Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Advice to Principals: Push Back Against the Headwinds!

December 8, 2016 Leave a comment

One of the best books I read this year was Between the World and Me, which was an extended letter he wrote to his son, Samori, about what it is like to grown up black in America. As a 69-year old White American I feel that I have empathy for Blacks, but Coates’ book made me appreciate just how different the world looked to me during my formative years in an integrated college town in PA compared to his experiences in Baltimore, MD.

Earlier this week the Chalkbeat blogger Alex Zimmerman wrote a post describing Coates’ interactions with a group of roughly 30 current and aspiring Principals. In recounting his conversations with them, Mr. Zimmerman captured the same blunt honesty that characterizes Coates’ essays and his book. In expiring to the group why he sends his son to private school, Coates reflected on his personal experience in public schools.

“I guess I feel like the school system sort of failed me, he said. “School was not a physically safe place … violence was a thing you were always coping with.”

Coates lso drove home the powerful negative impact the grading system has on children, implicitly urging the gathering to focus on ways to provide intellectual stimulation to the students.

“People and educators often deeply underestimate that it actually hurts to fail,” he explained. “The world is so much more open than any report card or any test score.”

But Coates did display an understanding of the challenges teachers and administrators face, and analogized the scapegoating of teachers to the scapegoating he experienced as a black man:

But Coates noted the headwinds teachers face — the consequences of homelessness, poverty and the criminal justice system — and argued that teachers, like black people, are often easy scapegoats for larger institutional failures.

So how to resist that demonization? Coates urged educators to “push back” against the idea that it’s solely their responsibility to solve longstanding social problems, and encouraged them to team up with other activists to fight for change.

“Drawing on the history of African-Americans in this country, you really have to be willing to struggle on behalf of things that are not resolvable in your lifetime,” he said. “The fact that you’re fighting for kids who have not yet been born doesn’t make the struggle irrelevant … The problems weren’t created in one generation.”

As I am certain Mr. Coates appreciates, from a public teacher’s perspective the headwinds just got stronger with the election of Mr. Trump, with his Cabinet appointments, and with a Congress that is likely to use his election to promote their agenda that favors pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps grit over any kind of early intervention and support. I have long advocated that school districts work with local social service departments, local health departments, and local police departments to provide children attending school with the safety net they need to succeed in school. Now I think that administrators, teachers, and school boards are going to have to work in tandem with every public agency that provides services to children to push back against the direction our country is headed for each one of our services– even the police department– is likely to face the forces of deregulated privatization in the coming four years.

PISA results are in… And Neither the “Reformers” or Politicians Will Like Researchers’ Conclusions

December 7, 2016 Leave a comment

Amanda Ripley’s NYTimes Upshot article on the PISA results will not go over well with the “reform” crowd or the politicians who fail to face the facts on equitable funding. The PISA tests, (Programme for International Student Assessment) is an international study of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading.conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It has been given every three years since 2003 and the results of the assessments are publicized a year later. During the intervening years, statisticians and psyshometricians analyze the results and draw conclusions about the effectiveness of various national strategies for improving schools… and the findings are not particularly helpful for the “reformers”. Here’s why: the only piece of good news in the results was an improvement in equity where: “One in every three disadvantaged American teenagers beat the odds in science, achieving results in the top quarter of students from similar backgrounds worldwide.” But Ms Ripley could not link this to anything associated with the “reform” movement. Her synopsis of the PISA analysis was:

Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

Of all those lessons learned, the United States has employed only one at scale: A majority of states recently adopted more consistent and challenging learning goals, known as the Common Core State Standards, for reading and math. These standards were in place for only a year in many states, so Mr. Schleicher did not expect them to boost America’s PISA scores just yet. (In addition, America’s PISA sample included students living in states that have declined to adopt the new standards altogether.)

So Ms. Ripley concludes that the US has only employed one of the proven methods “at scale”… and then goes on to note that this “at scale” improvement was NOT adopted by all the States and had not been adopted in time for it to have any impact on the test results. So what DID result in the improvement of the performance by our disadvantaged students? We know it was’t more money… we know it wasn’t an effort to make teaching a more selecting and honored profession…. we know it wasn’t an upgrade of our virtually non-existent preschool program… and it wasn’t the Common Core. Is it possible that our teachers are doing a better job out of sheer pride in the craft? I believe that is the case, but that idea will never see the light of day in the NYTimes because it contradicts the “reform” narrative that teachers are the problem and more money isn’t needed.

Despite Ms. Ripley’s misplaced enthusiasm for the Common Core and failure to acknowledge the good work of teachers in our country, she does draw the right conclusion at the end of her article:

As we drift toward a world in which more good jobs will require Americans to think critically — and to repeatedly prove their abilities before and after they are hired — it is hard to imagine a more pressing national problem. “Your president-elect has promised to make America great again,” (PISA administrator) Mr. Schleicher said. But he warned, “He won’t be able to do that without fixing education.”

And the fix Mr. Trump is proposing has nothing to do with the need to make teaching more prestigious and selective; to direct more resources to their neediest children; to enroll most children in high-quality preschools; to help schools establish cultures of constant improvement; or to apply rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms. The PISA results in 2018 will likely reflect his efforts… and they are unlikely to show that we are on the right track.


What the Robots Are Doing to the Middle Class

December 6, 2016 Leave a comment

As usual, Buchheit is on target… flagging a reality that public schools need to face sooner rather than later: the workplace of the future requires more human interaction… and yet we are relying on computerized standardized testing to measure student performance, teacher performance, and the effectiveness of our schooling. And his concluding paragraph is on target for what our economy needs: a guaranteed living wage for ALL workers. 

The simplistic response to the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on employment is that we’ve experienced this before, during the Industrial Revolution and beyond, and that the “market” will eventually provide plenty of jobs. The reality is that tens of millions of Americans will have to accept food service and retail and personal care jobs that don’t pay a living wage.The Deniers: The Middle Class Has Nothing to Worry About

Source: What the Robots Are Doing to the Middle Class

Building Social Networks Key to Improving Lifestyles, Life… and Schools

December 6, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve often drawn posts from the NYTimes Fixes column, edited by Tina Rosenberg. In a column Ms. Rosenberg posts today she looks back over the past year and identifies three “big ideas” that substantially changed our society for the better, all of which are based on the notion of building human capital. The “big ideas” were captured in three phrases: “Share a Little of That Human Touch”: “Use Tech to Democratize”; and, “Make the Better Choice the Easy Choice”.

In the “Human Touch” section Ms. Rosenberg describes how face-to-face contact between those in need and service providers and/or those in need and volunteers can make a huge impact on both those offering the service and those receiving it. She doesn’t say so explicitly, but the kinds of social networks she describes here fend off loneliness, which can be painful and debilitating.

The use of technology to democratize suggests that the on-line technology should make it possible for individuals of all backgrounds in our county and the world should be able to access the same kinds of services and opportunities available to the affluent earners in our country. In this section Ms. Rosenberg describes how cattle farmers in Africa can now purchase insurance, how anyone can invest in a socially responsible way, and how the internet can provide legal assistance for those who cannot afford attorneys and consequently “…lose their apartments, their children and their jobs” when they fall behind on bill payments.

In the last section on making good choices easy Ms. Rosenberg describes how the placement of trash receptacles reduces littering and how inexpensive and readily available birth control reduces abortion and unwanted pregnancies… and offers evidence to support these findings.

The article begins with a description of the Thread program in Baltimore schools that effectively combines all three of these components. Thread is a late intervention program that provides intense support for for ninth grade students in the lowest quartile of their cohort. Here’s an excerpt that describes the program:

My colleague David Bornstein reported that Thread surrounds each of its students — most of whom face serious problems at home — with an extended family of up to five volunteers (the number drops as the child ages) for 10 years. They are always on call. Their motto could be “by any means necessary.” One volunteer might show up at a child’s house to take him to school at 7 a.m., another at 10 and yet another at noon. Consistency is essential. Volunteers can’t switch among children, and once a child signs on, he or she can’t leave or be expelled.

“Relationships are the key things that bring about real changes,” said Sarah Hemminger, a founder of Thread. The program is small but scalable. Bornstein writes that one impressive and valuable thing is the social connections it creates between groups of very different people.

In an era when we are increasingly isolated from each other by generational, income, and political, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs we connecting with others who are “very different” would go a long way to building bridges instead of securing walls. We can do so face-to-face, on-line, or by taking advantage of the random meetings we CAN create by getting out in the world in venues that our towns have created for us to mingle in. It’s a bit early for resolutions, but one of mine for 2017 is to meet more people outside of my social, educational, and geographical silo.


Betsy’s Benefactors: Millions for Charters and Christian Causes

December 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Politico’s daily email today provided this handy list of the benefactors of Betsy DeVos’ billions:

 – The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation approved $400,000 in funding for Loudspeaker Media Inc., helping former CNN anchor Campbell Brown launch her education site, The 74. Brown said recently that she’d recuse herself from editorial involvement of her site’s coverage of DeVos. A couple of days before that decision, however, Brown authored an op-ed for The 74 that praised DeVos. The foundation also gave $400,000 to Brown’s nonprofit, The Partnership for Educational Justice.

 Success Academy Charter Schools received $150,000 from the foundation in 2015, with another $150,000 approved for future payment. The New York City charter school chain’s founder, Eva Moskowitz, who was also considered for Trump’s Education secretary, tweeted that she was “thrilled” about DeVos as the pick. The DeVos Family Foundation also donated $5,000 to GREAAT Schools, Inc., a non-profit charter school management company.

– The Potter’s House, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich., received $200,000 from the foundation in 2015. In an interview with Philanthropy Roundtable, Betsy DeVos, who hails from Michigan, credited her visit to the school several decades ago as helping to spark her interest in school choice advocacy.

– The couple gave $100,000 to the nonprofit Alliance for School Choice, which works closely with the American Federation for Children, of which DeVos recently stepped down as chair. DeVos has also sat on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The foundation gave the group $50,000.

– Conservative organizations: Betsy DeVos sits on the board of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy. In 2015 her family foundation donated $750,000 to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank – and approved another $1 million in future funding for it. In addition, the DeVos’ foundation donated $10,000 to Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm that has funded school choice lawsuits across the country, and $6,500 to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc., a group that promotes conservative viewpoints on college campuses.

– Colleges and universitiesUniversity of Maryland College Park Foundation, which has an arts management institute named after the DeVoses, received $500,000. The School of Missionary Aviation Technology, which offers undergraduate certificates in aircraft maintenance and flight and whose goal “is to equip men and women to serve God in mission aviation,” received $150,000, with another $100,000 approved. Ferris State University, a public school in Michigan, received $113,500. Davenport University , a private nonprofit school in Michigan, got $55,000, with another $100,000 approved. In addition: Rollins College ($50,000); Calvin College, Betsy DeVos’ undergraduate alma mater ($35,000); Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University ($10,000); the University of Michigan’s Food Allergy Center ($10,000); Grand Rapids Community College Foundation ($5,000); Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medical Center ($500); and Wake Forest University ($250).

– The couple donated to a wide range of Christian-related education groups, such as the Grand Rapids Christian School Association($350,000); the Ada Christian School Society ($50,000), the Rehoboth Christian School Association ($10,000), and Christian Schools International ($1,000).

– The DeVos’ foundation also donated to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ($250,000), where Betsy DeVos previously served on the board; ArtPrize Grand Rapids ($400,000), an art festival found by the family; the Boy Scouts of America ($305,000); the Xprize Foundation ($1.8 million) and a number of Christian ministries, churches and pro-life groups. Read the full list here.

It is heartening to see Ms. DeVos support for the arts and based on a quick scan of its web page the Prize looks like it has a wide range of problems it is attempting to tackle. But it was equally distressing to see that pro-charter publications and a host of charter schools got millions of dollars from her… and not a single public K-12 school got a dollar. And while state funded Ferris State received $113,000, that paled in comparison the Christian schools who received over $600,000!

Of all the items on the list, though, the one that piqued my curiosity the most was this one:

The School of Missionary Aviation Technology, which offers undergraduate certificates in aircraft maintenance and flight and whose goal “is to equip men and women to serve God in mission aviation,” received $150,000, with another $100,000 approved.

Here’s hoping Mr. DeVos’ priorities change once she takes office… but I have my doubts!

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Who Pays for “Tax Incentives”? WE Do!

December 5, 2016 Leave a comment

The following is an op ed piece I am submitting to our local newspaper, the Valley News. It is an updated version of an earlier post I wrote title Tax Racket. 

When someone pays a government official to get a contract, it’s called “bribery”. When the government pays a business to maintain its existing operations or to help it relocate in it’s community, it’s called an “economic development”.


When an individual gets assistance from the government, its called “welfare”. When a business gets assistance from the government, its called “an incentive package”.


Several years ago I personally witnessed a case study that illustrates how this pro-business Newspeak permeates the reporting in the media to the detriment of public funded organizations. In 2002 I moved from Upstate New York where I worked for five years as superintendent of schools to the Burlington, Vermont area. The district I led in New York included East Fishkill, a town where IBM had a large manufacturing presence. In 1999, IBM announced that “in response to market conditions” they needed to modernize their facilities and eliminate jobs. AS a result they were either going to downsize or close their plant in Upstate New York and upgrade their operations to Essex Junction, Vermont, or downsize or close the plant in Essex Junction and upgrade their operations in Upstate New York. The governments in both states and the local town governments fell all over themselves to develop an “incentive package” that would expand IBM’s presence. New York’s Governor Pataki, citing the need to “invest in the future”, put together a sweeter package than Vermont’s Governor Dean. As a result, IBM upgraded its operations in Upstate New York and downsize its operations in Essex Junction.


The results were favorable for IBM and its shareholders. The incentive packages offered in both Vermont and New York reduced IBM’s State taxes, and both Essex Junction and East Fishkill lowered IBM’s local taxes. And, as they indicated from the outset, IBM’ experienced a net reduction in its workforce. As a result of these cuts in taxes and personnel, IBM’s profits increased. But the governments’ incentives included more than tax breaks. Both New York State and the town of East Fishkill paid to upgrade the highways and the infrastructure around the IBM plant. At the same time, the Governor of Vermont, in an effort to demonstrate his State’s commitment to IBM, made the completion of the Circumferential Highway that served IBM a priority and pledged to review the electrical rates charged to IBM. These were both investments in the future that were needed in “response to the market conditions”.


The results were not favorable for taxpayers in either New York or Vermont. The results were especially onerous for local taxpayers. The New York State incentive package provided IBM with $475 million in “tax benefits”. The $475 million “tax incentive” IBM received from New York State was, in effect, a $475 million cash gift from the state. It represented $475 million that could not be available to upgrade schools, to provide high speed internet to rural areas, or fix roads. The New York State package also included a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) agreement that reduced the assessed valuation of the IBM facilities in East Fishkill. This effectively shifted the local tax burden from the IBM plant in East Fishkill to small businesses and homeowners in that town. The downsizing of the IBM plant in Vermont had the same effect in Essex. It lowered IBM’s tax payments to state and local governments and shifted the local tax burden in Essex from the IBM plant to small businesses and local property owners.


This case study illustrates the lose-lose proposition State and local government officials face when a major local employer seeks “tax relief”. If, in their zeal to seek and retain businesses, our elected officials give corporations large sums of money, money that ultimately comes from taxpayers. If the elected officials fail to respond to the requests for relief or lose to a competing community, they are voted out of office.


This case study also illustrates how the media’s use of the euphemistic language obscures the burden taxpayers assume, because when elected officials say they are “business friendly” it means money is shifted from taxpayers to corporations. As a public school superintendent I would cringe whenever I read of that a corporation threatened to relocate because of “difficult economic conditions” or “over-regulation”. In my 29 years of experience as a Superintendent I cannot recall a time when the school districts I led didn’t face the same “difficult economic conditions” and the same “government regulations” as the private sector. Like the private sector over the past four decades, school districts faced spiraling health insurance costs, high energy and utility costs, increased costs for hiring, training, and retaining good employees, and a complicated array of local, State and federal regulations. Unlike businesses, however, school districts cannot threaten to leave town, cannot threaten to send their jobs overseas, or downsize. Indeed, the opposite is true. When the IBM PILOT agreement was struck the school board needed to make budget cuts to soften the impact to local taxpayers by deferring the acquisition of technology, increasing class sizes, and deferring some maintenance projects.


So when I read about the “incentive packages” Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence offered to Carrier, I realized that I helped pay for these incentives out of my own pocket and realized that the property taxpayers in Indianapolis paid an even higher price. So the next time you read about the high cost of welfare, recall that over a decade ago IBM received hundreds of millions in welfare from New York and asked Vermont to provide new roads and lower electrical rates,


And one last request: please alert me if you EVER hear of ANY State giving a school district a $475 million tax incentive to help upgrade their facilities.


Paula Dwyer Asserts Education Department Cannot be Eliminated. She MIGHT Be Wrong!

December 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Our local newspaper, the Valley News, featured an article by Bloomberg op ed writer Paula Dwyer title “Why the US Education Department Never Dies” offering a list of reasons why it would be impossible for the incoming Trump administration to close the Education Department despite his promise to do so. After seven years of Arne Duncan’s leadership, I’m not so sure I would be unhappy with the collapse of the department, but since it’s very existence serves to keep public schools in the some kind of national spotlight closing it might be read as a signal that public schools matter less. After reading her article which was presumably written to make the case for the USDOE’s continued existence, though, I was completely unconvinced.

At the outset of the list she included a series of functions that could be transferred to other departments. Here’s my take on how the functions of USDOE could be delegated or, in the case of student loan oversight, eliminated completely:

  • Roughly 1/3 of its budget is for Pell Grants, which Senator Cruz indicates could be managed by the Treasury Department.
  • The department oversees the $1.3 trillion in student loans, and from many reports does a poor job of it. In a Trump administration it isn’t hard to imagine that being transferred to another Cabinet post or agency and deregulated… or better yet, handed over to the banking industry. The banks made astute decision on housing loans (sic), let them decide who receives student loans and determine what the rates will be.
  • Roughly 1/5 of the USDOE budget is for Title One funds, which Mr. Trump could conceivably give directly to the states to launch voucher programs. His HHS Secretary, you know, Mr. Price who wants to defund Planned Parenthood, would assume oversight of this program if oversight was necessary. Or maybe the AG, Jeff Sessions who sees Special Education as a complicated boondoggle, could enforce the use of the $20,000,000 sent to the states for Mr. Trump’s voucher plan.
  • As noted in earlier posts, the OCR adjudicates discrimination cases that occur within the context of public and post-secondary education. These could easily be shifted to the AG’s office. Indeed, this would make perfect sense given the Republican platform calls for local police forces to handle more of the Title IX harassment cases at colleges.

At the end of the article, Ms. Dwyer concludes that even though “conservatives see the Education Department, like Obamacare, as a symbol of federal intrusion and wasteful spending”, she believes it will safe during the Trump regime. Why?

…it’s an open question whether DeVos would really devote much time to getting rid of her Cabinet-level job, especially when she has the bully pulpit she has always wanted to push vouchers, charters, school choice and other causes that she and her husband, billionaire businessman Dick DeVos, have long championed.

Some of what the department does meshes with the agenda of Trump and DeVos, including spending $350 million to expand charter schools. If she and the president-elect really want more school choice and voucher programs, isn’t a federal thumb on the scale the best way to push them?

So back to the original question: Will the new Republican president and the Republican Congress finally kill the Education Department? I would bet no.

I tend to agree with this conclusion with one caveat. There is some conjecture that Ms. DeVos will be overmatched by the bureaucracy she is leading and frustrated with her inability to make the kinds of changes she advocated as an outsider. If that happens, it could open the door for Mr. Trump to declare the Department as being dysfunctional and implementing a plan for its dissolution. As I write this I am confident that the Heritage Foundation is dusting off a plan it wrote several years ago that will make that happen.