David Brooks can be infuriating… and this morning’s column was a case in point. In an essay that dealt with the need for police unions to be more flexible in dealing with disciplinary issues, he threw in this superfluous sentence:
Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform.
The repetition of the “teachers unions vs. reformers” meme is maddening… and led me to leave this response:
When you write that “Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform” I have to ask what kinds of “reform” you are talking about? Is it the use of standardized tests to evaluate their performance? If so teachers unions are absolutely right to block this because there is no evidence whatsoever that standardized tests can be used for this purpose. Is it the use of standardized tests to rate schools? If so teachers unions are absolutely right to block this because test results correlate with parents’ incomes and education levels. Is it the imposition of the Common Core? If so teachers unions are absolutely right to block this since there is substantial evidence that Common Core is developmentally flawed. Is it because unions oppose deregulated for-profit charter schools that underpay teachers, get free space, and only serve children from households with engaged parents? If so, they are right to stand up for the children who need the support of caring adults.
In Brook’s case I know “reform” means unregulated free markets… and we’ve all learned the hard way that in unregulated free markets the money flows up and stays there. That is not a recipe for a vibrant democracy or a vibrant economy.
When John King, NYS’s “reform” commissioner announced he was leaving last week, the reaction among most progressive educators was one of relief and hope. But as the events of the past week indicate, the hope for a change in direction was misplaced because, as the Capital New York blog explained, and today’s NYImes article on Cuomo’s education agenda indicates, King’s departure won’t impact the education agenda one iota.
The Capital New York blog post offered this background information on the de facto role of the Commissioner and Board of Regents and why King’s departure is inconsequential in the scheme of things in Albany:
In part, that’s because Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature have been increasingly willing during King’s tenure to legislate education policy, even though the State Board of Regents and education department are statutorily tasked with shaping the state’s schools agenda….
Also, the governor and lawmakers are responsible for crafting the state budget, a process that gives them great control over which programs to fund and leaves education officials in an advisory role.
And what is the agenda the Governor asking the Board of Regents and Commissioner to implement? The Times article provides their synopsis of the steps King and Board of Regents Chair Meryl Tisch have taken to date:
Mr. King and Ms. Tisch have overseen a period of rapid change in the state’s education policies, from the rollout of standardized tests aligned to the Common Core curriculum standards to a new teacher evaluation system, both of which have caused enormous controversy and have turned Mr. King into something of a lightning rod among parents and teachers. The new, more difficult tests have caused large drops in passing rates across the state.
My own perspective is that King and Tisch have instituted a cycle of testing children to discredit public education to enable legislators to create a “free market” where deregulated for-profit non-union schools can undercut the cost of education in the existing regulated union schools need to pay. How? By paying teachers less; by offering fewer “frills” like art, music, and PE; by screening out children from homes of disengaged parents and/or students with special needs; and by using existing facilities for free.
The winners in this new paradigm are “reformers”, and, as the Times reports they are elated at the direction Cuomo, the Regents, AND the new Commissioner are headed:
“Governor Cuomo continues to show his genuine commitment to our state’s students and is asking all the right questions to get them the education they deserve,” said Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirst NY, a group that advocates tougher teacher evaluations, fewer teacher tenure protections and the creation of more charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Several of the group’s board members were major donors to Mr. Cuomo’s re-election campaign.
But here’s what the Times downplays: groups like StudentsFirst NY are fronts for the investors in for-profit schools, predominantly hedge fund managers who see low cost for-profit schools as the tax-funded cash cow of the future.
And one other fact the Times and most media outlets neglect: NYS’s ending formula short changes the districts that are already starved for resources and full of children being raised in poverty. If public education is the means for children born in poverty to have an opportunity to improve, the governor and the Regents are on the wrong track… and it’s clear they will be seeking another engineer to move the train forward to an even more inequitable future.
After the Republicans swept into office a month ago, it is now clear that both NCLB and RTTT are going to be eliminated AND there will be an increase in the maximum amount available for Pell grants AND the incoming House Education Committee leader is pledging full funding for special education. Yet there is no sense of elation among those of us who have advocated for their demise. Why?
Progressive educators are sitting in stunned silence because they se that the increase in the number of Republican State legislatures and the increase in Republican governors the path for wholesale privatization and ALEC-inspired legislation is clear.
Progressive educators are dismayed because they see that NCLB’s punitive approach, RTTT’s overreach, and the CCSS backlash has played into the hands of privatizers and ALEC… and they see that if the GOP DOES increase funding for special education it will warm the hearts of local property taxpayers and school boards who have absorbed costs for special education for decades.
Here’s a dystopian scenario for the next few months:
- Urban school districts are turned over to States who then turn them over to for-profit “school management” firms
- Suburban and rural school boards, parents, and taxpayers are thrilled by the increase in special education funding and are elated that their state tax dollars will be “saved” by the state’s takeover of urban schools
- Think tanks and university education and economics professors funded by the oligarchs will issue data supporting the cost-effectiveness of the privatized urban school districts
- Voters with no children in public schools and/or no children in URBAN public schools will indicate their support for these changes in focus groups and neither party will want to undo what the 2015-16 legislature has done
- Public education will exacerbate the economic divide instead of serving as a means of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty.
After November’s election results, the de-funding of the loathed RTTT, the likely demise of the CCSS, and the plans to fully fund special education it is hard to envision a different scenario that the one outlined above…. but one needs to be developed soon or social mobility will be even more challenging in the future.
Diane Ravitch provided a link to David Katz’ blog post that was an extended reaction to a NYTimes “Room For Debate” feature posing the question “Are Charter Schools Cherry Picking Students?” One of the respondents, Mike Petrilli, the Executive Director of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, concluded his brief essay on this topic with this insight into the thinking of charter advocates:
Because these are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.
This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.
It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.
As one who believes that the existing discipline codes are too constraining for the majority of students because they are based on the false assumption that all students mature at the same rates and come from “Leave it to Beaver” households, the notion that MORE structure is the answer to the problem of classroom disruption is preposterous. In Petrilli’s world and the world of “no excuses” charter advocates, students who want to “escape” the schools where the “cancer” of disruption is in place must be subjected to discipline codes like those imposed in Catholic Schools or military academies.
Katz provides a wealth of information rebutting many of the assertions Petrilli and lays bare many the amoral basis of this kind of thinking. But he misses one key point: the reason this form of discipline is a feature and not a bug is that in order to operate a charter school cheaply (and therefore increase the profit) it cannot be troubled with the root causes of discipline problems and it must treat students with discipline problems the way an automobile factory deals with defective raw materials. In the “old days” factory schools would push out students who did not adapt to the rows of chairs and worksheet regimen of school…. but in the old days those who quit school or were expelled found their way into the workforce as unskilled laborers and, thanks to unions, could earn a middle class wage. The deep flaw in the deregulated for profit world is its clinging to the 1930s factory model and to the notion that students who cannot adapt need to be eliminated like defective raw materials because the bottom line will decrease if the costs of refining raw materials goes up…. and in for-profit charters the bottom line is everything!
In the last election cycle many States elected “fiscal conservatives” who believe corporate tax cuts are the road to prosperity. Sam Brownback (and his like minded colleagues Chris Christie and Scott Walker) decided four years ago that cutting corporate taxes would stimulate the economy in his state. But, as today’s NYTimes reports, that hasn’t happened. The new jobs haven’t materialized and new revenues that would result from those new jobs is non-existent and as a result Kansas is facing a large deficit…. and Brownback is faced with a dilemma: he either needs to cut far deeper than the public will support or face the music and roll back the tax. The sad reality for KS teachers and school children is that he seems intent on cutting even more deeply into their state funds. In addition to making cuts to pension funds, infrastructure projects, and every government program outside of schools and Medicare (more on this below), Governor Brownback is proposing the redirection of funds for early childhood education:
A state advocacy organization for children said that the governor’s proposal to transfer $14.5 million out of an endowment for early-childhood education programs could affect services in the future. The money comes from a settlement with tobacco companies and is used to fund things like Early Head Start, preschool and a program that trains parents to teach their young children skills at home.
With the transfer, the endowment balance is less than $100,000. Each year, the fund receives a check for $50 million to $70 million, said Christie Appelhanz, the vice president for public affairs for Kansas Action for Children, an advocacy group. But the programs cost about $50 million a year to administer, she said.
“We’re really calling into question the stability of early-childhood programs in Kansas for the future,” she said.
And why isn’t Brownback cutting education funding? Because the courts ruled that the current funds are inadequate to provide fair and equitable funding for schools in accordance with the state constitution. So based on my reading of previous articles on this State’s woeful legislature, here’s what KS will be considering to balance the budget going forward:
- Amending the constitution so that fewer tax dollars go to schools
- Unilaterally changing pension formulas
- Selling off as many state owned assets as possible to yield one-time savings that will help balance the budget for a year
- Transferring money from categorical funds like those cited above to help keep other government services afloat
- Privatizing to save money (and pay people less)
When this is kind of government strategy is transferred to the national level— and it looks more and more like it will be— expect the same kind of scenario at the Federal level with a slightly different twist since the Federal government, unlike the States, can operate in a deficit for the short term:
- Convince voters that deficits are bad
- Convince voters that spending at the Federal government level is “out of control” and full of “waste fraud, and corruption”, especially spending for social services
- Convince voters that tax cuts will stimulate the economy to help close the deficit
- Give huge tax breaks to private corporations
- Sell as many assets as possible (the Onion suggested selling Grand Canyon to China— which may not be so far fetched after we recently appropriated parklands from Native Americans to allow fracking)
- Cut as many pension obligations as possible
- Privatize services (and lower wages to make this pay off)
If the first four items on the list sound familiar, it’s because they’ve already happened. And if you don’t think the next three items on the list are possibilities, look no further than Kansas, NY, and Wisconsin— they’ve successfully accomplished the first four steps and to balance their budgets they are implementing the next three… and school children in those states— especially the children raise in poverty– are suffering as a result.
Thomas Edsall’s column in today’s NYTimes titled, “Have Democrats Failed the White Working Class?” could just as easily been titled “Too Bad We Didn’t Heed Moynihan”. Like many of Edsall’s essays, this one is full of statistics on economics and demographics which, in this case, show that white working class adults are feeling more pessimistic about the future than blacks, more disenfranchised from the Democrat party’s core message, and are increasingly single parent households. He outlines some of the adverse consequences of this development:
(Sociologist) Cherlin presents a graph showing that from 1980 to 2010, the percentage of white mothers without a college degree who are unmarried goes from 18 to 30 percent. For white mothers with a high school degree, the percentage rises from 11 to 21 percent. For white women with college degrees, the percentage only moves up three points, from 6 to 9 percent.
The rise of single parenting – while freeing some men or women, willingly or unwillingly, from the constrictions of relationships that had begun to chafe — has substantial consequences….
…growing up with one parent reduces chances of graduating high school by 40 percent and that father-absence “increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule breaking, delinquency, and illegal drug use.”
Later in the article he quotes extensively from an article written by Sara McLanahan, a Pinceton sociologist:
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that nonmarital childbearing and marital dissolution were undermining the progress of African Americans. I argue that what Moynihan identified as a race-specific problem in the 1960s has now become a class-based phenomena as well. Using data from a new birth cohort study, I show that unmarried parents come from much more disadvantaged populations than married parents. I further argue that nonmarital childbearing reproduces class and racial disparities through its association with partnership instability and multi-partnered fertility. These processes increase maternal stress and mental health problems, reduce the quality of mothers’ parenting, reduce paternal investments, and ultimately lead to poor outcomes in children. Finally, by spreading fathers’ contributions across multiple households, partnership instability and multi-partnered fertility undermine the importance of individual fathers’ contributions of time and money which is likely to affect the future marriage expectations of both sons and daughters.
In summary, whether a child is white, black, a citizen or an immigrant, being born into a single parent or a household with unmarried parents places a child at a disadvantage educationally, emotionally, and economically… and this presents complications for those of us who want to address the root causes of poverty by intervening before a child enters school. Here are a few thorny questions that emerge:
- Should “the government” periodically screen preschool children being raised in single parent households to determine if intervention is needed?
- Should the provision of “government” welfare benefits be linked to periodic screenings of children in single parent households to determine if intervention is needed?
- If “the government” determines that a child in a single parent household is not enrolled in a remedial prekindergarten program based on the findings of a “government funded” physical examination should that parent be charged with neglect?
- We are about to expand prekindergarten funding at the federal level with the presumed goal of providing Universal Prekindergarten. Will failure to attend such a program be treated the same way as truancy?
If data prove that there is link between the households a child is raised in and that child’s opportunity for a better life, does the government have ANY responsibility to intervene? Edsall’s concluding paragraph would seem to answer in the affirmative because the current state of affairs is leading to deep divisions:
The linked problems of eroding social cohesion, the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, deteriorating communal ties and weakened social norms, appear to have led to a degree of chaos and disintegration that those accustomed to a secure – and, indeed, a fixed — social order bitterly resent.
I believe public schools can and should play a role in breaking the “intergenerational transmission of disadvantage” but also know that they need an early start to do so. Getting from where we are to where we need to be will require us to wrestle with questions like those posed above and basing our policy on the responses. To allow things to remain as they are will lead to deeper and more bitter resentment.
A post about “Grit” from blogger Paul Thomas came my way recently from multiple sources, and the post if full of graphs and links all of which debunk the notion that “grit” can help African American students and students raised in poverty advance terms of the socio-economic status…. and all of which demonstrate, in the words of the blog post, that the grit narrative is a “…veneer for white, wealth privilege”. Thomas’ opening paragraph lays out the current conventional wisdom:
Political leaders and the mainstream media feed two enduring claims to the public, who nearly universally embraces both: Doing well in school and attaining advanced education are essential to overcoming any obstacles, and the key to succeeding in school is grit, effort and perseverance.
Thomas then presents data and charts that show this “key to success” is a myth. The real key to success is being born to white, well educated parents. After all the data and analyses are presented, Thomas presents his ultimate conclusion:
My argument is that instead of crediting educational attainment as the key to adult success, educational attainment is a marker for home privilege, the valid source of adult success.
So… where and to whom you were born matters a lot more than “effort” in school and because of that, where and to whom you were born matters a lot more in terms of your ability to attain high earnings as an adult.
Mitigating accidents of birth requires that schools in areas of disadvantage have the funds needed to provide the kinds of programs routinely available to schools in affluent areas… and that requires political leadership that is sadly lacking at all levels of government.
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