Archive for July, 2014

More Evidence that Privatization Fails

July 31, 2014 Comments off

I’ve read way too many articles of late that give examples of the failings of privatized charter schools and seen way too many articles touting them as the cure-all for the failings of “government-run” schools. Two recent examples are Allie Gross’ Jacobin article “The Charter School Profiteers” describing her experiences working as a Teach For America staff member in a Detroit Charter that received glowing publicity despite its shortcomings and Jeff Bryant’s recent EducationOpportunityNetwork article “The Truth Behind the New Orleans School Reform Model” which describes how charter school profiteers “juke the stats” to “prove” that their privatized schools are performing well.

Gross’ article describes how a charismatic self-promoter, Jesse Kilgore made large sums of money through various “consulting services” he provided to schools in Detroit. Gross describes Kilgore as the “paradigmatic example” of the “education entrepreneur”, an individual who can thrive in the for-profit education word as described below:  

In the chaos of the Detroit school system, education entrepreneurs see an opportunity for experimentation, innovation, and venture capital. And the decentralized nature of charter schools works to their advantage. With little coherence across schools, the issue of serial education entrepreneurs emerges. Those with limited track records of success are able to wedge their ways into school after school, with nobody checking up on past performance.

Kilgore. like many “education entrepreneurs”, has the ability to raise huge sums of money through foundations and hedge funders and the ability to sell politicians and the public on the idea that “the market” can cure all the ills of public education. In the most telling paragraphs of her essay, Gross writes:

When we welcome schools that lack democratic accountability (charter school boards are appointed, not elected), when we allow public dollars to be used by those with a bottom line (such as the for-profit management companies that proliferate in Michigan), we open doors for opportunism and corruption. Even worse, it’s all justified under a banner of concern for poor public school students’ well-being.

While these issues of corruption and mismanagement existed before, we should be wary of any education reformer who claims that creating an education marketplace is the key to fixing the ills of DPS or any large city’s struggling schools. Letting parents pick from a variety of schools does not weed out corruption. And the lax laws and lack of accountability can actually exacerbate the socioeconomic ills we’re trying to root out.

Urban school districts were generally not well managed. Some board members and politicians rewarded loyal supporters and campaign contributors with positions in schools ranging from custodians to central office administrators and the competence and commitment of those appointees varied widely. But board members and politicians are democratically elected and an informed and engaged electorate combined with a free and open press could insist on changes and improvements. Instead of having a flawed democratic system that allows politicians to provide patronage jobs to loyal supporters we now have a flawed market-based system that encourages greedy entrepreneurs to provide patronage to equally rapacious politicians.

Bryant’s article details the way the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) manipulated reporting data in a way that SHOULD be monitored by the State Department of Education… but is standard operating procedure in today’s deregulated state department environment. In the lengthy rebuttal-to-a-rebuttal he demonstrates:

  • how the State department manipulated cut scores on standardized tests to create higher “grades” for the privatized RSD schools,
  • how the NAEP scores have remained unchanged despite the alleged “gains” made as a result of privatization
  • how pre-Katrina and post-Katrina comparisons of New Orleans are flawed because of the outmigration of a substantial number of needy students following the storm, and
  • how the notion of “choice” is virtually non-existent since the higher performing schools have no seats available for students seeking entry.

In summary, Bryant debunks every claim of success made by politicians in the state, claims of success that Bryant laments have been hailed by politicians in both national parties.

Privatization is, again, shown to be a cheap, easy, fast but BAD solution to a complicated problem that will require time, money, and hard work. In the end, cheap-easy-fast ALWAYS appeals to voters more than expensive-hard-slow…


Infrastructure Matters

July 31, 2014 Comments off

The recent flood at UCLA caused by a broken 93-year old underground pipe SHOULD be a wake up call for legislators across the country: our infra-structure is breaking and we need need to spend money to upgrade it as soon as possible. Broken 93 year-old underground pipes are a clear manifestation of the problem… but our country’s education infrastructure’s “leaks” are comparable. Many of our dilapidated schools need new roofs, new furniture, new HVAC systems, and upgraded windows and doors…. and the schools needing the greatest improvements are those located in economically deprived districts or neighborhoods. Virtually all of our schools have outmoded telecommunication infrastructures and many (if not a majority) of students do not have access to high speed internet. How can we hope to succeed in the future if we don’t invest in our facilities today? How can we expect students attending school in decrepit facilities to believe they have an equal opportunity for success when they watch TV shows illustrating the technology available in the affluent districts in our nation?

Efficiency is the Enemy Redux

July 30, 2014 Comments off

Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University, has a powerful essay in today’s NYTimes. The title, “Detroit’s Drought of Democracy” could just as easily been “Efficiency Undercuts Democracy”, for his primary argument is that the decision of MI lawmaker to appoint an “emergency manager” with dictatorial powers is based on the premise that efficiency can only be achieved by assigning unquestioned authority to one individual. While there are other factors at play (e.g. the racism that exists in MI that is manifest in the demographics of communities in that state), Stanley focuses on the creed that efficiency is good… and shatters it completely. Stanley uses the emergency manager’s decision to shut off water to Detroit residents as the example of how efficiency does not result in public well being… but the same logic applies to the takeover of public schools, as noted in my comments to several quotes I gleaned from the essay:  

The discretion inherent in executive power is being exercised to maximize financial efficiency. But there is no obvious connection between financial efficiency and the public good.

The use of part-time staff by McDonalds and Walmart are financially efficient… but not serving the public well. The practice of inversion as noted in earlier posts is financially efficient… but not at all connected to the public good. Privatized schools that hire untrained and low wage teachers to prepare students to do well on standardized tests are financially efficient… but do nothing to help the public good.

The 19th-century French political philosopher Benjamin Constant worried that appeals to the common good were often not made for democratic purposes, but rather served to “supply weapons and pretexts to all kinds of tyranny.” One may suspect Michigan’s appeal to financial efficiency has a similar purpose.

The “reformers” civil rights arguments are an appeal to the common good that are used to justify the privatization of public schools and the governance of those schools by shareholders instead of elected school board.

Singapore is a state that values efficiency above all. But by no stretch of the imagination is Singapore a democratic state. A society ruled by technocrats who make decisions on behalf of the masses is, since Plato’s time, regarded as a system that is opposed to democracy, rather than one exemplifying it.

The technology CEOs value the wisdom of technocrats over the wisdom of practitioners and virtually all CEOs value the fast decision-making that comes from top-down leadership over the messy, plodding deliberations that are a part of democracy.

This is not to deny that the Detroit emergency manager’s policies are efficient for some people. For example, they are efficient for the banks that are being paid back for what look to be ethically dubious loans, as well as for those who stand to benefit from the potentially huge profits of privatizing one of the world’s great freshwater supplies at a time of increasing global water scarcity.

The banks may not benefit from the privatization of schools, but there ARE huge profits that could be made from making schools “financially efficient”… and when the “financially efficient” profit motive trumps the public good, our country is wasting one the world’s greatest untapped resources: our students.

It is simply no surprise at all that a democratic state can be less efficient than some nondemocratic states. In a democracy, someone who would be a good doctor is allowed to be a bad lawyer. Autonomy cannot be subsumed to efficiency in a democracy.

A democratic state accepts some messiness and some inefficiency as a trade off for allowing everyone to have stake in determining the direction the government is taking. And here is the most telling quote:

The chief values of democracy are freedom and equality. The  willingness to subsume freedom to claims of efficiency is one sign of an undemocratic culture.

I drew on this quote in making a comment I wrote, noting the parallel between what is happening in Detroit and what is happening in public education:

This article describes the rationale used by “reformers” to privatize public education. By using standardized tests as the basis for determining which schools and districts are “failing” states proclaimed the existence of an “emergency”. The states and/or mayors then took the authority to govern schools away from locally elected officials and shifted it to mayors and governors many of whom, in turn, gave authority to unelected shareholders of privatized schools. Jason Stanley writes: “The chief values of democracy are freedom and equality. The willingness to subsume freedom to claims of efficiency is one sign of an undemocratic culture.” The willingness to ignore inequality is another sign… and our decision to ignore the impact of poverty on schools and undercutting locally elected is corroding our democracy and not helping our children.

If taking power away from locally elected officials (e.g. school boards) made a difference, Newark NJ, Chester and Philadelphia PA, and Chicago IL schools would be outperforming all schools in the country. By ignoring the inequality of wealth between those urban areas and the surrounding suburbs and exurbs and emphasizing the need for “financial efficiency” we’ve delivered two blows to “the chief values of democracy”.

Teaching Nocera

July 29, 2014 Comments off

Joe Nocera’s NYTimes column today is titled “Teaching Teaching“, the provides an overview of a forthcoming book by Elizabeth Green. Ms. Green’s book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone),” talks about efforts underway to improve the teaching of teachers. The book emphasizes that teaching is a skill that can be taught and SHOULD be taught effectively before a teacher is assigned to a class of students. The article has three flaws, which I hope to address with three separate comments.

First, the article does not mention the contradictory and wrongheaded approach to teacher training being taken by the “reformers”, who want to deregulate teaching and eliminate certification. This, when combined with the overemphasis on standardized tests, leads new teacher to teach-to-the-test instead of meeting the needs of each student.

Secondly, Nocera’s article makes no mention of the need for aspiring teachers, and ESPECIALLY aspiring urban teacher, to learn behavior management skills. Until and unless a teacher can control student behavior in a classroom nothing will be learned.

Finally, Nocera’s list of best education books of the past few years does not include Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch…

Inversion Redux

July 29, 2014 Comments off

Andrew Ross Sorkin, an NYTimes business writer, posted an article in today’s Dealbook section describing the huge profits banks made by advising corporations on the inversion process, whereby they declare themselves as based in another country to avoid paying US taxes. As noted in yesterday’s blog post amplifying Paul Krugman’s article, this has a major impact on publicly operated institutions like schools. To amplify that for NYTimes readers I offered the following comment:

I’m not a tax expert… but here’s my understanding:
We– the taxpayers— bailed out these “to big to fail” banks and now they are receiving huge sums of money to help large corporations avoid paying their taxes. This, in turn, creates a “crisis” in the government revenue stream that requires the privatization of things like roads, prisons, hospitals and schools to “save the taxpayers” money. Oh… and as a by-product this “crisis” gives the shareholders of those NEW private enterprises more wealth. I, for one, do not believe this is good for our country.

To paraphrase a quote from the 60s, if you aren’t disturbed by these shenanigans you are not paying attention!

Out of District Placements NOW Newsworthy

July 29, 2014 Comments off

For decades public schools have borne the costs required to provide special education students with a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the “…least restrictive environment.” For most students with special needs this is not at all problematic. Special education teachers typically have the training required to develop and implement an individual education plan (IEP) for the vast majority of students and school boards can either hire staff or contract for related service providers to support students with specialized services like occupational therapy, speech therapy, and psychological support. Some students, however, have complicated needs that school districts cannot meet and, in those cases, the school district is required to provide the tuition costs and related costs for that child’s education. In most cases the costs for these programs are at least three times the per pupil costs incurred by an “average” student… and six digit costs have been in play for at least 20 years. In the five states where I served as Superintendent, the State government realized that it was difficult to impossible for a local district to absorb these additional costs to education the extraordinary students who required special programs and so they paid the majority of the costs, with some states providing as much as 95% reimbursement. This made sense since many of the students requiring these kinds of programs were formerly housed in state institutions that closed, sending the students back to their local communities.

In a majority of these out-of-district placements the student’s learning problems are severe and self-evident and both the parents and schools identify a mutually agreeable program and work collaboratively to develop a plan to provide transportation to and from the locale. In other cases, however, the districts assert that they can provide the free and appropriate education for the child in the district and the parents sue the district to seek the placement they desire. Districts are then placed in a position of determining whether to hire their own attorney to argue their case in front of an arbitrator and/or judge or to cede to the parents and pay for the placements themselves. This is often a lose-lose predicament for school districts. If they hire an attorney they can incur high legal fees that are often not reimbursable and, if they lose, they would be required to pay the legal fees of the parents. By “fighting” a placement districts can also engender ill-will in the parent community who will often rally around the parent whose child is being”denied the education they need”. If they don’t hire an attorney, they run the risk of setting a precedent that will require additional out of district costs and, possibly, scrutiny from the State who is often bearing the majority of the costs. Another complication is that districts are bound by confidentiality agreements, making it impossible for them to give a full public explanation of the nature of the complicated problems students have and/or the steps they have taken to ensure that each and every placement is warranted. Finally, the biggest problem with this whole placement issue is that it creates a situation where an individual student is viewed as a “cost-benefit” problem and not a programmatic one. It depersonalizes the student and increases the conflict among adults.

In my experience the largest percentage of contentious placement cases deal with emotionally handicapped students. In some cases these students are coping adequately in the school setting but acting out in the community or at home and, as a result, parents are seeking 24/7 oversight. There are many schools that offer therapies that are contrary to those acceptable to schools (e.g. wilderness expeditions that intentionally isolate students) or are unproven (e.g. animal husbandry programs). Some of these schools counsel parents on how to get districts to fund placements ex post facto and some even have de facto in house attorneys who assist them in “recruiting” students.

For years administrators have lamented this system that, in the end, is cost driven and also lamented the fact that these mandated costs for special education are driving budgets higher and, in some cases, squeezing out funds for non-special needs students and programs. Yesterday’s NYTimes and today’s breathlessly reported on the costs districts incurred as a result of these out of district placements, each report implicitly emphasizing the impact on taxpayers while glossing over the complicated background outlined above. While it is helpful to bring these costs to light, it would be extremely helpful if the reporting gave some context. Unfortunately no effort has been made to tease out the marginal cost/student that results from the federal mandate that all children receive a free and appropriate education. Worse,  the media have never emphasized the impact of the Federal government’s broken promise to provide 40% of the costs to education special education students and seldom reported on the impact on local funding when a state legislature decides to reduce their share of special education costs. MAYBE these articles could set the stage for that kind of reporting in the future.

Playground Basketball Dying… and so is Childhood

July 28, 2014 Comments off

Two article recently drove home the point that my experiences as a child have gone the way of defined benefit pensions and full paid health care.

A few days ago I read “Playground Basketball is Dying” a multi-part ESPN article written by Myron Medcalf and Dana O’Neill. I spent the greater part of two years playing outdoor basketball in West Chester PA in the mid 1960s, sometimes with young adults and “wannabes” and sometimes with members of the varsity high school team. The games had no referees and were “make-it-take-it” games that you HAD to win if you wanted to stay on the court. Growing up as a college and professional basketball follower I read about the various urban basketball playground meccas in the 1970s described in this ESPN article and was saddened to read that fewer and fewer youngsters are playing pick-up games outdoors in part because the “elite players”, including high school athletes, are being siphoned off to play indoor AAU basketball. Why? Because they want to avoid the possibility of getting injured on the court and jeopardizing their college opportunities. With no local pick up games happening, marginal athletes, like me, have no hope of playing with “elite” athletes… and in cities, where the crowds drawn to pick-up games made the courts safe havens, the lack of these games makes the courts part of gang turf.

All Played Out” orthopedic surgeon/parent Ron Turker’s Sunday NYTimes, illustrates how the death of playground basketball is playing out in the more affluent communities. Turker describes the situation in suburban America:

The landscape of youth sports has changed markedly in the last 20 years. Free play, where children gather after school, pick a game and play until called in for dinner, is almost extinct. Highly organized and stratified sports have become the norm. Time, place and rules are now dictated to our kids rather than organized by the kids.

And as adults interpose themselves into athletics, pressure to succeed becomes higher and higher and Turker sees mental stress as well as physical stress in his practice as an orthopedist. Like the urban athletes, the suburban athletes are increasingly motivated by the almighty dollar:

As parents, we want what’s best for our kids but we’ve abdicated our parental rights and duties to the new societal norm. Youth sports have become big business. Millions of dollars flow to coaches, leagues, equipment, road trips, motels, tournament fees — and the list goes on. We give in to the herd mentality along with our confounded friends so that our kids won’t be seen as outliers.

So instead of a bunch of kids playing half-court basketball on asphalt courts we have a small group of “youth athletes” playing in arenas on corporate sponsored teams. Instead of town recreation leagues (“Wreck Leagues” to use the disparaging term cited in Turker’s article) children are expected to select one sport to play and make a “traveling team”. The result: more and more kids are using out of team sports altogether and playing video games… and we are losing the cohesion that comes from playing on a team and the self-regulation that is developed when adults are not available to intermediate… and turning back is going to be a daunting challenge.