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.

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High Stakes and Performance Anxiety for One Little Boy

Javier Hernandez’s in-depth piece in Sunday’s NY Times, Common Core, in  9-Year-Old Eyes, explores the way the learning theory we believe in these days intersects with real life.  I haven’t taken a class in learning theory for many years, but what I remember has little to do with what we have come to believe today in America.  These days we evaluate teachers with “value-added” formulas and try to quantify the effect of the teacher “standing in the front of the classroom.”  We believe in filling the measuring cup with curriculum up to the appropriate standard line, and then we think we can evaluate how well the teacher pours the contents into the head of the child.

In Hernandez’s article, instead, we see how such a theory contrasts with the experience of school and learning for one little boy in New York City—an immigrant from Haiti and one of triplets—two boys and one girl.  Here are just a few of the things we can learn from this story.

The teacher is dedicated and knows her stuff.  She is teaching to the standards she has been assigned and she believes in the worth of the new Common Core curriculum.  No waivering; no ambivalence.

The mother cares about education; she emigrated to NYC to give her kids a better chance.  Even though she works long hours, she pays attention to what is happening with her three children, takes away video games entirely when she learns her sons are falling behind, and even assigns her daughter to tutor her own brothers with, incidentally, what appear to be positive results.  The daughter, as often happens, was likely more mature and developmentally more ready for school than her brothers.  She is goal-oriented and competent; she has become an excellent reader by doing lots of reading.  She is often recognized with awards at school and at home affirmed for her academic prowess.

The little boy who is the subject of the piece is a sharp fourth-grader.  He wants desperately to succeed at school.  Improving at school is so important to him that the high stakes tests he faces seem to be creating performance anxiety that interferes with his enjoyment of school and his ability to move to the conceptual level required in the new math.  He was a star at the old math and this new failure alarms him. He has become more emotionally fragile.  Fantasy video games are his favorite and very distracting interest.  It appears he is behind in reading, with vocabulary gaps that make math harder for him when he is required to “draw a model using equal groups or an array to show the problem, write a division equation for the problem, or write a multiplication equation for the problem.”  While he is much more than a beginning reader, his reading skills do not provide the flexibility for him to respond adequately to the math problems now required on the test he will be taking.  And to make matters worse, he worries about having to go to summer school, he is alarmed that he might be held back, and he worries about falling behind his brother and sister—as a matter of sibling pride.  He has become an anxious child.  He has also been working hard at school under all this pressure and his test scores in reading and math appear to be rising.  What a relief for him at the moment and for his mother and his teacher.  Intense academic pressure is making him try hard and at the same time worry more.

There has been some controversy about whether it is good for this child that the NY Times named him as the article explores the very sensitive issues of his development as a student. Shouldn’t the newspaper have disguised his identity?  Like many others, I worry for the child.

But now that the newspaper has published this in-depth piece, I urge you to read it. Read it in the context of last week’s California court decision in the teacher-tenure case of Vergara, in which the judge quoted an economist who confidently declared that research proves a single year in a classroom with an ineffective teacher costs a classroom of students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings.  The article lifts up the complexity of teaching and learning—the number of issues that affect not only the teacher but every one of the children in such a classroom.  Real life child development for a whole classroom of students is so wonderfully complicated that it cannot so easily be thought about as an econometric problem.

Hernandez’s story of a child in the fourth grade at Public School 397 in Brooklyn, New York describes the kind of hard work going on in classrooms across the country. Teaching and learning are relational; something connects between teacher and child or among children. Or sometimes it does not connect and the teacher must find another way to try again and again.   The metaphor of pouring knowledge from a measuring cup into the brains of children does not describe what happens in a classroom.  Nor does it describe the experience for the child.  This story captures how learning is experienced by one little boy.

Read this blog’s comments on the Vergara teacher tenure court decision here and here.