Posts Tagged ‘Economic Issues’

Newark’s Failed Efforts at Reform Revealed in “The Prize”

August 27, 2015 Leave a comment

The NYTimes review of Dale Russakov’s new book, The Prize, describes the failed effort of the Newark Public Schools to take full advantage of a $100,000,000 donation from Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. These two paragraphs from the review, written by Alex Kotlowitz, provide a good synopsis of the idea behind Zuckerberg’s gift and why it quickly headed south:

When Zuckerberg declared his grant, the agenda was pretty clear: Turn the Newark schools around in five years and make it a national model. But from the get-go, there seemed little agreement as to how best to proceed. More than anything, Christie wanted to break the hold of the entrenched teachers’ unions. Booker wanted more charter schools. Zuckerberg wanted to raise the status of teachers and to reward teaching that improved students’ performance.

Their five-year plan gets off to a rocky start. Initial funds go to a bevy of consultants, most of them white, most of them well connected, some of whom are getting paid $1,000 a day. One educator labels them the “school failure industry.” Moreover, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a top-down effort, with politicians and the well-to-do setting the agenda. When Booker sets up a local foundation to handle Zuckerberg’s gift, the seats on the board go only to donors of at least $5 million. You can begin to see where this story’s headed. Booker shows more interest in his own political career than he does in running his city. Christie hires an ideologue as his point person on the Newark schools. And Zuckerberg, a newcomer to philanthropy, seems frustrated by the inability to negotiate a union contract that would quickly raise the salaries of promising young teachers and pay substantial merit bonuses for high performers.

I’ve blogged on Mark Zuckerberg’s largesse in Newark on several occasions, lamenting the fact that the $100,000,000 donation could have done much more for the city and schools had it been used to renovate or replace decrepit schools or provide access to broadband in large swaths of the community, and bemoaning his notion of using the funds to “reward teachers” since negotiated pay scales require that incorporate “merit pay” require assurances of continued funding. But one point that Rusakoff makes warrants emphasis:

Public education is the bedrock of democracy — and yet when it comes to repairing our schools the democratic process is too often ignored. What ultimately derails this grand experiment is the unwillingness of the reformers to include parents and teachers in shaping the reforms.

And why is the democratic process ignored? Because the “reformers” like Zuckerberg are used to operating in a world where they control things without pesky elected boards and opportunistic politicians like Christie and Booker want to make a splash, reward their donors, and advance to the next level of government. In the meantime, the three major players in this drama, Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg, decided to proceed without a clearly agreed upon plan: they couldn’t even use the democratic process among themselves!

Democracy and business do not mix. Democracy requires deliberative give-and-take and business requires fast and focussed action. Democracy works best at addressing complex problems that have no clear answer. Business approaches work best addressing complicated problems that can be fixed by engineering. I, for one, was not surprised to see the $100,000,000 prize frittered away given the lack of clarity on how it should be spent. Here’s hoping that Zuckerberg’s next foray into supporting schools works better. Given this description of the project, I’m rooting for him:

…The one individual who appears changed by the experience is, somewhat surprisingly, Zuckerberg. Last year, along with his wife, Priscilla Chan, who as a pediatric intern cared for underserved children around San Francisco, Zuckerberg announced a gift of $120 million in grants to high-poverty schools in the Bay Area. This time, though, they declared their intent to include parents and teachers in the planning process. But more to the point, a key component to their grants includes building “a web of support for students,” everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn’t enough, that if we’re going to make a difference in the classroom, we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma. Here is where this story ends — but also where the next story begins.

Good luck!

Phi Delta Kappa Poll Results are in… and “Reformers” Cannot Be Pleased

August 25, 2015 Leave a comment

For the past 47 years Phi Delta Kappa, a non-political professional organization for educators, issues the findings from a poll of members of the public regarding their thoughts about education. Some results are the same year-after-year, the primary example being that respondents invariably rate their own public schools higher than public schools in general. Occasionally, though, trends emerge and the fact that they are captured in a non-partisan poll often gets widespread attention among school administrators, school board members, and this year, among the general public.

The trend that emerged in this year’s poll is captured in the title: “Testing Doesn’t Measure Up for Americans”. For politicians and the “reformers” who value standardization and the accountability based on standardized test results the response to these questions cannot be good news:

In your opinion, is there too much emphasis on standardized testing in the public schools in your community, not enough emphasis on testing, or about the right amount?

All respondents: 64% say “too much”; 19% say “just the right amount”

Parents: 67% say “too much”; 20% say “just the right amount”

Do you think that all parents with children in the public schools should be allowed to excuse their child from taking one or more standardized tests?

All respondents: 41% say “yes”; 44% say “no”

Parents: 47% say “yes”; 40% say “no”

In your opinion, which of the following approaches would provide the most accurate picture of a public school student’s academic progress? Select all that apply: 

Examples of student’s work: 37%

Written observations by teacher: 26%

Grades awarded by the teacher: 21%

Standardized tests: 19%

And the news doesn’t improve for those who believe tests are the best metric for measuring schools, teachers, or students.

  • 55% of the public opposes using standardized tests to evaluate teachers, an increase in that percentage despite the relentless publicity advocating this method.
  • Only 19% see standardized get results as “very important” in measuring student learning while 7% see them as “not important at all” and 25% rate them as “not very important”.
  • Only 14% see standardized get results as “very important” in measuring the effectiveness of public schools while 13% see them as “not important at all” and 28% rate them as “not very important”.

But here’s the real kicker in the poll:

  • 45% see “How Much Money Schools Have to Spend” standardized get results as “very important” while 3% see them as “not important at all” and 12% rate them as “not very important”.

Not only are the standardized tests being overemphasized in the minds of the public, they are being overvalued! This finding should be informing legislators who are (presumably) putting the finishing touches on a bill that will extend the testing regimen imposed by NCLB for at least another five years and should be informing the philanthropists who advocate for school reform that uses standardized testing as the primary metric for school performance. But maybe the money being spent by those who seek to privatize education and the publicity machinery that trumpets test results will drown out the voice of the public.

Amazon’s “Profits” = Lost Revenue for States = More Struggles for Schools, Children Raised in Poverty

August 23, 2015 Leave a comment

This past week I was on vacation at the end of one of Maine’s many peninsulas and one of our party discovered he was out of a food provision that was not typically found in a local convenience store…. but it was not a problem. A quick text on the cell phone and within 48 hours a UPS truck was at our doorstep delivering the product thanks to his Amazon preferred membership. The convenience was wonderful… but as I read this morning, it DOES have a hidden price.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) published a critique of a recent column by Joe Nocera who wrote that Amazon had “plowed potential profits back into the company“. After noting that “potential profits” are no basis for reinvestment unless there are gullible investors, CEPR notes:

It is also important to note the big handout that Amazon has relied upon from taxpayers. Amazon has not had to collect sales tax in most states for most of its existence, giving the company an enormous subsidy in its competition with brick and mortar competitors. The cumulative size of this subsidy almost certainly exceeds its cumulative profits in the years that it has been in existence. Any discussion of Bezos success should mention this huge subsidy from the government.

And the ultimate costs of Amazon are paid by publicly funded institutions like schools… and those who rely on public funds for their well-being– like school children raised in poverty and the employees laid off from Amazon’s brick and mortar competitors.

The Children of the “Unworthy Poor” and the Vicious Cycle of Poverty

August 21, 2015 Leave a comment

I just read Serena Rice’s Common Dreams article titled “Our Perceptions About the “Unworthy Poor” haven’t changed” and it reinforced my belief that our political power system is predicated on the continuation of this misperception. According to this concept, anyone who is poor lacks industriousness and is therefore unworthy of any government assistance. This concept can be reinforced by finding singular examples of individuals who are freeloaders— and there are undeniable and verifiable examples of individuals who take advantage of welfare the same way, say, hedge finders take advantage of the tax code— and write an airtight set of laws that penalize those who try to take advantage of the system. The results of these arguably well-intentioned laws is to penalize children born into poverty even more.

Rice’s article offers one example of a State who’s rules required an unwed mother to move back with the father of her child in order to get any benefits for that child…despite the fact that the father was not gainfully employed and despite the fact that he refused to use birth control. When the woman hd a second child out of wedlock, the mother could not collect any additional benefits for that child. Worse, it was more difficult for the mother to find employment, more stressful at home, and BOTH children in the family faced even more abject poverty. The law penalized this MOTHER for being “unworthy” to receive welfare, but the real recipients of the penalty were the CHILDREN. With less money available for each child, no means of providing the children with sufficient food let alone intellectual stimulation, is it any surprise that these children begin school with more deficiencies than those of the hedge fund manager who gamed the tax code.

Progressive blogs and writers expose the flaws in the mental model that characterizes those on welfare as “lazy and undeserving” by illustrating the challenges all workers face in this economy and the way the current system I rigged in such a way that corporations now anticipate their employees to supplement their low wages with welfare. But the mainstream media by and large unquestioningly repeat the conventional thinking of conservatives and neo-liberals-that welfare recipients take advantage of the government’s largesse while corporations make shrewd investments that enable them to avoid onerous taxes. In the meantime the children of “the undeserving poor” are underfeed, under-stimulated and unprepared for entry into school…and we continue to believe that with a mix of grit and good luck they will be able to move up the economic ladder in order to avoid facing the fact that since Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” we’ve seen the demise of social mobility as we knew it.

Under-reported By Product of Union Busting: Unpredictable Work Schedules

August 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Noam Schiber’s NYTimes article “The Perils of Ever-Changing Work Schedules Extend to Children’s Well-Being” indicates that unpredictable work schedules have adverse effects on family lives that, in turn, cause academic and behavior problems for children throughout their school years. But despite the negative effects of this practice, more and more fast food and retail chains are implementing “on call” scheduling that demands that parent/employees be available on short notice for shift work or face dismissal. When a low wage worker is required to drop everything quickly to show up for work, scheduling appointments, attending teacher meetings, and arranging child care can be a daunting challenge. But as the Times article notes, children might be the biggest beneficiaries of more corporations ended this practice:

“Young children and adolescents of parents working unpredictable schedules or outside standard daytime working hours are more likely to have inferior cognitive and behavioral outcomes,” the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal advocacy group, said last week in a report.

Decades ago I worked for Penn Fruit, a food chain the Philadelphia area. To work there, I was required to join a union and pay union dues– which seemed unfair to me at the time since I worked only ten hours some weeks. But I quickly saw the benefits of the union: there were algorithms in place to adjust my schedule a week in advance if I had a family commitment on a particular weekend; there were mandated breaks even if the lines were very long; we worked our full shift even if the store was virtually empty; and we received double time for work on Holidays or Sundays after the Blue Laws were repealed. In the late 1960s, unions were a “given” for prospective employees in food store chains and many retail chains. Today, they are not… and we can see who ultimately suffers.

BIG OOPS in NYS: 20% Opted Out of Tests… Charters No Better Than Public Schools

August 13, 2015 Leave a comment

The NYTimes reported that the opt out movement can no longer be ignored and that the huge increase in opt outs might be posing some major problems for the state… and perhaps the nation.  According to data released from NYSED, 20% of students opted out of the states annual tests, quadruple the number who stayed home in 2014. Worse for the state, most of those who stayed home were from the cohorts that scored the highest. And the increase in NYS opt outs could have national ramifications:

Politically, however, pressure has been mounting on lawmakers to give the opt-out movement a wide berth. Last year, the New York Legislature forbade school districts from basing promotion decisions for students on test scores, and from putting them on their permanent records. There is no legal right in New York to remove one’s child from the state assessments, but no law prohibits it either.

The movement has also been weighing on Congress this year as it debates revisions to the law known as No Child Left Behind. A House bill says that the students who opt out will not be counted against their state’s participation rate. A Senate proposal does not go quite so far, but it would allow states to create their own test-refusal policies.

Those who support tests continue to use the bogus civil rights argument:

“Without an annual testing program, the progress of our neediest students may be ignored or forgotten, leaving these students to fall further behind,” the chancellor of the State Board of Regents, Merryl H. Tisch, said in a statement. “This cannot happen.”

But the data gathered from those who DID take the tests indicate that Ms. Tisch’s “reform” solution to addressing the neediest students, placing them in charter schools, won’t make any difference… unless the charters are like those in NYC that selectively screen students:

Charter school students performed slightly worse than the state as a whole on the English exams and slightly better on the math. But those in New York City did better on both than charters elsewhere in the state. At Success Academy, a fast-growing network of city charter schools known for a demanding approach to instruction and test preparation, virtually every grade tested had at least a 50 percent passing rate, with half the grades achieving at least 85 percent.

MAYBE the opt out movement will enable the general public to see that testing students in grade level cohorts does not result in “…the progress of our neediest students” and for-profit charter schools are no better than traditional public schools at achieving higher test scores. The reality is that our “…neediest students” need more than grit or rigorous academic programs that begin in pre-kinergarten: they need support and care from the outset of their lives and their parents need jobs that pay them a living wage under conditions conducive to good parenting.

“Body Report Cards” Do Not Change Behavior. Do Traditional “Academic Report Cards”?

August 13, 2015 Leave a comment

The title of an article in the Well section of the NYTimes by Jan Hoffman caught my eye:

‘Body’ Report Cards Aren’t Influencing Arkansas Teenagers

The article described the results of a study that reviewed the impact of Arkansas’ attempt to reduce adolescent obesity by issuing letters to their parents describing their BMI. The findings: the letters have had almost no effect, at least on older teenagers.

The article notes that several states of taken similar actions, providing parents with an array of fitness measures including their BMIs, their comparative ability to run a mile, do push-ups and sit-ups, and lift their trunk off the floor. The general consensus among the physicians and researchers quoted in the article seemed to be that spending money to tell teenagers they are overweight is pointless— they already know they are overweight or unfit. One of the reactions, though, was especially provocative:

Martha M. Phillips, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who evaluated the annual Arkansas data for a decade, said the letters alone were never expected to change behavior.

Arkansas schools, she said, reinforced the message with many efforts. Some school districts banned vending machines or regulated student access to them, and limited the snacks’ calorie count. Others restricted the number of parties a classroom could hold in a year, to cut off seemingly endless supplies of cupcakes and brownies. Others beefed up staff for physical education classes.

The result? Obesity rates among Arkansas schoolchildren have remained roughly the same since the initiative began.

This, some experts say, constitutes good news.

“It didn’t get worse,” Dr. Phillips said, who noted that obesity rates had been rising steadily for some three decades before the new program took effect.

If the issuance of health report cards is not expected to change behavior, why do we think that the issuance of academic reports cards will change behavior. Indeed, the reactions of teenagers to report cards in the article resonated with me as a former high school administrator:

“The typical 16-year-old’s reaction to getting a letter at home and having your parents tell you to eat right and exercise, would be, ‘Don’t nag me,’ ” said Dr. Gee, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of California, Davis.

Is the teenager’s issuance of a quarterly academic report card any different?

”A letter home in high school doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Dr. Story of Duke, who conducted research in Minnesota on obesity prevention programs for adolescents. “Most teenagers already know when they’re overweight.”

Don’t most teenagers already know where they stand in the academic pecking order the same way they know they are overweight?

The answer in both academics and obesity seems to be the same: earlier intervention and parent engagement is essential. But will an overweight parent who has an unhealthy diet be able to change their eating habits? Will that parent prepare healthy meals to help their child achieve a lower BMI? Will an overweight parent who has not exercised for several years encourage their child to ride their bike or go for a walk instead of playing computer games or watching television? The analogy for academics is self-evident… and, arguably, health, intellectual growth, and well-being are inter-related. Breaking the cycle will require more than report cards, more than increasingly sophisticated measures, and more than schools can provide in six hours beginning at the age of five. More than anything, it will require a belief on the part of parents that their children will have an opportunity for success if they stay fit and study hard. That faith in the future is difficult when all evidence is to the contrary.