Expect More: It’s Easy, Fast and Cheap!

July 22, 2014 Leave a comment

David Leonard’s Upshot article in today’s NYTimes describes the results from a recent study completed by Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills research at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the group that brought us the PISA test. According to the OECD, US Principals are more likely than their counterparts in other parts of the world to “…believe that many of their students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes.”  The study also reports that “Based on the views of principals, a larger share of children in the United States are “socioeconomically disadvantaged” compared with those in Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, Romania and various other countries. 

Leonard offers a rationale for the first finding:

The usual caveats about correlation and causation apply, though. It’s also possible that an outside factor is driving the results of the survey question. The United States, for example, has an extensive and high-profile program of subsidizing lunches for lower-income children. If that program were driving principals’ definition of socioeconomic disadvantage, and other countries did not have similar programs, it could explain why this country is an outlier in the survey. In that case, American principals may or may not have lower academic expectations of their students.

Neither the OECD nor Mr. Leonard posed the question about the student demographics of “…Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, Romania and various other countries” but I would guess that none of those countries offer universal education to all students through high school and that many of them do not have or aggressively enforce child labor laws. Given those assumptions, it may be true that those countries, in fact, do have fewer “socioeconomically disadvantaged” children in their schools. I did some quick Google research and, using some of the data and some back-of-the-envelope lowball estimates offered the following comment:

Your notion that the principals answered honestly based on free and reduced lunch counts is plausible given the number of students who now qualify for that program, which is a proxy for “sociological disadvantage”. It is interesting that Mr. Schleicher is willing to suggest causality between expectations and performance based on the answer to a question posed to school principals on a questionnaire whose statistical basis is arguable but is unwilling to acknowledge ANY causality between poverty levels and academic performance as measured by a (presumably) valid standardized test (e.g. the PISA). Most voters and taxpayers like the notion that all you need to do is expect more from students and they will perform better academically. It’s an easy, quick and cheap fix to a complicated problem that requires time and— yes—money. 

Add “set higher expectations” to the long list of agreeable fantasies that fuel the fire of those who want easy, quick, and, most of all, CHEAP fixes to improving public education.

Where We’re Headed

July 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Myrtle Beach Online posted an editorial from the Los Angeles Times with the chilling title “Children in the United States Get an Unequal Education; That’s Unfair But Unlikely to Change in the Future”. The editorial describes the workaround several affluent districts have come up with to work around the CA law that says public schools can’t charge for courses. It seems that several districts have established private foundations that are offering AP summer school courses to students who can pay $600 to $800 to enroll.

In CA these privately funded foundations are nothing new. As districts cut “frills” like art, music, PE, clubs, and transportation to-and-from school, as a result of budget pressures created under proposition 13, parents in affluent communities banded together to form foundations whose mission was to raise money to restore these budget cuts. Of course not every district has the wherewithal to create a foundation and not every district has parents who can afford to pay a de facto user fee… but districts were hard pressed to squelch this grassroots movement and taxpayers loved it because they could have it both ways: lower bills for them and no complaints from the engaged and affluent parents who willingly accepted the “user fee” model. After all, parents are increasingly used to digging into their pockets to pay for activities like little league, soccer leagues, gymnastics, music lessons, etc. We don’t ask the public to subsidize those activities, why should they pay for, say, art, music, PE, school buses… or a wide array of elective courses at the HS?

If you don’t think this trend is heading eastward, take a look at the deliberations going on when your school budget is being considered. User fees are increasingly used for athletics and clubs and PTOs are called on more and more to buy materials of instruction and technology. And when someone reads a headline from a nationally known newspaper that reads “Children in the United States Get an Unequal Education; That’s Unfair But Unlikely to Change in the Future” what are they to do? Question the conventional wisdom that while it IS unfair it is equally unlikely to change in the future?

Alas, the editors at Myrtle Beach Online’s headline reads “Better Educated Public School Kids For A Price”. They seem to be acquiescing to the notion that unfairness cannot be addressed… that they are accepting the price of unequally educated populous rather than paying the price of higher taxes to provide equitable opportunities for all children.

The Billionaire Boys ROI

July 22, 2014 Leave a comment

I just finished reading “The Billionaire Boys Reinvesting a Small Percent of the Spoils of Capitalism“, a blog post on The Progressive’s web page written by Jan Resseger. The post opens with this short, concise, and accurate description of why the billionaires have so much to give:

One reason the Billionaire Boys have so much to invest through their mega-foundations is that tax cuts at the federal and state level have been tilted to favor the extremely wealthy and burden those whose incomes are far lower, exacerbating inequality and the plight of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

The post then covers the questionable effects of the trickle-down philanthropy-based economy, whereby a small group of extraordinarily wealthy billionaires get to determine public policy based on THIER beliefs and values. The post offers a series of ethical questions raised in a blog post by Reverend John Thomas. He enumerated “…three problems embedded in venture philanthropy”, attributing the identification of these broadly defined problems to Lester M. Salamon,  Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. The three problems are particularism, paternalism, and insufficiency. That is, philanthropists tend to give to organizations whose missions and values match theirs, whose outcomes are of interest to them, but, in doing so, provide far less money than would have been available to the general welfare had the taxes been collected without loopholes.

The post concludes with a synopsis of an article Joanne Barkan wrote for Dissent magazine, describing the effects of this philanthropy-economy on public education.

Barkan describes the interests and passions in which the three giants of education philanthropy have been dabbling: “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.”

Resseger is concerned because the funding is continuing for these boilerplate initiatives despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that they are working. She concludes the post with this lament:

The fact that the Billionaire Boys can buy an extensive and long-running public relations and media campaign is one reason we haven’t had a thorough public conversation to compare the experiments of the philanthropists with our historic system of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public.  We ought to be asking which sort of schools do a better job of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the capacity to secure the rights and address the needs of all children.

Here is what I find particularly distressing: after the recent Supreme Court decisions determining that campaign donations are a form of “free speech” I see no changes to the “test-punish-privatize” mantra. With “only” 4.35 billion spread over several years, RTTT became a de facto directive for districts to adopt the common core, to use standardized tests to measure everything about schooling, and to begin using Big Data to collect and store information on teachers, parents, and students. This proves Resseger’s point that “…controlling just a few billion dollars” of the $500 billion spent for public schools can make a huge difference.

Looking ahead, I would guess that most of the contributors to both parties campaigns are enthusiastic about the direction the federal government is leading us in terms of privatization of public schools, and the payback to technology companies, for-profit start-ups, and test companies will increase… for the campaign contributions to both parties won’t add up to “billions”… and I’d predict that those political contributions will have a great return on investment for the billionaire boys!

Liberty vs Compassion

July 21, 2014 Leave a comment

I read a recent Huffington Post essay titled “Koch High: How the Koch Brothers are Buying Their Way Into the  Minds of Public School Students” with a combination of revulsion, horror, and fascination. The extended article describes the evolution of the Young Entrepreneurs (YE) program, a program ostensibly designed to help disadvantaged teenagers learn and apply entrepreneurial skills but explicitly designed to counter the “left’s” efforts to “infiltrate” public schools.

I was revolted by the Young Entrepreneurs program because, at its root, it is brainwashing. Here are some paragraphs that support this assertion:

The focus on high school students is a key part of the Kochs’ long-term effort to create a libertarian-minded society from the ground up.

“We hope to develop students’ appreciation of liberty by improving free-market education,” the Koch associates wrote during the program’s initial planning stages. “Ultimately, we hope this will change the behavior of students who will apply these principles later on in life.”

“We are operating under the assumption that high-school students do not receive an education that gives them an understanding and an affinity toward free markets… Without the knowledge or affinity for free markets, students cannot appreciate the role that free markets play in laying the foundations for prosperity and freedom in society.”

The article details the kinds of recruiting and training conducted by the Koch brothers. The organization uses libertarian listservs to identify teachers who will be sympathetic to the training and provided an examples of the videos and “textbooks” (including ones written by the Koch brothers themselves) that were required reading. and offered examples of quiz questions like:

  • “If people who make very little money have modern conveniences, are they really poor?”
  • “True or False: International trade should be heavily regulated for the good of a country’s economy”

And the article is sprinkled with examples of Newspeak from the libertarians, two of which are highlighted in the following paragraph describing the YE curriculum:

Today, to teach its most controversial lessons, YE often relies on videos provided by the Charles Koch-chaired Institute for Humane Studies, which operates out of George Mason University in Virginia. The videos are produced and marketed under an institute arm called Learn Liberty, which offers dozens of educational videos on libertarian and conservative topics

Who could possibly oppose “Humane Studies” or a course that advocates “liberty”?

I reacted with horror because the underlying economics echo a prediction I made regarding the ultimate effects of the private-public partnerships now advocated and embraced by the President… and echoed statements I might have made as School superintendent in the 1990s when school-business partnerships seemed like an innocuous win-win opportunity. Here’s a description of how YE got its foothold in Kansas:

Kansas is a particularly ripe state for YE to target. In addition to serving as Koch Industries’ home base, the state has a public school system hungry for extra help: It’s so underfunded that a few months ago the state’s Supreme Court deemed school funding levels unconstitutionally low. (see earlier posts on this topic) 

(Topeka School superintendent) Singer saw YE as a welcome boon to the ailing school system — the latest in a long string of partnerships that turned to outsiders to increase school resources for free. He came across the organization when teachers involved in an entrepreneurial club brought YE materials to his attention.

“If you can generate revenue outside of taxation, that’s a positive thing,” said Singer… “We couldn’t have done what we did in Topeka, in giving opportunities for kids, had we not had our business partners.”

So… starve the schools of resources so that they cannot offer elective courses in, say, business education… or afford to operate after school clubs in, say, entrepreneurship and then provide stipends to teachers and “grants” to disadvantaged students to offset the programs formerly funded and overseen by the schools. The whole scheme puts superintendents and school boards in political peril if they refuse the “opportunity” to offer a program that describes “the benefits of the free enterprise system” and gives hard-working and diligent students an opportunity for success. But as this article indicates, if you accept the money you need to accept the  content of the curriculum… and Koch’s curriculum is far from “fair and balanced”.

I was fascinated with the Koch brother’s techniques in the same way that I am fascinated with the techniques of propagandists and advertisers. Like the technology corporations that gather information about us without our knowledge or explicit approval, the Koch brothers are developing ways of inculcating values into public schools and teenagers… and they are casting “liberty” as being more important than “compassion”. When a quiz includes a question like “If people who make very little money have modern conveniences, are they really poor?” they are feeding into the idea that you can’t claim to be poor if you have a flush toilet and a flat-screen television. They are, in effect, reinforcing the notion that the possession of “things” is sufficient and one should not feel compassion for those individuals who can afford “modern conveniences” because they have everything they need.

We need liberty and we need compassion. Liberty, to me, means the opportunity to understand the strengths and weaknesses of every form of economics and governance— and yes, capitalism and democracy have weaknesses as well as strengths… and one of the strengths when both are working in harmony is the provision of a sound infrastructure through taxes. Compassion, to me, means empathizing with and providing for those less fortunate, even if those less fortunate have “modern conveniences”.





Money Can’t Buy Love

July 20, 2014 Leave a comment

NYTimes Sunday Op-Ed writer Arthur C. Brooks has an interesting and insightful article on happiness titled “Love People, Not Pleasure”, an article that incorporates the Buddhist teachings on clinging and grasping. Brooks notes that money, fame, and sex are hollow aspirations that only lead to suffering because we can never get enough of any of the three. To illustrate this point Brooks quotes from the Dhammapada, the Buddha’s path of wisdom, and follows up with a pithy aphorism:

“The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life… Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.”

This search for fame, the lust for material things and the objectification of others — that is, the cycle of grasping and craving — follows a formula that is elegant, simple and deadly:

Love things, use people.

After reading an article recommending that merit pay is the best means of recruiting new teachers (see previous post) I was compelled to leave the following comment:

Please inform the “school reformers” who want to interpose the compensation plans from the business world onto public education that not everyone is motivated by money. Many teachers are happier than hedge fund managers and CEOs because they are intrinsically motivated.

Brooks recognizes that his notions are ultimately subversive to the current economic and social system and implies that the desire for these three pleasures are immutable.

This also requires a condemnation of materialism. This is manifestly not an argument for any specific economic system. Anyone who has spent time in a socialist country must concede that materialism and selfishness are as bad under collectivism, or worse, as when markets are free. No political ideology is immune to materialism.

Finally, it requires a deep skepticism of our own basic desires. Of course you are driven to seek admiration, splendor and physical license. But giving in to these impulses will bring unhappiness. You have a responsibility to yourself to stay in the battle. The day you declare a truce is the day you become unhappier. Declaring war on these destructive impulses is not about asceticism or Puritanism. It is about being a prudent person who seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering.

While Brooks is not arguing “…for any specific economic system” his “…declaring war on these destructive impulses.. to avoid unnecessary suffering” sounds very familiar to this practicing Buddhist…. and I know it would resonate with many who practice the core beliefs of religious traditions as opposed to those who adhere strongly to the doctrines of those traditions. I would be interested in reading Brooks’ ideas on how economic and political systems could embrace beliefs based on fighting the destructive impulses of materialism… and how schools might inculcate these arguably essential notions in students. Maybe instead of reinforcing the “…search for fame, the lust for material things and the objectification of others — that is, the cycle of grasping and craving — that follows a formula that is elegant, simple and deadly: Love things, use people” we could introduce students to a new school of though that eschews the search for fame, the lust for material things, and the objectification of others… a school of thought that might yield a formula that is elegant, simple, and virtuous:

Love People; Use Things



A Disingenuous Proposal for Pay

July 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The Business Insider recently published an article touting a compensation system called for in a report issued by Michelle Rhee’s organization, The New Teacher Project (TNTP). The report cites that 90% of the school districts in the United States use a “lockstep pay system” that suppresses entry wages and long term wages. This is true… but not because of the pay system. It’s true because the limited amount of funds available for salaries. Changing the pay system will only increase sallies at both ends of the spectrum if more money is applied. The only way to compensate teachers more with the same amount of money is to have fewer teachers. The TNTP proposed solution?

The report calls for schools to compensate teachers based on performance and offer bonuses for instructors at high-need schools and critical subjects.

Ah yes… merit pay, bonuses for “high need schools”, and teachers in “critical subjects”. This is a new and innovative idea?

As for the article, it is full of misinformation. First and foremost, is states that “…teachers are paid the same whether they work in high- or low-income schools”. this is clearly wrong: the pay scales for teachers who work in affluent districts are markedly higher than those who work in districts that serve children raised in poverty. Secondly, it assumes that graduates who enter teaching are motivated by money, which is not the case. Those who enter teaching want to make a difference in the lives of children, not make a million dollars a year. Third, the folks who are arguing for this kind of pay scale are simultaneously arguing that taxpayers should pay less and/or the total compensation for teachers is too high and/or “tenure” should be eliminated…. at least Michelle Rhee has made some or all of these arguments elsewhere. Finally, as noted above, implementing a pay schedule like the one recommended in this essay would ultimately cost the taxpayers MUCH more if all else remains equal… and the way to make things different from the way they are now would be to reduce benefits and pensions and/or increase class sizes. Sorry, Ms. Rhee, your study is lacking in both new ideas and a grounding in reality.


Philadelphia and PA: Nothing Changes

July 19, 2014 1 comment

I read Meredith Broussard’s recent Atlantic article, “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing” and shook my head in exasperation: nothing changes in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania… and worse: the solution isn’t more tests or more penalties or more charter schools: it’s more carefully spent money.

Based on the information presented in the Atlantic article here’s what hasn’t changed in Philadelphia since I was a teacher at Shaw Junior High School:

  • There aren’t enough books
  • There aren’t enough administrators
  • There aren’t enough teachers
  • The central administration is overwhelmed with paperwork
  • Technology is outdated and under-supported
  • As measured by standardized tests, students are performing poorly

Here’s what is different:

  • The state controls the schools (and has for roughly two decades) because they can do a better job… but student performance has not improved one iota since the State takeover.
  • Many of the schools are operated by privatized charters, because the private sector can solve the problems better than the “government run” schools… but for-profit charters have not improved student performance even though they draw from the children of engaged parents. 
  • The per pupil spending gap is wider as compared to surrounding suburban school districts because “money can’t solve the problems”… even though parents and community members in the suburban districts willingly pay more for their better schools… oh.. and those schools DO have textbooks for each child and sophisticated data systems to monitor the allocation of resources and progress of each-and-every student.   
  • The central administration emphasizes the ineffectiveness of teachers instead of the needs of students. Mark Shedd and Matt Costanza, the Superintendents in the late 60s and early 1970s, spoke eloquently in defense of the hard work teachers were doing and the challenges they faced given the effects of poverty. Since then: it’s all about bad teaching. 

And… based on the information presented in the Atlantic article here’s what hasn’t changed in Pennsylvania since I was an administrator in suburban Philadelphia in the mid-1970s: economically disadvantaged students do poorly on standardized achievement tests and students in affluent districts do better and the test results are used to draw the conclusion that schools serving children raised in poverty are “failing” and schools serving children raised in affluence are “good”.

Broussard’s article presents the stark reality of public education in Philadelphia without judgment… and it’s not a pretty picture.