Archive for September, 2015

School Rezoning in a Brooklyn Neighborhood Tests Parents Values

September 25, 2015 1 comment

I read a column by Kate Taylor in yesterday’s NYTimes describing an emerging parent protest regarding the need to move some children in one overcrowded school in a nearby neighborhood into a school in another nearby neighborhood that has additional space. Why the protest? Well the overcrowded school is located in an affluent neighborhood where housing values are congruent with those in the area of affected and affluent parents. The under crowded school is located adjacent to a housing project and serves black and Hispanic students.

Reihan Salam, a writer for the National Review saw this protest as an example of inconsistency on the part of Brooklyn’s famously liberal residents and wrote an article titled “Brooklyn – The Capital of Liberal Hypocrisy”. Despite it’s inflammatory titled, the article does a good job of describing the conflicted feelings of residents in a gentrified neighborhood that is compelled to change schools because of overcrowding. He notes that it is the difference in behavioral norms as much as the difference in academics that matters to parents, and describes the importance of providing more support for those children who enter school with learning gaps and behavioral challenges.

Salam, however, conveniently neglects the real factor that makes it difficult for NYC schools to succeed, which is the need for more money. He glibly writes that “New York city spends $20,331 per pupil, almost twice as much as the national average of $10,700, and that much of this money is spent very inefficiently”. 

There is one major problem with Salam’s per pupil spending analysis: the NY State median for last year was $22,552… so NYC spends $2,000+ LESS than the per pupil midpoint in NYS. Oh… and nearby affluent suburb Scarsdale spent over $30,000 per student. Salam mentions the need for more support in classrooms housing students with troubled backgrounds but fails to note that $2,200,000,000— the amount of money needed to achieve the State’s median figure— would provide a wealth of personnel to help classroom teachers. He could have also noted that NYC would need another $8,250,000,000 to catch up with the spending levels in Scarsdale. As for “inefficiency”… either ALL NYS schools are all extraordinarily inefficient or NYC schools are no worse.

Given the entrenched attitudes of parents regarding class and race, the solution to disparities in schools might not be to force racial and/or economic integration but rather to spend large sums of money to provide support services to neighborhoods and schools serving children with learning and behavioral challenges. If the blocks surrounding the housing project resembled the blocks surrounding the pricy high-rise and the children from the housing projects had the same preschool enrichment and learning opportunities as the children in the pricy high rise the notion of sharing classroom space might be easier to accept for both parties.

Confidential Memo Describes Billionaire Charter Cabal in LA

September 24, 2015 Comments off

An article by Dierdre Fulton in yesterday’s Common Dreams described the fall out from a confidential 44-page memo written by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation staff and other charter advocates delineating a plan that would result in the privatization of half of Los Angeles’ schools and substantial profits for the investors in the plan. The LA Times uncovered the memo, titled the “Great Schools Now” initiative that has a long list of celebrity billionaires who are likely supporters of the plan to takeover the schools. As the LA Times reports: 

Organizers of the effort have declined to publicly release details of the plan. But the memo lays out a strategy for moving forward, including how to raise money, recruit and train teachers, provide outreach to parents and navigate the political battle that will probably ensue.

The document cites numerous foundations and individuals who could be tapped for funding. In addition to the Broad Foundation, the list includes the Gates, Bloomberg, Annenberg and Hewlett foundations. Among the billionaires cited as potential donors are Stewart and Lynda Resnick, major producers of mandarin oranges, pistachios and pomegranates; Irvine Co. head Donald Bren; entertainment mogul David Geffen; and Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk.

Fulton describes the reaction from education bloggers like Peter Greene and Diane Ravitch who were appalled and infuriated at the blatant proposal to make a profit from the operation of schools that were specifically designed to serve those students whose parents were engaged in the lives of their children while leaving the others behind. She also described the reaction of board members, who, astonishingly, were split on the concept. One Board member, Steve Zimmer, who was strongly opposed to the concept, was quoted at length, and his reasoning resonated with me: 

Among the plan’s sharpest critics is LA Unified school board president Steve Zimmer, who characterized it to LA School Report as a destructive strategy that would ignore the needs of thousands of children “living in isolation, segregation and extreme poverty.”

“This is not an all-kids plan or an all-kids strategy,” he told the online news site. “It’s very explicitly a some-kids strategy, a strategy that some kids will have a better education at a publicly-funded school that assumes that other kids will be injured by that opportunity. It’s not appropriate in terms of what the conversation should be in Los Angeles. The conversation should be better public education options and quality public schools for all kids, not some kids.”

He added: “To submit a business plan that focuses on market share is tantamount to commodifying our children.”

And in an interview with the LA Times, Zimmer called Broad’s plan “an outline for a hostile takeover.”

Those wishing to run schools like a business would see no problem with a “hostile takeover”, because that’s the way capitalism works: the fit corporations survive and the weak noes get bought out or go bankrupt. Implicit in the whole test-and-punish model is the fact that a “failing school” will be closed whether it is a charter or a traditional school or a for-profit or a non-profit school. If you don’t pass muster, as measured by test scores, you close up shop. If you do well and expand your market share, you reap profits for your shareholders and thrive. 

One positive outcome of this discovery of the billionaires battle plan is that a comprehensive public debate over the concept of privatization will now play out in Los Angeles and the public will gain a better understanding of the consequences of privatization. As a run up to the debate, expect to see a raft of op ed articles declaiming the virtues of for-profit charters and denying the loss of public input into their operation…. because that is clearly part of the “outreach to parents” and a MAJOR element of political battle the billionaires will need to win. The problem for those of us who think like Steve Zimmer is that none of us can buy ink by the barrel. 


Can Education Create a Level Playing Field for Children Born in Poverty

September 23, 2015 Comments off

The title of Eduardo Porter’s column in today’s NYTimes states a blunt truth: “The Education Gap Between Rich and Poor is Growing Wider”. The article draws on findings from various economic studies and particularly on  a new book titled “Too Many Children Left Behind” (Russell Sage) by Columbia sociology professor Jane Waldfogel and colleagues from Australia, Canada and Britain. The book “…traces the story of America’s educational disparities across the life cycle of its children, from the day they enter kindergarten to eighth grade“, and it doesn’t paint a pretty or hopeful picture. As Porter writes:

Their story goes sour very early, and it gets worse as it goes along. On the day they start kindergarten, children from families of low socioeconomic status are already more than a year behind the children of college graduates in their grasp of both reading and math.

Porter offers a litany of statistics that illustrate the extraordinary obstacle that children born in poverty face. He concludes his listing with the one obstacle that prevents schools from being an effective means of intervention, the reliance on property taxes to fund public education and the zoning practices that reinforce the housing patterns:

Financed mainly by real estate taxes that are more plentiful in neighborhoods with expensive homes, public education is becoming increasingly compartmentalized. Well-funded schools where the children of the affluent can play and learn with each other are cordoned off from the shabbier schools teaching the poor, who are still disproportionally from black or Hispanic backgrounds.

Porter sees the need for a comprehensive approach, one that goes beyond what schools can provide by themselves:

The policy prescriptions go beyond improving teachers and curriculums, or investing in bringing struggling students up to speed. They include helping parents, too: teaching them best practices in parenting, raising their pay and helping them with the overlapping demands of work and family.

As noted in previous posts, it is unrealistic to expect a single parent with a high school diploma working two low wage part-time jobs with on-demand scheduling to provide the same level of nurturance as a stay-at-home mom with a college degree… and yet that’s what is implicit in the belief that schools alone can close the learning gaps that children bring with them to school.

Porter opened his article with evidence that schools have succeeded in narrowing the performance gap between black and white students over the past fifty years… but his concluding paragraphs are more sobering:

Fifty years ago, the black-white proficiency gap was one and a half to two times as large as the gap between a child from a family at the top 90th percentile of the income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile, according to Professor Reardon at Stanford. Today, the proficiency gap between the poor and the rich is nearly twice as large as that between black and white children.

In other words, even as one achievement gap narrowed, another opened wide. That kind of progress could dash one’s hope in the leveling power of education.

My hopes remain alive… but only because I believe some act on the disparities described in this article and conclude that we need to provide more of a helping hand to parents if we want our country to have the kind of economic system that enables a child born into poverty to improve their economic standing and that of their children.


New Yorker Writer John Cassidy Questions A Firmly Held Conviction About College

September 22, 2015 Comments off

I just finished reading John Cassidy’s thought provoking essay in the September 7, 2015 New Yorker titled “College Calculus: What is the REAL Value of Higher Education”, In this piece Cassidy examines the real numbers behind the conviction held by all Americans that getting a better education is essential if one wants to get ahead. What Cassidy finds is that since 2000 there are fewer and fewer jobs that command high compensation and require a college degree. This means that as more and more students earn post-secondary degrees it is making the college degree a filtering device for all forms of employment… from baristas to convenience store clerks. Citing a study by economist Kenneth Arrow on this issue Cassidy writes:

If almost everybody has a college degree, getting one doesn’t differentiate you from the pack. To get the job you want, you might have to go to a fancy (and expensive) college, or get a higher degree. Education turns into an arms race, which primarily benefits the arms manufacturers—in this case, colleges and universities.

In recent years, more jobs have come to demand a college degree as an entry requirement, even though the demands of the jobs haven’t changed much. Some nursing positions are on the list, along with jobs for executive secretaries, salespeople, and distribution managers. According to one study, just twenty per cent of executive assistants and insurance-claims clerks have college degrees but more than forty-five per cent of the job openings in the field require one. “This suggests that employers may be relying on a B.A. as a broad recruitment filter that may or may not correspond to specific capabilities needed to do the job,” the study concluded.

Earlier in the essay Cassidy contrasts John Dewey’s purpose for college, to “...make people better citizens, with enlarged moral imaginations“, with today’s view of the need for college, which the White House web site cites as “…a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.” After undercutting the idea that preparing for a specific job is possible given the rapid changes in technology in today’s world and the likely obsolescence of any specific skills a student develops, Cassidy concludes his essay with this:

Being more realistic about the role that college degrees play would help families and politicians make better choices. It could also help us appreciate the actual merits of a traditional broad-based education, often called a liberal-arts education, rather than trying to reduce everything to an economic cost-benefit analysis. “To be clear, the idea is not that there will be a big financial payoff to a liberal arts degree,” Cappelli writes. “It is that there is no guarantee of a payoff from very practical, work-based degrees either, yet that is all those degrees promise. For liberal arts, the claim is different and seems more accurate, that it will enrich your life and provide lessons that extend beyond any individual job. There are centuries of experience providing support for that notion.”

In the end, Dewey’s thinking is on point… but even Bernie Sanders is selling the notion of education as a means to economic pay-off. Alas, it will be a long time before education as a means of enrichment will be the basis for investing more in schooling.

UFT’s Compelling Findings on Teacher Turnover Undercut “Reform” Underperformance Theory

September 21, 2015 Comments off

The “reformers” believe that “underperforming schools” are the result “underperforming teachers” and consequently recommend that those “poor teachers” be replaced. In a NYDaily News op ed column published today, Michael Mulgrew, the UFT NYC President, offers compelling evidence that the replacement of teachers will not solve the problem. Why? Because in many the so-called “failing schools” have massive turnover to begin with:

A UFT review of personnel records at these (failing) schools (the state’s technical term for the list they’re on is “out-of-time”) tells a radically different story from that being told by the “reformers” — a story of how hundreds of teachers despair of helping kids in poorly managed and under-resourced schools, and who ultimately, battered by the arduous process, choose to move on to other schools or other lives.

Our review shows that 64% — nearly two-thirds — of the 921 teachers on staff at these eight “out-of-time” schools in 2010 have already bailed out. Almost half of those who left — 45% — went to other schools in the system. About 23% retired. And 21% resigned, heading for different school systems or different careers entirely. Disability, death and other reasons accounted for the balance.

Some schools have had the door revolve even faster. Fordham Leadership has only nine of the 46 teachers who were there in 2010. Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx has only two of the nearly 40 teachers who were there in 2010. Excluding those two hardy veterans, the Banana Kelly staff has been wholly replaced not once, but twice, in the last five years — a turnover rate of nearly 200%.

If the reformers notion that wholesale replacement of teachers would lead to improvement was valid, why did these schools that replaced 2/3 of their staff not improve? Mulgrew’s data suggests the real problem is not that the teachers are poor— after all nearly 1/3 of the teachers from the “failing schools” transferred to other presumably “successful” schools in the district. Mulgrew concludes that what is needed is more support for those schools in the form of stability, specialized curricula, and expanded services of the kind advocated by the mayor. He concludes his essay with this:

The problems of the city’s struggling schools can be solved by real strategies, but not by political sloganeering. “Get tough on teachers” may warm the hearts of “reformers,” but it is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

I hope that some of the “tough” Governors running for President who tout “evidence based decision making–  like Walker, Christie, Kasich, and Bush– take a look at Mulgrew’s evidence and take it to heart when they formulate their ideas on education. It would also help if Congress looked at this as well… but I expect the test-and-punish paradigm will remain in place.

This Just In: School Choice Doesn’t Work if Students Can’t Enroll in Affluent Schools

September 20, 2015 Comments off

A recent “Education By The Numbers” essay by Jill Barshay in Hechinger Report provided an overview of the findings of a recent study conducted by NYU sociologists titled “Choice, Information, Constrained Options: School Transfers in a Stratified Education System.” The study examined the effects of implementing a voice system in Chicago public schools and came to the conclusion that parents whose children attend “failing schools” chose to keep their children in those schools. Why?

“The reason is geography,” said Peter M. Rich, one of the study’s coauthors and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University. “The low-performing schools are clustered in high-poverty neighborhoods in the South and West Side of Chicago. They have fewer nearby options to choose from.”

Given the choice of commuting a long way to a high-performing school on the other side of town and transferring to a school in the neighborhood, low-income parents tend to choose the latter. Time-consuming travel is impractical for students with working parents. And no one wants to send elementary school children on public transportation by themselves through crime-ridden neighborhoods. But the choices closer to home are often little, if at all, better than poor students’ current schools…

The overall lesson is that school choice policies that don’t provide transportation or, perhaps, housing subsidies for families to move to higher-income neighborhoods aren’t going to equalize educational opportunities,” Rich concluded.

Milton Friedman, who is the father of school choice, viewed schools as commodities that should be subjected to market forces instead of being a “government monopoly”. He envisioned public school enrollment to be analogous to college enrollment. Informed students and parents could use publicly funded vouchers to attend the school of their choice and schools, in turn, would market themselves to attract students in a form that would garner the most profit. It is an idea that seems reasonable and logical to an economist, especially one who believes in unregulated capitalism like Friedman. But in the real world of sociologists it just doesn’t pan out. Why?

Rich found that the low-performing schools were overwhelmingly filled with poor students, 93 percent of whom qualified for the free or reduced-price lunch program. The few non-poor students at these schools were more likely to transfer, and even more likely to leave Chicago or the public school system altogether. Overall, 84 percent of all students attending a school on the probation list were black, even though black students make up only 54 percent of the total student population in Chicago. Another 15 percent of students in probation schools were Latino, while almost none were Asian or white.

Choice advocates are undeterred by these findings, though:

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative advocacy group that promotes school choice, praised the study’s methodology, and said he wasn’t surprised that public school choice had failed to produce benefits in Chicago. “In an area that has struggled a long time, there aren’t many good public school choices,” Butcher said. “Just by telling families they can leave, if there are not other things happening to improve the supply, families will have few options.”

For school choice to work, Butcher said, policymakers should give families vouchers to attend private schools, and allow more charter schools to open. He also argues that low-performing schools should be shut down.

NYU researcher Rich contradicts this rebuttal, noting that Chicago has had an open enrollment program for  students attending low performing schools for nearly two decades and it hasn’t made any difference in attendance patterns. He also notes that claims about the effectiveness of charter schools in Chicago are difficult to support, point out that while charters did have somewhat higher scores there were other changes going on that could impact any analysis.

…testing policies were simultaneously changing. Teachers were newly accountable for their student test scores and were using more classroom time to prepare for tests. Both third grade and eighth grade students had to hit minimum test scores to avoid repeating a school year.

Barshay concludes that because it is difficult to disentangle test results from other changes this study s not a condemnation of school choice, but

…it does show that having the freedom to choose and information on school quality aren’t enough. The educational marketplace doesn’t work when poor residents live far away from the neighborhoods with better schools. It’s the old saw:  location, location, location.

Barshay is missing one important point in this analysis: school choice cannot work when poor residents who live close to neighborhoods with better schools are not able to attend those schools because the nearby schools are in different districts or attendance zones. Location DOES matter… and if choice cannot facilitate the attendance of students into schools that provide more services because they receive better funding then most parents of children raised in poverty really have no choice at all.

Kansas Catches Up With the 1990s… AND VT and NH

September 19, 2015 Comments off

Peter Hancock of the Lawrence Journal-World reports that Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson is touring the state offering breathless accounts of the findings of a survey he conducted to determine what the public and businesses are seeking in students… and it ISN’T the things that are easy to measure using standardized achievement tests! Instead, Watson found:

…the vast majority of skills people listed as important were nonacademic skills, such as communication, interpersonal skills, citizenship and ethics, and the ability to work in teams with other people. 

And he was astonished to find that those nonacademic skills were especially prized by business leaders. This is not at all surprising to me, since I recall similar findings from surveys of businessmen conducted in the 1990s… and the reason for this should be obvious to anyone who follows the impact of technology. Most jobs today require interpersonal interactions since many factory jobs and “back room” functions have been taken over by robots or other technological advances.

And Weston’s solution to the findings?

Watson said schools will probably be asked to put more emphasis on career planning by identifying students’ passions and interests at an earlier stage, and making individual plans of instruction for each student.

He also said they should work more closely with local businesses to give students more exposure to real-world work environments.

For those who follow education in VT and NH, these “innovations” will song familiar. Both states re emphasizing experiential learning and VT has mandated Personalized Learning Plans for all students entering 7th grade. Will Kansas catch up with New England? Only if they catch up the the state support these state offer, which is arguably insufficient and inequitable but is a king’s ransom as compared to Kansas. Hancock implies that help may be on the way:

The discussion comes at the same time the Kansas Legislature is preparing to craft a new funding formula.

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, who was recently named to chair an interim committee that will soon start working on a new funding formula, attended Wednesday’s presentation and said the survey information will be useful in helping design that new formula.

My hunch: the new formula will not address the fundamental needs of the state and will not remedy the inequities already in place in Kansas… but I hope I’m wrong!