Today’s NYTimes has an op ed piece by the outgoing president of the Ford Fondation, Luis Ubinas, titled “Our Schools, Cut-off From the Web”. The article recounts the sad state of technology equity in America’s schools and indicates how the technology divide is contributing to the economic divide. An excerpt, with emphasis added:
The factors that will drive our national future —educational achievement, a healthy population, broad political participation and economic opportunity for all — depend in significant ways on how we structure and manage our spreading digital frontier. About 19 million Americans still lack access to high-speed broadband; many more can’t afford it.
Virtually all of America’s schools are connected to the Internet today. But that success is a lot like trumpeting, a century ago, that virtually every town in the country was reachable by road. Then, as now, the question is quality. Children who go to school in poor neighborhoods are connected to the Web at speeds so slow as to render most educational Web sites unusable. The exploding world of free online courses from great academies is closed to those who lack a digital pathway.
As part of the American population that lacks access to high-speed broadband even though I CAN afford it, I know that the telecom industry is actively blocking efforts to provide competitive and affordable links to homes…. and I also know that if HOMES are not connected to the Web that “…the exploding world of free online courses” will be limited. Indeed, most of the advantages technology can bring to public education require 24/7 connections to the web.
Ubinas concludes his article with recommendations for the Obama administration and an apt quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
Mr. Obama was right to call attention to this problem. A good first step in addressing it would be to overhaul E-Rate to make sure it gets the Web into every classroom and library, not just a school, either through cable or Wi-Fi, and with sufficient financing for upkeep. Second, a subset of teachers and librarians need to be trained as champions of digital education. Without such advocates, the pedagogical impact of broadband won’t be fully realized. Third, any conversation on national infrastructure must put broadband as a priority alongside aviation, bridges, energy, highways, ports, rail and water.
Our future depends on the ability of every American to participate fully in our digital economy and democracy. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”
If Obama has the authority to overhaul E-Rate, he should heed Ubinas’ advice. I know from experience that some school boards are loath to spend E-Rate money on technology because they are then “on the hook” for future maintenance and upgrades and they do not want to “commit future boards” to spending constraints. I also know that having a “champion for digital education” makes a huge difference in a school… especially if that champion is sitting in the Principals Office. Finally, I don’t think the public is fully aware of the importance of securing broadband. When FDR introduced electricity to rural areas its impact was immediately evident: lights went on at night and appliances suddenly worked. The impact of high-speed broadband is less evident. Students won’t catch up in school immediately and businesses won’t open on Main Street right off the bat. But if the Web is not readily available, the slow decay of public schools will continue and businesses will wither as well. We need to act quickly and decisively on this… As Ubinas notes earlier in his article,
Since the mid-1990s, a generation of American children has passed through our schools with substandard access to the online world. This is how an information underclass begins to take root — a disturbing contribution to our era of inequality, when jobs and economic opportunity flow to those with the best-honed digital skills.
The NYTimes had an Opinionator piece today by Rebecca Strauss that did an excellent job of laying out the true story of America’s “failing schools” and of critiquing President Obama’s record on education with one notable exception: she overemphasized the need for and effectiveness of the accountability efforts:
On the plus side, the Obama administration has pushed for more cost and quality accountability for education providers who cater to low-income children, while also developing better ways to measure and evaluate quality. The worst Head Start preschools are being forced to re-compete for federal funding under a more rigorous set of standards. States are being encouraged, through No Child Left Behind waivers and the Race to the Top competitive grant program, to improve teacher evaluation techniques, to invest in data systems for tracking teacher performance and student achievement, and to refocus reform efforts squarely on the worst-performing K-12 schools.
I have not witnessed ANY indication that the Obama administration has “pushed for more cost and quality accountability for education providers who cater to low-income children “. Instead the administration has stood on the sidelines while Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia closed schools, many of which were NOT low performing. At the same time, they have stood on the sidelines while those same districts kept low-performing for profit schools opened.
Throughout this article, Ms. Strauss provides an excellent analysis of how we spend less money on schools serving children in poverty and less money on post-secondary institutions who serve children in poverty… and the praises Race To The Top because it will “…improve teacher evaluation techniques, … invest in data systems for tracking teacher performance and student achievement, and … refocus reform efforts squarely on the worst-performing K-12 schools.” There is no evidence— NONE— that the deficiency in high poverty public schools is the result of poor teaching— and the “science” linking student test scores to teacher performance is bogus— and we know about the “worst performing” schools are those that serve children in poverty and are starved for resources. How about this idea: we level the spending per student and provide quality pre-school FIRST and THEN worry about teacher evaluation techniques.
Over the past day Diane Ravitch has several posts decrying the sorry state of teacher evaluation, providing air time to many disgruntled teachers and describing some of the preposterous test-driven and checklist-driven methods used to “measure” schools. The fundamental problem with teacher evaluation is that few school districts are willing to pay for the personnel needed to administer schools effectively, as my comment to one of Diane Ravitch’s posts explains:
There are several reasons public schools do not have well conceived evaluation systems but the easiest to explain is this: the span of control in public education is broader than anything one encounters in any educational organization. In districts where I served as Superintendent we typically had one Principal for an elementary school of 500 students or fewer and added an assistant principal for larger schools. The Principal was expected to evaluate the teachers, instructional assistants, secretarial staff, related service providers, and—in some cases—bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Oh… and the Principal is the final arbiter in playground disputes among children, supports teachers in the management of misbehaving students, serves on IEP teams, meets with social services when referrals are made to parents, works with the PTO chair to organize fund raisers, signs off on spending and purchasing, makes certain computers operate and the cafeteria food is decent, the list goes on…. PLUS, the Principal has several daunting annual activities to tend to: budget development, planning and implementing standardized tests, and hiring staff. Finally,in many New England districts the Principal prepares board meeting packets as well. So with that range of staff to over see and that long list of responsibilities, is it any surprise that when it comes time to conduct evaluations that checklists are used?
If the public wants to provide good evaluations they need to provide TIME for evaluations which means either hiring more administrators or providing release time for teacher/coaches…. and in education, like any business, TIME means MONEY… and in public education (or any public enterprise) money means more taxes…. and in the end, it is easier to offer easy and inexpensive “market based” solutions to schooling than it is to suggest tackling the complicated systemic solutions… and so checklists!
Diane Ravitch’s post today chided the Newark Superintendent’s recommendation to close neighborhood schools in favor of universal charters… which is where the free-market Chicago school economists want all public schools to go. Near the end of the post, which is a reaction to a Newark Star Ledger article, Ms. Ravitch quotes:
“Anderson also said she hopes the district and charter schools can pool their resources and work together to renovate aging district-owned facilities with financing only charter schools can currently access.”
Later she suggests that some of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100,000,000 might be used to fix schools instead of offering charters the primary means of funding schools. I can see how this is playing out… and shared my thoughts in a comment:
The last section about construction costs is key: Newark has scores of schools that require millions of dollars in renovations and upgrades and that bill falls on the State who does not see school construction as a priority. By shifting the cost of renovation costs to charters or opening charters in new facilities that enable the closure of crumbling public schools the district is able to address this problem. Oh, and it might be possible for a PRIVATE enterprise to sidestep the requirement that union labor build or renovate the PUBLIC schools.
And a word on construction costs: seven years ago it cost roughly $45 million to upgrade one 700 pupil HS and build a 450 pupil MS in the NH district where I worked…. and NH does not have nearly the costs for construction that NJ faces. I would guess that Zuckerberg’s $100 million would fix two large HSs in Newark and maybe build one HS. $100,000,000 is a lot of money, but it doesn’t go far when you are fixing or building schools… and it can only be spent once.
This is another gambit ripped from the playbook of private sector vulture capitalists who take over an enterprise that is struggling financially (the public schools in Newark), strip it of its assets (i.e. shed the schools requiring renovation and use only the best facilities), reform the enterprise as a new entity (Newark Charters, Inc) enabling the complete closure of the old entity (the public schools). All those working for the old entity get pink slips and a chance to apply for a new job in a new entity that pays less and offers fewer benefits. Welcome to the 21st century!
In Paul Krugman’s column today, “Sympathy for the Luddites”, he suggests that more education may not be the solution to restoring the middle class jobs that are disappearing as a result of advances in technology:
Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.
He notes that education costs more and more and as a result students are required to go deeper in debt for schooling making it ever more difficult for them to make enough money to get into a middle class lifestyle. His column concludes with these paragraphs:
Education, then, is no longer the answer to rising inequality, if it ever was (which I doubt).
So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?
I think there is an emerging divide in our thinking about “redistribution” with one extreme side seeing affluence as a natural consequence of “hard work” and another extreme side seeing it as the consequence of a system that is rigged against 99% of the population…. and most Americans falling somewhere along that spectrum. My comment to Krugman’s column, which focuses on school funding, follows:
Those advocating “fixing our failed schools” and “more education” as the answer to the problems facing our country were wrong: our schools were never failing those raised in affluence and those raised in affluence had access to all the education they desired. The problems facing our country emerged when shareholder primacy came into being and the public was sold on the idea that “government is the problem”…. the “failing schools” meme was evidence of the failures of government along with the mythical welfare queens and pork-barrell projects beloved by congress. After years of partisan gridlock government IS the problem… and after a few more years of de-funding our schools may fail as well.
Today’s NYTimes has an article on national trends in preschool funding that sheds some light on how the federal government might expand preschool education without bricks and mortar and without adding to the roles of union membership. The plan: underwrite private preschools, including those with religious affiliations. And this idea seems to have support from all the key constituent groups: the NEA, policy think tanks, the Obama administration are all quoted guardedly favorable to expanding public funding for the existing preschool programming even if that programming is offered in churches.
The advantages of this concept are practical and fiscal. Why spend scarce dollars expanding existing schools when churches and agencies like the YMCA have space available for programs? Why have public schools compete with a network of preschool providers that are already in place? Why introduce union wages and benefits into a work world where compensation is low?
As Superintendent in MD for a decade in the late 80s and early 90s I encouraged non-profit organizations to offer before and after school child care to students, in some cases in conjunction with businesses who wanted to offer such a program for their employees. We vetted the programs before offering them space, but apart from collecting an intentionally modest rent, had no relationship with the child care providers. By the time I left the district, 20 of the 24 schools had after-school programs.
Yet even with this personal history of de facto subcontracting for child care services I am somewhat unsettled at the notion of offering de facto vouchers to parents to attend pre-schools, especially given the recent history of charter schools. In establishing the before-and after-school child care program the district performed a regulatory function and determined that we would only offer the space in the schools to non-sectarian non-profit organizations. The expansion of preschools as described in this article do not suggest the regulations for pre-schools be tightened nor does it suggest that students attending programs in churches would be exempt from religious instruction for programming that occurs outside the period of time that is funded. In short, it is not hard to see how this funding plan is anything but a backdoor means of introducing vouchers. This quote from the article makes this conclusion hard to avoid:
At a time when more lawmakers and activist groups are pushing to direct public money to parents through vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, some say the preschool financing structure could set a precedent for the rest of formal public schooling.
“K-12 is heading to where early childhood has always been,” said Harriet Dichter, the executive director of the Delaware Office of Early Learning who helped set up Pennsylvania’s public preschool program when she was an education official there. “It’s always been in this market kind of thing.”
Our country needs earlier educational programs for children born into poverty. It needs programs that are staffed by teachers with a strong background in early childhood education and programs that are coordinated with other publicly funded social services. My fear is that the federal government will promote the practical and politically feasible solution to the need for child care instead of the program needed to close the divide between rich and poor families. Using public funds to support the existing loosely regulated preschools in place would be a missed opportunity…. unless the opportunity to have public schooling be “…this market kind of thing” is more important that the opportunity to have all children begin public schooling with a strong background.