatically increase their impact…
  • “Policymakers should promote a policy context that is supportive of equal opportunity: use achievement testing for formative rather than high-stakes purposes, avoid policies that allow for school resegregation, and renew the commitment to public education.”

In a piece headlined, DeBlasio’s Plan to Lift Poor Schools Comes with High Costs and Big Political Risks, Kate Taylor of the NY Times points out that Mayor deBlasio framed his education address last week as a moral imperative: “There is a tale of two cities in our schools….  Each and every child, in each and every classroom deserves a future that isn’t limited by their ZIP code.”  In words I will always remember, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson say the same thing several years ago: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Have we become so cynical in America that our default response is to scoff at DeBlasio’s vision as naive and too expensive?  Have we become so unwilling to tax those who can well afford to support public education that we are afraid even to aim for such a vision?

Zombie Ideas and Conventional Wisdom: Why NYC’s School “Reform” Matters to the Rest of Us

Paul Krugman, the Princeton University economist and NY Times columnist, wrote a column earlier this week about myths in economics.  He calls them “zombie ideas.”  Here is how Krugman defines a zombie idea: “one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true.”   Back in 1958 in a famous book, The Affluent Society, another economist John Kenneth Galbraith called such ideas “the conventional wisdom” —“the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”  Galbraith continued: “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group…. the consensus is exceedingly broad.  Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”

Zombie ideas.  The conventional wisdom.  Bipartisan consensus based on not much evidence and maybe even contrary to the evidence.  Sounds like today’s wave of so-called public education “reform.”

Gene V. Glass, one of the authors of a fine new book on the facts and the evidence about what’s needed to improve public schools, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently commented on the conventional wisdom–zombie ideas that dominate today’s theories of school “reform”:

“One narrative prominent these days — the Crisis Narrative — holds that our nation is at risk because our children are dumber than Finland, because our teachers are tools of greedy unions, because incompetent ‘ed-school’ trained administrators are incapable of delivering first-rate education.  And — this narrative goes on — what public education needs is total reform: higher standards, more tests, brighter teachers uncorrupted by the wishy washy ‘education school’ ideologies and above all, choice and competition.  This narrative serves a set of private interests that want to reform our schools.  About ten years ago, Rupert Murdoch — the billionaire owner of Fox News — called public education a ‘$600 billion sector in the U.S. that is waiting desperately to be transformed.’  He might have more honestly said, ‘Public education is a half trillion dollar plum waiting to be picked.’… The purveyors of the mythology have been created by corporations and ideological interests that stand to gain from the coming great reformation.  Enter the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, the Kaufmanns, Bill Gates, and their richly endowed ilk.”

The prevalence of the “zombie conventional wisdom” (ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but refuse to die) about school choice and the superiority of privatizing education has been particularly evident this week in New York’s state budget agreement that will preserve such theories just as they were instituted in the city’s schools during the three terms of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio had intended to prioritize the needs of the 94 percent of NYC’s children in traditional public schools rather than the needs of the 6 percent of children attending charter schools, but the state legislature and New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo have clung to Bloomberg’s policies. (Cuomo and the Assembly lean Democratic and the Senate is Republican, but remember: the conventional wisdom is bipartisan.)  The legislature and the governor have agreed on a state budget law that will require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay the cost of leasing space for them in privately owned buildings.  The state budget agreement also prohibits the city from charging rent to charter schools when they are co-located in public school spaces.

New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is a big supporter of the conventional wisdom about charters. The NY Times quotes Cuomo on the new budget agreement: “We want to protect and grow and support that charter school movement, and this budget does that.” (This blog has tracked the huge investment in Cuomo’s political campaigns by supporters of privatization, charter operators and wealthy members of their boards here and here.)

Mayor de Blasio had resisted New York City’s tradition of accommodating charter schools (funded with public money and in New York endowed additionally by wealthy financiers) with rent-free space in public buildings. While he approved the majority of requests for new space from charter schools in February (the charter school co-locations had been pre-approved by Mayor Bloomberg before he left office), Mayor de Blasio attempted to cancel plans for three schools affiliated with a network known as Success Academy Charter Schools.  Two of the schools would have moved very young children into high schools, a situation de Blasio believed created safety issues.  A third would have threatened space currently housing physical therapy and other special services for disabled students. (This blog covered the NY budget deal here.)

How dare Mayor de Blasio challenge the bipartisan conventional wisdom—the zombie idea—that charters are the answer to the biggest problems for the schools in New York City!  In recent weeks powerful forces have rallied behind celebrity Eva Moskowitz—the politically connected charter operator who runs Success Academy Charters , who is paid $475,000 in annual salary, and who closed 22 schools for the day and bused the children and their parents to a political rally in Albany.  Her friends, board members, and supporters funded a $3.5 million  television ad campaign portraying darling children who claimed they would have no place to go to school if Mayor de Blasio were permitted to deny space for the three schools in question.  These friends have also invested in perpetuating the conventional wisdom by donating over $800,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo.  Glitz—celebrity—a lot of money—all the “right” people, and voila: the conventional wisdom.

But what if we look at the facts and realities that the conventional wisdom doesn’t acknowledge?   Al Baker, writing for the NY Times on March 31, remembers a speech a couple of weeks ago on the floor of the New York state legislature in the midst of the political fight over charters, an address by Sheldon Silver, speaker of New York’s Assembly: “There are children that are learning in trailers today; nobody has taken up their cause, to get them a permanent seat and a permanent school.”  According to Baker, Silver was unsuccessful  in his effort to secure funds in the state budget deal to rid the city of temporary classrooms in aging trailers, many of them now located on playgrounds next to over-crowded traditional schools in Queens in neighborhoods where immigrants have settled.  According to Baker’s investigation, despite a promise by former Mayor Bloomberg that he would rid NYC of  portable classrooms by 2012, today such supposedly temporary trailers house 7,158 children every day. “Though the Bloomberg administration spent billions of dollars buying land and building new schools, it managed only a modest reduction in the number of school trailers: to 352 today from 371 when he took office.”

Baker points out the obvious: “And the state budget deal reached last week is quite likely to make the task even harder, since it compels the city to find room in public school buildings for new charter schools, or help pay for their space costs.”  One fact that the prevailing conventional wisdom about the rights of charter operators ignores is the scale of the issues in NYC’s schools, which serve 1.1 million children.  In NYC, while 66,000 children are enrolled in charter schools, 1,034,000 children attend NYC’s traditional public schools.   Despite that the the conventional wisdom among New York’s power brokers doesn’t accord traditional public schools nearly so much attention, Mayor de Blasio deserves support as he tries to address the needs of the schools that serve the majority—and the schools most likely to serve the vulnerable.