Democracy Compromised II: The Insidious Effect of Philanthropy on Public Education

November 30, 2015 Leave a comment

A few days ago the Naked Capitalism website included a link to an Intercept article by Michael Massing titled “How the Gates Foundation Reflects the Good and Bad of Hacker Philanthropy”. In the article, Massing critiques tech magnate Sean Parker’s June 2015 Wall Street Journal article titled “Philanthropy for Hackersand the recently published books No Such Thing as a Free Gift by Linsey McGoey, a sociologist at the University of Essex, and The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by journalist Dale Russakoff.

Massing insinuates that Parker’s article overstates the “disruptive” tech philanthropist’s desire “to treat philanthropy as “a series of calculated risks” and “big bets””. Quoting from Alessandra Stanley’s Times article in late October that “offered a skeptical assessment of the outsized claims made by Sean Parker and other Silicon Valley philanthropists” , Massing writes:

“Tech entrepreneurs believe their charitable giving is bolder, bigger and more data-driven than anywhere else — and in many ways it is,” she observed. “But despite their flair for disruption, these philanthropists are no more interested in radical change than their more conservative predecessors. They don’t lobby for the redistribution of wealth; instead, they see poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and the solution is their own brain power, not a tithe.”

Massing’s analysis of McGoey’s book criticizes the superficiality of her perspective, particularly when it comes to the Gates’ impact on public education. In his rejoinder to McGoey Massing seems to side with Gates’s spending on schools:

In McGoey’s view, the Gateses’ missteps stem mainly from their refusal to see that the real problem in American public education is not failing public schools nor ineffective teachers but poverty. If Gates and other wealthy backers of charter schools were to admit this, she writes, they would have to face the question of why people like themselves are allowed to make so much while so many others have so little. This is a standard critique of the wealthy elites who support the school reform movement. It’s persuasive, in its way, but too easy. Many public schools clearly are substandard, and many teachers are ineffective. Assuming that poverty is not going to be solved overnight, what other, more immediate steps might be taken to address these problems? How might Gates spend its money more wisely? McGoey offers little guidance on this. She seems to have visited few schools and talked to few teachers or parents. Nor does she give much space to the perspective of the Gates Foundation itself. As a result, her conclusions carry less weight than they otherwise might.

In this critique of McGoey’s criticisms, Massing diminishes the most compelling argument she offered against Gates’ foray into public education. In the book McGoey noted Gates’ acknowledgement that many of his disruptive innovations (e.g. smaller high schools, VAM, and charter schools) either failed or made no difference whatsoever. Yet, their “disruptions” remain in place:

While the willingness of the Gateses to change their minds in the face of evidence is admirable, McGoey writes, the reforms they championed “are now entrenched. For many teachers and students, their recent handwringing over the perils of high-stakes testing has come a little too late.”

Russakoff also looks into the philanthropy of Tech magantes, specifically Mark Zuckerburg’s $100,000,000 gift to Newark (NJ) Public schools. In doing so, Russakoff shines a light on the ultimate problem with all philanthropy that attempts to “fix” public schools: it’s lack of grassroots input from teachers, administrators, and school boards, the group elected by voters to oversee schooling:

Spending time with politicians, administrators, teachers, and parents, Russakoff showed how the “reformers” — convinced that they knew what was right for Newark largely excluded teachers and parents from the policymaking process. That sparked strong grassroots opposition, and in the end little headway was made. Sobered by the experience, Zuckerberg and his wife last year announced $120 million in grants to schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the Bay Area, with the express intention of getting more input from teachers and community leaders.

The underscored phrase is the key issue I have with tech reformers: they are convinced that the talents they brought to bear in creating a product that earned them billions of dollars are transferrable to public schooling. What they fail to understand is that programming is complicated but political policy is complex. A complicated problem can be solved by engineering and the persistence of a small cadre of individuals… but a complex problem requires artistry and collective will… and developing collective will takes more than slick salesmanship: it takes time to bring to life.

“Reformers”, like businessmen, rely on top-down edicts instead of bottom up consensus building… they are more totalitarian and less democratic… and when politicians embrace the quick fixes advocated by the business experts who view complex problems as complicated ones they invariably find “strong grassroots opposition” because the people on the ground are not invested in the ideas the businessmen advocate and— it is entirely possible that some of their ideas, like the ones Gates promoted for over a decade, are flawed.

Democracy takes time… and it invariably adds layers of complexity… but it is worth fighting for. I believe our country would eventually rue the day when the private sector with it’s top-down market-based quick fixes took over the governance of schools…  because the bad ideas they champion, like test-and-punish, become entrenched and irreversible…. and the consequences of bad ideas and good marketing can be seen everywhere around us in the obesity crisis, the offshoring of manufacturing, and the over-reliance on legal and illegal drugs to alter our moods and way of thinking.

Democracy Compromised I: The Insidious Impact of Money on Elections and Public Policy

November 29, 2015 Leave a comment

I was disheartened to read two recent articles describing the impact of money on public policy, an impact that is undercutting the ability of our country to function as a democracy. This post and one tomorrow illustrate how this is happening and what we need to do to stop it.

“A Wealthy Governor and His Friends are Remaking Illinois”, Nicholas Confessore’s article in today’s NYTimes describes how a small cadre of billionaires in that State supported fellow billionaire Bruce Rauner’s election to Governor and how they are transforming the way politics are handled in that state. Voters in Illinois, whose last ten Governor’s include four who were convicted of various corruption charges, whose legislature and elected officials have a dismal record when it comes to operating effectively, and whose economy has been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing. were particularly ripe for the message Rauner sent: “…cut spending and overhaul the state’s pension system, impose term limits and weaken public employee unions.” The message penetrated in large measure because it echoed that of a small group of businessmen who donated millions to Rauner’s campaign, which– at $65,000,000— outspent his opponent 2:1 and massively outspent the public unions none of whom donated anything close to a million.

Spending on elections is nothing new… but the massive outpouring of funds that followed Rauner’s election is unprecedented. Since his election, two donors contributed over $20,000,000 to help Rauner implement his agenda. Indeed one donor, hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin, contributed $13.6 million to Mr. Rauner through the end of 2014 — more than the combined sum donated to his gubernatorial opponent by 244 labor unions in the state. 

But while Rauner arguably bought his way into office, he did not as yet buy the hearts and minds of voters in the state:

For Mr. Rauner, the election results affirmed his agenda to shrink government and make the state more friendly to business.

But voters seemed torn. Along with electing Mr. Rauner, they gave Democrats a supermajority in both houses of the legislature.

They also approved two advisory ballot measures. One proposed an increase in the state’s minimum wage, something Mr. Rauner had told a candidate forum he was “adamantly, adamantly against raising.” Another urged lawmakers to amend the Illinois Constitution to allow a millionaires-only income tax increase, something Mr. Rauner had campaigned against.

Rauner is undeterred by the voice of the people on either of these issues, and as a result he is at loggerheads with the legislature over his budget proposal as well as some of his proposals to effectively eliminate public sector unions. His solution to this conflict: spend more of his money and that of his fellow billionaires.

In June, after Mr. Rauner and lawmakers failed to reach a budget deal, Turnaround Illinois (a PAC funded by Rauner and his billionaire friends) spent close to $1 million on television ads assailing Democrats.

The true impact of their financial muscle may not be felt until the legislative elections next fall, in which Mr. Rauner’s allies could again exploit an opening in the campaign finance law to spend unprecedented sums. (The same provision that removed the caps on Mr. Rauner’s campaign lifts them in any legislative race in which a “super PAC” spends more than $100,000. Mr. Rauner’s group has enough money to trigger the law in more than two dozen races.)

Mr. Rauner’s closest supporters hope to elect more Republicans. But some wealthy families, mindful that Democrats are likely to control the legislature for the foreseeable future, have financed an even more ambitious goal: to carve out a new faction of Democrats more willing to reach a compromise with the governor.

That effort has raised more than $14 million, in donations that rival the largest contributions in the presidential campaign. One million dollars came from Helen Zell, Mr. Zell’s wife, and $2 million from the head of a financial firm in which Mr. Rauner is an investor. The largest disclosed contribution came from hundreds of miles beyond Illinois: The former Texas energy trader John Arnold and his wife, Laura, gave $5 million.

Rauner’s strategy in a nutshell: if I spend enough money strategically I can get voters to elect a legislature that agrees with my desires to shrink government, reduce taxes on me and my friends, and eliminate unions and pensions. Rauner is shrewd enough to know that many voters will vote against their own self interest in the name of cutting taxes and other voters, resentful of the jobs, pensions, and benefits they lost will vote to reduce their neighbors pensions and benefits to help fund that tax cut.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that Rauner is a great advocate of privatization of all public services including public schools. Like many of his billionaire buddies, Rauner believes that businesses can operate these services more effectively and efficiently than “government” and they can do so with less corruption. Like his billionaire friends Rauner cannot see the paradox here: they are spending millions of dollars to advance their self interest while protesting the impact of public sector unions who spent hundreds of thousands to advance the self-interest of their employees. Too bad the unions don’t have the same access to the press as Rauner. As Confessore wrote:

The Chicago Sun-Times reversed its no-endorsement policy to back Mr. Rauner, who was a part-owner of the paper before he ran for governor.

Money can get a newspaper to reverse it’s policy… here’s hoping money won’t prevail in it’s efforts to undermine public policy in the coming years.

Vermont is Quietly Scaling Self-Actualized Learning… Without Standardized Testing

November 28, 2015 Leave a comment

If the purpose of education is to prepare students for work or college, it is difficult to see how passing standardized tests are helpful in any way shape or form. The workplace values self-actualization, good work habits, and strong interpersonal skills over a passing grade on an exit examination and colleges expect more than high SATs… and yet State after State emphasizes test scores as the means for measuring readiness of work or college and the accumulation of passing grades on a series of courses as the basis for awarding a diploma.

One state is different, though: Vermont. In Vermont the legislature adopted a law that defined Education Quality Standards, one of which was a requirement that every student in grades 7-12 develop a personalized learning plan (PLP) based on their personal interests…. and a recent Atlantic article, “What Happens When Students Create Their Own Curriculum” by Erin McIntyre describes how this could change the high school experience for a large number of students in the State. The article’s primary focus is on the Big Picture model, is described in these two short paragraphs:

Big Picture… bucks the traditional model of high-school learning. There are no tests, no grades, and, for some students, no traditional classes to sit through.

That’s because the program is centered around the concept and execution of self-directed learning. With input from advisors, working professionals, parents, and peers, each teen participant creates his or her own curriculum, tailored to fit personal interests.

While Vermont schools are not beholden to or explicitly endorsing the Big Picture model, their personalized learning plans mesh well with the model and the model does provide a template for schools to implement the personalized learning plans. Ultimately, though, if the implementation of the personalized learning plans is well executed Vermont may be showing the way for truly reforming secondary education and truly preparing students for work or college. Unlike “reform” recommended by non-educators that work from the top down and outside in, Vermont’s PLPs work from the inside out. The PLPs require the student and their parent to reflect on what the student hopes to gain from high school and in the upper grade levels requires the student to take responsibility for their learning…. and a self-actualized learner has a higher chance for success in college or the work force than now who can follow directions imposed from on high.

If we want to transform students from the “Excellent Sheep” William Deresewicz described in his book of the same name to independent life long learners PLPs are the way forward. Keep your eye on Vermont in the coming years if you want to see how we can move from the Factory School to a de-schooled Network School model.


Meaningful Metrics in Short Supply

November 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Two articles, one from the Tuck School of Business on-line newsletter on the short-changing of the Bureau of Labor Standards (BLS) and one from the NYPost criticizing NYC Mayor deBlasio’s abandonment of the grading system imposed on public schools are based on the same concern: the public’s lack of credible data is leading to flawed decision making.

Writing in the Tuck School’s newsletter, Dean Matt Slaughter and his colleague Matt Rees call the US Government’s decision to level fund the BLS as part of sequestration process “pound die and penny foolish”. Why? Slaughter and Reese contend that:

Healthy societies create, fund generously, and zealously protect from political meddling public agencies that collect and disseminate economic data: on workers, on families, on companies, and on all related economic actors and transactions.  The sounder the public economic data, the sounder the economic decisions of individuals, firms, and policymakers alike. Thus do these data contribute to long-run economic growth and prosperity.

The solution to the complaints about the impact of underfunding is predictable: turn the process over to the private sector! Rees and Slaughter disagree and in an open letter to Congress wrote:

To be sure, private-sector data initiatives such as ADP’s well-known monthly employment reports have a role to play. But they analyze only a slice of the labor market, and they benchmark their findings to BLS data, the gold standard for measuring employment. BLS remains the sole entity in either the public or the private realm with both the mandate and capacity to collect and provide to the public information on the labor market in its entirety. Data collection efforts by independent government agencies like the BLS also benefit from a stamp of legitimacy and neutrality that is difficult to match in the private sector.

They could have asked rhetorically “What happened when monitoring of mortgages was left to bond rating agencies?” Their point about the collection of insubstantial data and using that data to issue flawed public pronouncements is most prevalent in public education, where several statisticians bend over backward to provide politicians with simplistic metrics designed to inform the public about the quality of their schools. There is one BIG difference between the BLS data and that gathered by governments: data on school performance does NOT benefit from “…a stamp of legitimacy and neutrality”. Instead, the Bloomberg administration in its zealous effort to promote the need for and use of charter schools set cut scores on tests that initially “proved” scores of schools were failing and then used different standards to prove charter schools succeeded where public schools fell short of he mark. As the author of the NYPost article, Charles Sahm noted:

From 2007 through 2013, the New York City Department of Education released “Progress Reports,” which included an A-F letter grade for every public school in the city. These grades were based on year-to-year student progress on tests, overall student performance and school-environment surveys. While far from perfect, they provided parents with objective, data-driven information in a relatively easy-to-understand format.

Sahm went onto criticize de Blasio’s decision to abandon this letter grade system and replace it with “School Quality Reports” that label schools as excellent, good, fair or poor. Sahm’s complaint?

…while they still contain information on student achievement, the new format focuses mostly on the results of surveys of parents, teachers and (older) students.

The Department of Education said it wants to “focus on multiple measures of school improvement,” including the “six essential elements of the Framework for Great Schools: Rigorous Instruction, Collaborative Teachers, Supportive Environment, Effective School Leadership, Strong Family-Community Ties, and Trust.”

But parents probably care more about whether children can read or do math at grade level rather than whether teachers “feel respected” — one of the survey questions.

Sahm’s solution? You guessed it: he has a proprietary plan that is better than Bloomberg’s ratings or de Blasio’s!

If parents are looking for a simpler, more objective analysis of their child’s school, they may want to look to a new school-rating system from the Manhattan Institute at

In comparing the old Bloomberg plan that based the letter grade on a black-box calculation derived from student test scores or the spiffy Sahm plan that is an enhanced black box set of calculations, I’ll take de Blasio’s system that looks at a broader set of data that incorporates thinks like parent surveys and surveys of teachers.

Slaughter and Rees’ conclusions, too, illustrate the flaws in Sahm’s “solution”: which privatizes something the government should be doing at the national level and, in doing so, substitutes robust findings with ones that are “easy to understand” but ultimately meaningless.

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Uber-Capitalist David Brooks Champions Compassion and Caring over Individualism

November 27, 2015 Leave a comment

At least a dozen of the posts in this blog have been devoted to either de-bunking David Brooks’ columns or pointing out the paradoxes in his positions. One of the in-house conservative columnists for the NYTimes, Brooks’ columns often take on cultural issues that overlap with public education policy or examine the context of public schools. Today’s column, “Communities of Character“, like many of his essays, supports a broader role for schools that is a direct contradiction to the core values of conservative philosophy in general and today’s Republican party beliefs in particular. Here’s the argument Brooks presents at the outset of his column:

You’d think that schools would naturally nurture deep community bonds. But we live in an era and under a testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion. Even when schools talk about values, they tend to talk about individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function, not the empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart.

Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education asked 10,000 middle and high school students if their parents cared more about their personal achievement or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievement — individual over the group.

But there are some schools that nurture achievement precisely by building tight communities.

Brooks then describes two high schools that explicitly emphasize “community values” over individual effort, the Denver School of Science and Technology that convenes morning meetings four days a week to discuss the climate at the school and the Leaders School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn that is based on the philosophy of Outward Bound. It is unlikely that either school could be scaled up and also noteworthy that both are high schools which are largely exempt from the test-and-punish regimen that dominates each grade level in elementary and middle schools.

Here’s what I found maddening: The “testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion” that Brooks laments is an artifact our legislature created and the regime will be continuing under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The schools that emphasize “individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function” and downplay “empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart” mirror the mindset of cold-hearted social Darwinists who believe that their success is deserved because they were born into relatively affluent middle class families… and that view is the dominant one of the conservative wing of the Republican party.

If our country believed in values that are “good for the community” we would stop characterizing government programs as “handouts” and view them as a helping hand for our neighbors in need… we would stop thinking of immigrants as latent radicals and see them as brothers and sisters whose lives have been disrupted by war… and we would publicly shame anyone who attempts to divide us into factions that fight against each other based on our race or religious convictions. Instead we think of our most disadvantaged citizens as “takers”, of immigrants as “moochers”, and gather at rallies for candidates like Donald Trump.

When it comes to schools, we would stop spending money on surveillance and door locks and start spending on counseling and community service projects… we would stop the practice of basing student success on individual test results and examine the students ability to relate to others in the classroom… and we would worry less about tax rates and more about the conditions many of our children face in their daily lives.

Cuomo Sees the Light: the NYTimes… not so much

November 26, 2015 Leave a comment

In an article in today’s NYTimes, Kate Taylor reports that NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has let it be known that he is no longer in support of tying teacher evaluations to test scores and his recently announced Task Force on the Common Core is expected to incorporate such a recommendation in its findings. The Times infers that by creating the Task Force the governor is giving himself political cover to reverse his thinking on testing and now with the abandonment of the Race to the Top waivers that required such a shift he is free to do so.

One intriguing paragraph suggests that some of the Governor’s “school reform” donors have also accepted the political reality that tests are too dominant, but they repeated their bogus charges about the success rate of students:

It also appears that the advocates and donors to the governor who praised his call last winter for a more rigorous teacher evaluation system would not criticize him if it were now unwound.

StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that promotes charter schools and other education reforms, on whose board several of those donors sit, strongly endorsed the governor’s campaign to make test scores matter more in evaluations, saying the existing system bore “zero resemblance” to how students themselves were performing across the state.

Asked this week about a possible reversal, the organization’s executive director, Jenny Sedlis, said in an email, “When only a third of students in this state are performing on grade level, even without evaluations, we know that there’s ineffective teaching going on.”

A key fact the article neglects to mention: the passing grade on the test is not based on a percentage of students mastering a set of predetermined standards, it is determined by the setting of an arbitrary cut score. Cuomo’s reliance on tests to “prove” that “there’s ineffective teaching going on” put him in a box as more and more parents realized the tests were driving the joy out of their child’s schooling and the test results “proving” that school were “failing” were determined by state officials, not by their children’s performance on tests.

I keep hoping that someday someone in political office will stand up to this whole test-and-punish scheme and acknowledge that it is a failed policy. As noted in earlier posts, the reauthorization of ESEA was a golden opportunity for someone to step forward. Alas, we will have to wait for another decade or so to have the debate on testing.

Legal Drugs in School: Medication Trumps Meditation When Time is Constant

November 26, 2015 Leave a comment

The Guardian published an article earlier this week profiling the long term effects of taking behavior modifying prescription drugs over time, using profiles of six US students as exemplars. Writers Sarah Bosely and Baptiste Lingel offer a statistical overview contrasting American children to their British counterparts at the beginning of their article, “Generation Meds: The us Children Who Grow up on Prescriptoin Drugs”:

According to America’s Centers for Disease Control, 11% of four- to 17-year-olds in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD, a label for those who are disruptive in class and unable to concentrate; just over 6% are taking medication…

In the UK, meanwhile, about 3% of children are diagnosed with ADHD; just 1% are on medication. American children can go through six or seven different drugs quite early in their lives; in the UK, children are usually sent for cognitive behaviour therapy first, in line with guidance from the National Institute forHealth and Care Excellence.

But as the authors note, in the US the use of these drugs is most prevalent among middle-class east coast children:

But the official figure hides huge variation across regions and class. Numbers are very high in the white, middle-class east coast population, says Ilina Singh, professor of neuroscience and society at Oxford University, while there is under-diagnosis in poor white populations and among ethnic minorities.

“In the middle-class, educated group in New York, you probably are seeing kids who are just under more academic pressure,” she says. “Parents will begin to look at psychiatric diagnosis and treatment with drugs as one option for making children perform better. You have parents saying, ‘My child must be on Ritalin because all the other children in the class are.’”

As one of the students profiled noted with a degree of irony, sales and exchanges of pills which have a profound impact on he well being of children are not punished by the law but the use of marijuana and alcohol was monitored closely and resulted in arrests.

The reliance on drug therapy and psychiatry— the medicalization of social adjustment problems that are a natural part of growing up— reinforces the notion that there is a “silver bullet” cure for everything. It also reinforces the notion that a child who matures intellectually at a slower rate than an age peer is somehow deficient. Both of these ideas are wrongheaded.

Mindfulness meditation is a proven means of developing self-awareness that could ultimately lead to impulse control. Unlike Ritalin, however, it requires no purchase of drugs and does not offer immediate change to ones behavior. It does, however, help a child develop self-control and self-awareness, two skills that will benefit them throughout their life. If schools prescribed meditation practices for students who are challenged by having short attention spans and a lack of impulse control it might preclude their lifetime need for prescription drugs.

Our grouping of children by age and the invidious comparisons that are part of our factor school model also contribute to a child’s sense of inadequacy and their parent’s sense of urgency to do everything possible to ensure that their child is “keeping up” with his or her classmates. Abandoning our factory model where time is a constant an learning is variable would go a long way toward reducing the stress to “keep up” with everyone else.

Both of these alternatives to medication require a shift in thinking… and that, alas, is a daunting challenge. But as Bernie Sanders notes frequently in his speeches, we DID elect an African American president and we HAVE accepted gay marriage as a legal right… we CAN change the thinking of people over time if we persist in showing what is fair and just and sensible. We may yet have a time when meditation is offered instead of medication… and learning is the constant and time is the variable.

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