Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Angels and Demons - an "Ed Reform" Primer

So I’m working on a rather large project for my Master’s in Education Leadership. The degree (along with a Principal’s certification) seemed like a really good idea at the time I started, and probably still is.  The project is to try to connect the New Jersey dots in the “ed reform” movement.  The problem is the dots web out far beyond the Garden State.
In the course of researching for the project I’ve had conversations with players on several levels of the “ed reform” debate. I keep putting that in quotes because the “ed reform” movement, while I think was an honorable effort at its inception, has become nothing short of a money-grab free-for-all for the well connected. As I mentioned to one of the subjects I interviewed for the project, “there are angels and demons on all sides of this thing.” What follows are my own opinions – you are not obligated to agree.
The other night I put Dustin to bed following our normal routine – he takes a shower, he brushes his teeth, we read a short passage from the Bible, we say our prayers and sing “Jesus Loves Me.” This particular night the Bible story was from Luke chapter 4 – when Jesus was tempted by the devil after spending 40 days in the wilderness. The devil played out three scenarios for Jesus; in each one he used verses from scripture to attempt to confound his Adversary. The bad guy was saying all the right words, for the wrong purposes.
I don’t want to go too far with this analogy, because there are well-meaning people on many sides of the “movement.” But, many of them (us?) are saying the right words for the wrong reasons.
One of the people I met in my research was a guy who is high up in the “movement” here in New Jersey. Great guy, wonderful backstory, I think good intentions, but (in my opinion) misguided. In fact, as he told me his story, I found myself thinking, “I wish we had gotten to him first.” This was a young man who through a series of fortuitous events, found himself attending an exclusive prep school, going onto an Ivy League undergraduate education, ultimately earning a bachelor’s in English. He wanted to write. This young man, due to his associations in high school and university, also learned how to communicate with people in many different socio-economic groups.
He actually made a living from his writing for a time – something English majors rarely do (just ask Garrison Keillor) – but found himself without employment in New York in the wake of September 11, 2001. A friend from high school happened to call him one day; during the conversation she informed him her father, a wealthy businessman, was putting together a non-profit organization to support school choice (one tenet of “ed reform”). Perhaps the young man could help.
The school choice aspect of “ed reform” essentially says, “there are kids (mostly poor kids of color) stuck in horrible classrooms with bad teachers. Let’s allow their parents to send them to a different school, even if it’s in another town.”
That’s REALLY hard to argue with. No one wants to see a kid stuck in a bad school situation, and I’m not talking about suffering through a less-than-exciting teacher for a semester. I’m talking about the classic urban school setting – committed teachers trying to do something to combat the effects of poverty and its related ills. No books, no computers, metal detectors at the doorways, heavy security, gang-inspired graffiti covering the walls. No human with a shred of conscience wants to see children spend their time in that setting. All other philosophical arguments go out the window when we are confronted with that reality. Financially, if a student is lucky enough to find a school that will take them in a neighboring community, the majority of state funding for that student goes with them to the new district. The fixed costs of the schools don’t change radically enough to compensate for the slightly diminished enrollment; the student’s home school now has less money with which to operate.
“So”, some will say, “competition made America great. If schools want to hold onto students they’ll make themselves better.” We’re talking about kids here. Some of them will have parents with the wherewithal to arrange alternate schooling in a new district; most won’t. My friend, the one with the high position in the “ed reform” movement, says, “we should help at least some, right?”
Emotionally that’s hard to refute. But what about the ones left in the original district?
Diane Ravitch and Bruce Baker have documented that the biggest determinant of student achievement is not the teacher in the room, or even the condition of the school building, but the socioeconomic status of the student. This story,, posted by Valerie Strauss, illustrates better than anything I can say.
Many of us were INCREDIBLY fortunate to have at least one parent who made sure we were fed, housed, clothed and homeworked. I went to school as a kindergartner having been read to, sung to, played with and prepared for the world of school. Many kids in “failing schools” don’t come from that reality. It’s not their fault, it’s not necessarily their parent’s fault, but it’s something the schools have to deal with. Telling us to “set high expectations or we’re being racist” is not accurate. Yes, all kids can achieve, but not all kids achieve the same things at the same time, which is the central flaw behind No Child Left Behind.
No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2000 or so, and it required every school who received Title I money to demonstrate by performance on standardized tests that all students – regardless of ethnicity, economic status, degree of language mastery or special needs – can pass. We believe all students can learn, or else we wouldn’t admit all students into schools. So what’s the problem?
The problems are many – tests are biased, graded by untrained part-time workers, for example – but primarily the results are misused.
Assessments should measure whether a student has mastered a skill or acquired knowledge; we use them to measure a teacher. If there’s a pattern of kids not mastering something specific with a specific teacher, it should be addressed. But the time to do that is not in a high-stakes test. We are using student assessment to measure whether schools receive government funding, or if they’re even allowed to remain open. They really should be telling us how to pinpoint ongoing instruction.
As part of my research I sat with the newly installed Curriculum Director of a large school district in South Jersey. He opened our conversation by saying, “there are many who say No Child Left Behind was a Republican plot to destroy public education, and I think they may be partially right (my opinion of this guy increased immensely in that moment). But, it did one good thing – it forced us to look at each kid. It was no longer good enough to reach most of the kids; we have to reach each one.”
However, along with that good thing came blatant threats – staff and administration reassignment, massive firings, conversion to charter status, outright closing – if every student did not achieve adequate yearly progress on the Test. The Test, on a district and building level, was the single arbiter of success or failure.
Some will say, “well, that’s the way it is in the real world. Do your job or lose your job.” There’s some truth there, but schools are in a different situation – we are preparing children to be citizens of a democracy. I have a good friend who maintains that, if our pedagogy is to match the corporate mentality facing our students, we will teach them how to win at any cost. Kindergartners, for example, will be placed in a circle on the floor and handed a picture to color. First one to color it correctly passes; everyone else fails. The teacher will then proceed to throw an inadequate number of crayons into the middle of the circle.
Instead, we are “schooling” our students to believe that if they do not achieve adequately it is solely the fault of the teacher in front of the room. That’ll translate real well to the working world.
There are no simple answers.
 I met today with a mom who has made a name for herself by successfully organizing members of her community who were opposed to the opening of a charter school in their town. For those who don’t know, charter schools are public schools in a community that operate with public funding but separate from the community in which they locate. Similar to inter-district choice schools, the vast majority of state funding goes to the charter when the student enrolls. In the district of Chester-Upland, Pennsylvania, so many students have enrolled in charter schools that the district came within inches of declaring bankruptcy this year. Teachers taught without compensation for many weeks before the state (which had managed the district for years) found funding for payroll.
As Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Baker have pointed out repeatedly, charters, for the most part, don’t perform significantly better than their local traditional counterparts,and they siphon off resources.
I taught for three years in a charter school in Camden. During the time I was there, Camden was named the most dangerous city in America; that made me one of the most dangerous music teachers in America.
I was recruited to the charter from another district. I read the available information and thought they were doing wonderful things – extended school day and year, brand new buildings, associations with a major state university, small class size. On paper, things were wonderful. Execution was another story.
The biggest reason the kids were there was because they were safe. They had parents who had enough together to complete the lottery applications and commit to required community service. The school had wrap-around services – a nurse practitioner, legal services, parenting classes, community internships; all in all it was a wonderful premise. I loved the vast majority of the kids, parents and faculty. The founder, though, seemed to have an axe to grind against the educational establishment that failed so many children in the city. To her credit, she did something about it, something significant.  This particular school, however, has just been tagged as the subject of an investigation for misusing federal funds.
Charter schools are not alone in misusing government dollars. There are endless instances of fraud, misuse and mismanagement in traditional public schools. To me (and this is my blog), it just seems that when charters misuse money they’ve taken away from existing schools, it really just twists the knife.
Charter schools became law in New Jersey in 1996. They were originally conceived as small schools run by educators looking to try new, innovative ideas in “laboratory” settings. Findings and best practices would be shared with existing schools. They morphed, however, into something a bit more onerous.
Private companies saw opportunity to establish charter schools and use the taxpayers’ tuition dollars as a source of revenue. Really imaginative firms saw even more opportunity – let’s create a company that buys real estate. Let’s create another company that runs charter schools. Let’s take the tuition money from the charter to lease our own property as a profit center.
But wait there’s more.
Remember NCLB being signed into law around 2000? Around the same time Congress approved the New Market Tax Credits program, encouraging investment in low-income urban areas. So, under this program, an enterprising investor could receive a large tax credit for putting money into a charter school in an urban setting.
How do we increase profits (and as a result shareholder value)? Keep costs down. Most charter schools are non-union operations. They offer much lower salaries (but hold out the promise of merit pay – story for another day) and other compensation. Often urban charters will bring in teachers from Teach For America, an organization that takes bright college graduates, trains them for 5 weeks then places them to teach in the most difficult urban settings. Most of the TFA candidates go on to other careers after their time of service. Again, laudable, but most teachers say it takes five years in the classroom to really learn the job, even after a full education track in college. In the charter in which I served, teachers were viewed as disposable commodities. There was huge turnover, both in the staff and (especially in) administration. But, payroll was lower than an analogous public school.
Ok, so hypothetically we could have one holding corporation who has three arms – an investment arm which takes advantage of the NMTC, funds a separate property management firm (under the same umbrella company) to buy a building in an urban area, leases the building to a third sister company that runs the charter school which derives its revenue from taxpayers.
That would never happen, right?
There are good charter schools doing wonderful things where needed, and that needs to be said. But, there are too many well connected businesspeople who see publicly-funded education as a revenue source. And too many of them are politically connected to the state organizations that authorize and supervise charters.
And we haven’t even gotten to tenure reform, common core curriculum, cyber charters, teacher and principal evaluation and relationships between testing companies, media providers and state school boards.
Suffice it to say that parents, teachers and taxpayers need to pay attention. The deck is stacked in favor of charter schools, to the detriment of existing public schools. My sense is the deck is stacked not because they do a better job, but because people want to get their hands on the trillion dollars (!) spent on K-12 education every year.
Oh – the young man who is now so influential in shaping education policy in New Jersey – he spent one day in a classroom with a mentor and decided he couldn’t teach.  That’s his sum total of pedagogical experience. He said a couple of interesting things to me. One, “I’m sitting here because you’re not.” Two, “if we could get neighborhood schools to work I wouldn’t be here.”  He’s correct, but pulling the resources from the many for the sake of the few is not the way to fix neighborhood schools.
I do believe we need to rethink the methods by which we fund and deliver public education, especially in urban settings. Turning kids into a market is not the answer – focusing on them as a mission is a step in the right direction.
More later.


  1. Excellent..and much to digest. FYI...Commissioner of Education Spellman...during the Bush Administration, admitted to a group of teachers (I was among them) that she had substituted for one day in a public school. Like our young man in NJ, she said she just couldn't do it. Didn't stop her from becoming head of education in the United States. Maybe I should have skipped my 25+ years in the classroom and gone that route.