Joe Nocera’s column in today’s NYTimes laments the “disruption” taking place at The New Republic” where a dot-com tycoon has decided to focus on the bottom line instead of the magazine’s traditional mission of providing thought provoking and insightful articles written by seasoned journalists.
After reading this, I saw a chilling parallel to what is happening in public schools. Traditional schools, like traditional journalism, was based on the premise that students needed a well rounded education that provided depth as well as breadth. The new owner of The New Republic, in seeking profits, is increasing that predominantly print magazine into an on-line magazine and willingly trading “long form” writing for bar graphs and bullets. After reading the article, I offered the following comment:
I hope that readers can see that an analogous transformation is happening in public education where deregulated for-profit charters are being touted as “disruptive forces”. When public schools become “profit centers” overseen by highly paid “CEOs” whose “success” is based on standardized test scores their primary function will be to satisfy investors. It should be no surprise to parents that these new “profit centers” will focus on test scores and abandon the arts and other “frills” which do not lend themselves to easy and inexpensive metrics. Oh well… at least our future McSchools will be preparing good subscribers to the McJournalism of the internet. McSchool graduates might not do well on international science tests but they’ll at least know a lot about flatulence!
When “clicks” are the ultimate measure of readership, there will be a race to the bottom in content… and “when test scores” are the ultimate measure of education there will be a squeeze toward standardization. In both cases, breadth and depth is sacrificed at the alter of profits.
Lest anyone think this blogger and others are paranoid about the intentions of Venture Capitalists I offer two articles for your consideration today and a recently completed study tomorrow.
Brett Dickerson’s blog post, “Investors Ready to Liquidate Public Schools” describes how legislators in Oklahoma plan to liquidate public school assets like school buildings and pension funds. How will this happen? Dickerson suggests they will use the Bain Blueprint:
- Offer to buy out a profitable company that has little or no debt.
- Silence the work force by tricking them into thinking life will be better with the new owners.
- Once the purchase is complete, fire the workforce.
- Liquidate the pension fund.
- Liquidate the company for the cash value of its paid-for property.
- Leave the host community in financial ruins.
Translated to public education it works like this:
- Compliant legislatures reduce funding for public education.
- Weakened by fewer funds, the schools who serve the poor and have more social problems to address begin to struggle the most, first.
- Use compliant, big corporate media to convince the public that the underfunded schools that serve the poor are wild, dangerous places. Editors love “teacher knocked out by student” stories.
- Once the public is convinced that those scary urban “jungle” schools are hopeless, pass legislation that allows corporate charters to take over and convert public property to their profitable use.
- Pass laws that allow charters to be black boxes where the public has no idea how their tax money is being used.
- Charters regiment children of the poor in ways that prepare them to be compliant service workers who don’t expect to have a voice.
- Use big corporate media to convince the public that charters are doing better even though they are not.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve been reading about Newark, NYC, Columbus OH, Milwaukee WI, etc, etc. Dickersons suggests this CAN be stopped IF “educators, concerned parents, and concerned community members can rally to maintain local, democratic control of public schools.” he enumerates several “Ifs” that need to occur:
IF educators can successfully counter the investor propaganda that parents are the only true stakeholders in a child’s education, then raiders can be opposed successfully. The oldest to the youngest and richest to poorest members of every community are the true stakeholders in public schools and public education.
IF local, democratically elected school boards can stay empowered to make decisions for the local public schools, then this raider process can be resisted.
IF all stakeholders can successfully press legislators to listen to them instead of paid, professional lobbyists hired by large, investor-owned charter corporations, then we can resist the raider attempts.
Forbes magazine writer Randall Lane’s article in the latest edition of that magazine offers five inter-related policy actions our nation could take to move us to the top five in the international ratings: teacher efficacy, universal pre-K, Common Core standards, blended learning (incorporating technology into how students are taught) and school leadership (training and empowering principals). Lane had two researchers determine the cost to implement these five policies with the help of multi-billionaires who gained their wealth through shrewd investment or inheritance. The cost for implementing these “five big ideas” turned out to be $6,200,000,000,000 spread over 20 years. BUT, the wealth managers determined that if these were implemented successfully it would yield a payback of $225,000,000,000,000 spread over 80 years. Details on how these figures were derived are blurry, but Forbes seemed to give them credibility… probably because they think that wealthy people are better than, say, school superintendents or business officials, at doing calculations involving public school policy Finally, Lane had these five concepts and the funding realities reviewed by “leaders” of “four key constituent groups”:
…the federal government (represented by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), state government (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo), the teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten) and local school boards (D.C. public schools chancellor Kaya Henderson).
Needless to say, THIS deck is hopelessly stacked. Three of the members, Duncan, Cuomo, and Henderson, are “reformers”. Furthermore, I would argue that the DC Board of Education is hardly “representative” of school boards across the country. The head of the NSBA would be a better representative of the issues facing school boards than an urban school superintendent whose district depends on congress for its funding…. but Forbes is showing its anti-democratic colors by choosing the “CEO” instead of the elected Board. Finally, pitting the three reformers against the AFT union head (as opposed to the NEA’s newly elected head or a progressive education advocate like, say, Diane Ravitch) assured that they would reinforce the “union vs. reform” meme and get some kind of politically bland pushback, especially since one of the issues the group was going to discuss was how to spend a boatload of money…. and when Forbes put this group of three “reformers” and one union president eager for money together in one room, they got a lot of platitudes and slogans…. and no acknowledgement that in order to improve schools we need to improve the lives of children before they set food in school and during the time they are in school.
In 1997 I was appointed Superintendent to an upstate NY school district. During my first week on the job, my Administrative Assistant scheduled several meetings with central office staff members so I would have an opportunity to have an informal hour long face-to-face chat with some of the key decision makers on the staff to learn the scope of their jobs and how they performed the various tasks assigned to them. One individual who’s name did not appear on an organization chart, I’ll call him “Ed Tech”, was scheduled to meet for 15 minutes at the end of the last day of the week. My Administrative Assistant explained that “Ed Tech” was a teacher the district tried to dismiss a two years ago but who was reinstated when he appealed the decision. Not wanting to assign him to a classroom teaching position in a school (in large measure because no Principal wanted to take him) the district had created a position for him: he was the e-rate coordinator. I sighed because I had learned that the district was too affluent to qualify for many e-rate dollars. Furthermore, at the time the paperwork required to get those e-rate dollars was hardly worth the time. Finally, the district had no long range plan for educational technology in place and had dedicated its limited technology staffing to maintaining an outdated mainframe computer.
After meeting with “Ed Tech” I was pleasantly surprised. While I was certain he lacked the ability to lead a classroom of students, he DID display a willingness and ability to research the ins and outs of E-Rate and, in doing so, identified a way for the district to maximize its e-rate funding IF it completed a long range plan that met the standards and completed a lot of paperwork.
I am recounting this anecdote because I read two recent articles in the NYTimes that described the findings of a recent audit in the NYC schools. On November 26 Elizabeth Harris reported that the NYC comptroller found that the city schools “…had so far missed out on as much as $120 million since it was suspended from a federal technology program in 2011.” and that if it didn’t institute some changes it stood to lose out on as much as $300 million by the 2018 fiscal year. Harris’s follow-up article in today’s newspaper describes unopened boxes of laptops and I-pads ordered in 2011 and the shoddy record keeping done by the business office and technology staff.
My first impulse was to write an article on the difficulties school districts face in trying to recruit and retain qualified educational technology managers and the challenges districts face when they seek funds to add “bureaucrats” to perform “paperwork” when they are cutting teaching positions. These are very real issues for districts across the country and are largely under-reported and under-appreciated by parents, teachers, and school board members….
But then I remembered reading about the “rubber rooms” in NYC and “Ed Tech” in Upstate NY… and it struck me that NYC has scores of “Ed Techs”. Assuming that the provisos we had in place for the lone “rubber room” teacher in our district would apply to the personnel who are not assigned to classrooms, it seems to me that under-utilized professional staff could be deployed as technology support staff. They could perform the kinds of inventories needed, do the paperwork needed to get e-rate funding, and maybe even do some over-the-shoulder training of teachers and administrative assistants so that the computers in boxes can get into the hands of students, teachers, and office personnel. Time for the city to find a way to make lemonade out of the lemons!
Tomorrow’s NYTimes features a thought provoking and fascinating article on recent findings that link genes to early intervention programs for troubled children. “The Downside of Resilience” by Jay Belsky describes international longitudinal research on the role genetics plays in determining whether a child is affected by developmental experiences. After examining the impact of early intervention programs on groups of children from an array of racial and ethnic backgrounds in studies that were conducted independently from each other, researchers have concluded that genetics DOES play a role in determining who will benefit most from intervention:
Every gene contains two so-called alleles — one from each parent. There is evidence that people who carry certain variations of these alleles have a greater chance of developing particular disorders. For instance, short alleles of the gene 5-HTTLPR, which transports serotonin, have been linked to depression, while long alleles of the dopamine-receptor gene DRD4 have been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Intriguingly, these “risk” genes also turn out to be associated with heightened sensitivity to environmental conditions. Children who carry either or both of them appear to be most adversely affected by negative experiences, and seem to benefit most from supportive ones. Children without them seem relatively immune to the effects of both supportive and unsupportive environments.
My mind immediately went to the thorny question Belsky posed near the end of the article after elaborating on the various studies:
This brings up a challenging ethical question: Should we seek to identify the most susceptible children and disproportionately target them when it comes to investing scarce intervention and service dollars?
Belsky answers in the affirmative, while suggesting more research be done simultaneously. He then elaborates on his reasoning:
Those who value equity over efficacy will object to the notion of treating children differently because of their genes. But if we get to the point where we can identify those more and less likely to benefit from a costly intervention with reasonable confidence, why shouldn’t we do this? What is ethical, after all, about providing services to individuals for whom we believe they will not prove effective, especially when spending taxpayers’ money?
I appreciate Belsky’s acknowledgement that the quandary we face is in part based on the reality that funds for intervention will be limited. Most arguments for equitable treatment— including many advanced in this blog— are based on the rosy assumption that because we have a moral imperative to provide equity we will raise whatever money is needed to ensure that we can achieve equity. And most who argue for early intervention— including me— base their advocacy on the assumption that the intervention plans would be customized based on the unique needs of each child. Finally, a case can be made that we are already on the path of providing medically-based programming for children: IEPs are based on the findings of a school psychologist and 504 plans are often framed based on the recommendations of physicians. On coldly logical basis it seems to me that adding genetic counselors to the list of “intervention advisors” is not that much of a leap… and yet the notion that genetics might play a role in public policy DOES seem chilling… especially if we are unable to develop some means of intervening in cases where children are NOT affected by their developmental experiences.
Belsky concludes his essay with this paragraph that opens the doors to even more questions:
For now, after half a century of childhood interventions that have generated exaggerated claims of both efficacy and ineffectiveness, we need to acknowledge the reality that some children are more affected by their developmental experiences — from harsh punishment to high-quality day care — than others. This carries implications for scientists evaluating interventions, policy makers funding them and parents rearing children.
The last phrase is particularly problematic. IF we can determine a childs’s responsiveness to developmental experiences through a genetic test, are we ready to include such a test as part of the initial pediatric screening? I’ll leave you with that question to ponder….
Hack Education, Audrey Watters weekly blog, is always engaging and chock full of articles that are not typically covered in the mainstream press. Like one of my other favorite bloggers, Yves Smith who writes the Naked Capitalism blog, Watters offers an array of links with pithy, funny, and occasionally obscene commentary on each of the articles. Her one word comment to a link to a post from Heartland Institute’s “Somewhat Reasonable” titled “How On-Line Education Can Save Conservatism” was: “Shudder“. After reading it I had the same response.
Heartland Institute is a Chicago based “30-year-old national nonprofit research organization dedicated to finding and promoting ideas that empower people.” A quick inspection of it’s home page indicates the website has a trove of articles on the climate change hoax, the benefits of free enterprise, the importance of liberty, and the idea that liberals are taking over. Here is it’s mission statement, with my emphases added:
The mission of The Heartland Institute is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Such solutions include parental choice in education, choice and personal responsibility in health care, market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation in areas where property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies.
The Heartland Institute is a national nonprofit research and education organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, it is tax exempt under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. It is not affiliated with any political party, business, or foundation.
Heartland has gained the endorsement of some of the top scholars, thinkers and politicians in the world – including Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, radio talk show host and constitutional scholar Mark R. Levin, and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). See all the heavyweights who praise Heartland here.
Here’s what made me shudder: some of the ideas advocated in the article written by Justin Harkin echo ideas advocated in this blog and many other blogs written by those who believe that technology could make it possible to individualize education… and underscores the reality that if public education does not encourage cross communication among different economic classes and among children coming from households with markedly differing views on the world, technology will ultimately lead to a nation that is even more divided and more contentious than we have today.
The article begins with a litany describing how “U.S. education is rife with liberalism” because, as presumably everyone knows, “Teachers colleges and teachers unions have worked tirelessly to ensure that school systems across the country are stocked with educators that reject traditional free-market and liberty-focused curricula.” It goes on to provide survey data from UCLA faculty indicating the majority of them identify themselves as “far left” or “liberal”. At the end of the opening section it poses the question of how conservative parents might deal with this reality, answering that question with this paragraph:
The obvious answer is for parents to send children to private schools that embrace personal responsibility and liberty or to start homeschooling. In both situations, however, time, funding, and the teaching ability of the parent may stand in the way as nearly insurmountable obstacles. This is where the advancement of online education could save the day.
The rationale for using mediated on-line learning is very similar to the rationale often advanced in this blog:
Digital learning stands on its own or adds great blended value because it can adapt to the capacity and speed of individual learners, provide minute-by-minute feedback on learning progress, and provide rewards suitable for individual learners. It is similar to an imaginary inexhaustible, highly skilled tutor.
Justin Harkin then outlines how on-line learning to “…advance the cause of liberty”, describing the “astounding” results achieved by “highly successful private and charter schools (that) have taken advantage of this new technology,” offering Rocketship as an exemplar. His article concludes with this call to arms:
…It’s up to conservatives, Tea Party groups, private schools that espouse liberty, and homeschools to build educational systems that promote the values that built America. Technology has made the once-reasonable excuses of cost, location, and time no longer applicable.
With some hard work and innovative thinking, conservatives now have the opportunity to combat the liberal tide that has swept across the country’s education system over the past 50 years.
The call to arms to abandon public schools on the right is mirrored to a degree by the call to arms to abandon the testing regimen among progressives and the fact that technology DOES make it easier to home school, to offer alternative education programs for children, or to “un-school” could lead to a generation of students who never hear viewpoints that are antithetical to those held by their parents.
I may have a romanticized view of my schooling. I recall being in classes taught by both liberal and conservative teachers, both progressive and traditional teachers, and teachers of different races and ethnicities. I was in classes with “gifted” and “average” students— or more accurately classes with classmates whose parents attended college and classmates whose parents worked in the local factories or on the local farms. I was exposed to a full spectrum of political views and Western religions.
I may also have a romanticized view of the era I grew up in, the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was allowed to explore the woods near our house, play pick-up ball games with kids of all races and backgrounds, and went on family camping vacations across the United States. I was active in our church youth fellowship, played piano and guitar, acted in school plays, and, in retrospect, was generally happy with the opportunities I had in public school. More importantly, I had a sense that the community cared about our generation and wanted us to have a better life. There was a hope that we would not have any more wars, that we would achieve racial harmony, that everyone would have a chance to get ahead, and we had a responsibility to help those who were less fortunate. Did I get that sense from my parents? From the three major networks who broadcast the news and offered TV programs? From the teachers in my school?
The homeschooling and charter schooling advocated in the Heartland blog and the Opt Out and Un-Schooling movements are all driven by disenfranchised parents who believe that public schools are too constraining or inculcating the wrong values. As technology advances, public education needs to make it clear that one of it’s primary functions is to teach children how to live in a democracy under the rule of law. It cannot do that if the school district boundaries segregate students based on economics and— yes– race, or if parents who espouse “liberty” and “Christian values” withhold their children, or if parents who value creativity and despise the regimentation resulting from standardized tests abandon public schools. It cannot do that if children stay at home working in front of computers or attend seminars with other children with like-minded parents. The fragmentation that is envisioned in the Heartland blog… that makes me shudder.