Archive for January, 2016

Resegregation Facilitated by Charters? Not to Worry “..because “this is not the civil rights era.”

January 31, 2016 Comments off

Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss’ post today discusses School Choice Week and, as her headline accurately notes, “What passes for acceptable school choice rhetoric is appalling”. Ms. Strauss’ opening section of her post includes this concise description of pro and anti choice groups:

School choice proponents say that charter schools (including ones run by for-profit companies) offer parents important options for their children’s education and that traditional public schools have failed in many places. School choice opponents say that school choice is aimed at privatizing the public education system and that many of the choices being offered are not well-regulated, sometimes discriminatory and siphon funding away from local school districts.  

She then reprints a blog post from Sarah Lahm, a Minneapolis based writer who formerly worked in public education, who attended a National School Choice Forum at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis… and what she heard would have enraged the namesake of that institution. From my perspective as a progressive, however, it was not surprising.

Ms. Lahm noted that she was disappointed at the lack of bi-partisanship because the panelists consisted of one Democrat who was an advocate of charter schools, one right-leaning Republican, plus one far-right lawyer who wholeheartedly endorsed public funding of religiously affiliated charter schools. Ms. Lahm “...quickly realized how thoroughly (bipartisanship) has become cover for groupthink. If both Democrats and Republicans support the dismantling of our public institutions, then shouldn’t you, too?” Any progressive observing the passage of the “bipartisan” Every Child Succeeds Legislation” rallies that ESSA, like NCLB and RTTT before it implicitly– but perhaps more subtly— supports the dismantling of public schools. It succeeded because neoliberal thinking has captured the center and consequently both Democrats and Republicans support the notion that markets can solve every problem and save every child…. and charter schools are predicated on the notion that schools, like groceries and hardware supplies, are commodities.

And one of the major consequences of the commodification of schools is the notion that segregation is a choice made by consumers. A concept that was appallingly underscored in this section of Lahm’s post:

The morning’s panel began with a quick dismissal of the desegregation lawsuit filed in Minnesota last fall, which, if successful, could require the state’s charter schools to develop and implement integration plans. The panelists seemed to agree that the resegregation happening across the country now is simply due to “parental choice.” Reichgott Junge — the Democrat — declared herself “not neutral” on this topic, and told the audience not to worry because “this is not the civil rights era.” 

Given the free market attitude of charter school providers, Ms. Junge is right, this is NOT the civil rights era… it’s the New Jim Crow era where African American “consumers” are “choosing” to live in neighborhoods full of substandard housing or in dilapidated housing projects while affluent whites “consumers” are choosing to live in pristine suburbs. It’s the same as the bad old days before Brown vs. Board of Education where blacks chose separate but equal schools.

Ms. Lahm, sitting in a forum in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis wonders:

What would our education policy discussions be like today, if America had turned out “less Reaganite” and “more Humphreyish”? The hammering narrative of failure, applied with force to our nation’s public school system, found fertile groundin the Reagan era, of course, through the hyped “Nation at Risk” report. That report helped propel America away from further investment in public schools, and towards school choice schemes (hint: privatization).

Now we have another crossroads: will we sustain the legacy of Ronald Reagan and the free market neoliberalism he espoused or find out what America could be if it were “more Humphreyish”? The next few weeks will tell us.

Call for More Computer Education Misses the Point: Education Without Access is Meaningless

January 30, 2016 Comments off

Here we go again! The NYTimes reports that in an effort to develop a competitive workforce the President is asking Congress for $4,000,000,000 in new funds to improve computer education in the country. And how will this money be used?

…the money will pay for teacher training and instructional materials to increase the amount of instruction in computer science, especially for girls and minorities, the officials said.

The $4,000,000,000 only scratches the surface of the funds needed if we want to improve computer instruction especially for children in poverty or in rural schools. I am currently working as a consultant in a rural VT school district that serves roughly 1000 students housed in seven different schools. As part of the project we needed to determine the costs for infrastructure in the schools in the near future. The administrator responsible for computers estimates that it will cost roughly $300,000 to $500,000 to make it possible for students and teachers to have access to wi-fi in the school. But having wi-fi and access to computers in the school is insufficient if the goal is to provide instruction in computer science. Students need to have computers available to them at home and need to have access to wi-fi in their homes as well.

So… what good is it to train teachers on the use of computers and about computer science if they are housed in schools without access to the web or classrooms without computers. Read my previous post about Flint MI schools and ask yourself what is needed in those schools in order to improve computer instruction…

I doubt that Congress will improve $4,000,000,000 to improve computer instruction even if the amount was sufficient… but if that money were earmarked to fund for-profit charter schools? It might be a different story!

Michigan Voters Who Want to Avoid Taxes as Culpable as Governor Snyder

January 30, 2016 Comments off

The more I read about and think about the crisis of drinking water in Flint Michigan, the more convinced I am that it should serve as a wake-up call for voters across the country. Today’s NYTimes has an article by Amy Goodnough on the long term impact of the short-term “savings” realized by the emergency manager appointed by MI Governor Rick Snyder. In the article Goodnough flagged both the health costs and the costs to schools, which were described in these paragraphs:

About 57 percent of Flint’s 99,000 residents are black, and 40 percent live in poverty, one of the highest rates in the nation for a city its size. Bilal Tawwab, the superintendent of the city school system, said that one school nurse serves the 5,400 students in the district, but that he hoped some of the money flowing into Flint might help open health centers in every school.

He also hoped to make prekindergarten available to every 4-year-old — spaces are limited — and to hire more experienced teachers for special education.

“That’s the piece that keeps me up at night,” he said. “It costs almost double to educate a student with special needs. And our wages, our salaries, are so low.”

Why does Flint have only one nurse for the entire district? Why doesn’t Flint have enough classroom space for a prekindergarten programming every school? Why can’t Flint hire “more experienced teachers for special education“? And why are Flint’s wages and salaries so low? The answer is that Flint is starved for revenues. It’s local property tax base crashed when the auto industry crashed and the State decided the imposition of “emergency managers” was a cheaper and faster way to get the city and State budgets in line.

And when you look deeply into the root causes of this tragedy it becomes evident that Flint’s water problem is the result of the short-sighted thinking that dominates corporations in our country. The anti-democratic laws that enabled the creation of “emergency managers” came from the ALEC playbook and reflect the mentality that ANY government regulation is bad. And what have emergency managers done to the financially troubled cities and school districts in MI? They have imposed austerity measures on citizens and employees in order to make certain bondholders receive their payments on time and that the taxes of their fellow-citizens in the suburbs have low taxes. Rick Snyder appointed the emergency manager who made bad decisions in order to keep the costs low but the MI voters who want to keep their taxes low need to think twice before putting him behind bars… as do those voters who seek low taxes at the expense of those living in poverty.

The corroded pipes, the dilapidated and underfunded schools, and the lack of health care are not limited to Flint MI.  As citizens in this nation we should be willing to pay more in taxes to ensure that our neighbors’ children in cities like Flint MI and destitute small rural communities have the same opportunities as children in the most affluent communities in the state.

The Inherent Inequity in Parent Engagement Between Schools Serving Children Raised in Affluence and Those Raised in Poverty

January 29, 2016 Comments off

Laura McKenna’s recent Atlantic article describes how school fundraising by affluent parents contributes to inequities in overall school funding and offers an interesting solution to the problems such fundraising creates. She also describes– but underestimates– how the inequity in parent engagement goes beyond funding.

The inequities in fund raising capacity between schools serving affluent children and schools serving middle class and poor children is stark. While wealthy parents can stage auctions that include Super Bowl tickets that pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars poor parents stage ongoing bake sales that yield five figures over the course of a year if they are lucky. These funds are used to acquire playgrounds, technology, field trips to distant museums, and— in some cases— additional staff to reduce class sizes. The booster clubs at these schools— and those of many middle class schools– fund athletic equipment, pre-season trips to Florida for baseball teams, and uniforms that the athletes can keep once they graduate. The disparities that result are obvious to anyone who has worked in both worlds and to anyone who attends sporting events between affluent schools and those serving children raised in poverty.

But Ms. McKenna also notes another more critical difference between the parent engagement in these schools— time and social capital:

Clearly, affluent communities have greater financial resources to support their schools. Parents there also have the time and social capital needed to organize elaborate fundraisers and fill out the lengthy legal paperwork required to establish these foundations. With these enormous resources, parents in affluent communities can raise far more money for their schools than parents in other locations.

But time and social capital provide advantages far beyond the capacity to raise money. A single parent who is working two jobs to make ends meet or two parents who work split shifts often cannot attend their local school’s PTO meetings, cannot be released from work to attend parent-teacher meetings, and do not have the time to help their children with school work or science fair projects. Despite what the middle class media and school reformers believe, the number of time-limited parents far exceeds the number of helicopter parents and this has an even more devastating impact on inequality than money spent on schools…. and does not lend itself to an easy fix.

Ms. McKenna does have an interesting idea for how to close the gap between affluent and poor schools:

Rather than restricting affluent parents from contributing to their public schools or shaming them for their efforts, perhaps they could be encouraged to think about public education beyond their town boundaries—partnering with schools in less affluent areas and forging a fellowship over time. In better understanding that public education extends beyond the five-mile radius of their communities, parents might be willing to share a portion of their considerable resources and social capital to benefit other kids.

The college town I live in— like many communities in New England– has a sister community abroad. Maybe the schools in our town which do an admirable job of raising funds for the children in town could partner with a deprived urban or rural school in our region. In doing so we might emphasize that the impact of poverty is not limited to third world countries but hurts children in our nation as well and that as citizens we should do everything possible to help our nearby neighbors as well as our global neighbors. To those whom much is given, much should be expected.

The Conversation I’m Tired of Writing About: Funding Equity

January 28, 2016 Comments off

My daughter sent me a link to a blog post written by Nate Bowling titled “The Conversation I’m Tired of Not Having”. The post is full of insights and great quotes about the state of public education today and the public indifference that led to the state of affairs. The first paragraph sets the tone for the post:

I want to tell you a secret: America really doesn’t care what happens to poor people and most black people. There I said it.

Bowling buttresses this assertion with a series of observations underscoring the fact that white suburbanites would never stand for the deplorable physical conditions visited upon poor minority students nor would they tolerate the kind of leadership and instruction that occurs in those school districts. But, analogizing the desegregation and equity arguments to gun control, he notes that the public’s indifference to the horrific conditions in Detroit and the political will to solve the problem are no different than the public’s indifference and lack of political will to address gun control after the killings of innocent school children at Sandy Hook. Bowling then concludes his overview of the current state of affairs with this paragraph:

So what is to be done? The pessimist in me says nothing can be done. Polite society has walled itself off and policymakers are largely indifferent. Better funding for schools is and will remain elusive, because middle class and wealthy people have been conditioned over the last 35 years to think of themselves as taxpayers, rather than citizens. They consistently oppose higher taxes–especially tax expenditures for programs for “the other.”

Having abandoned hope for funding reform, Bowling looks to teachers themselves. Instead of getting involved in sideshow arguments over the Common Core, teacher evaluation models, or privatization, Mr. Bowling, a Teacher of the Year, pledges to devote his energy to:

  • Fighting the impacts of systemic racism and white supremacy in our schools and among teachers.

  • Helping, through my speaking opportunities, to recruit passionate people, especially people of color into the profession. 

  • Supporting policies aimed at identifying, developing and retaining effective teachers.

  • Advocating for the creation of systems that encourage our most effective and passionate teachers to stay in the profession and supporting them in working with our most needy schools.

  • Encouraging policymakers to make the work of effective teachers rewarding and sustainable by trusting them and not burdening them with new and ever changing mandates.

  • Giving teachers opportunities to lead, within the profession, while remaining in the classroom.

These are all worthy goals… but their success relies on providing idealistic and dedicated teachers who share Mr. Bowling’s attitudes with wages and working conditions that will enable equally idealistic and dedicated administrators and school boards to create “…systems that encourage our most effective and passionate teachers to stay in the profession and supporting them in working with our most needy schools”…. and that leads back to the need for more funding for schools. From my perspective this ISN’T a chicken-egg argument. You cannot expect urban schools that, on average, receive $1700 per student less than suburban schools, to perform at the same level…. and you can’t expect a gifted and hardworking teacher to stay in a job in a dilapidated school with a salary that is 80% of that in a well-heeled suburban district unless that teacher’s talent and grit is matched with a high level of idealism. In the end, money matters and while Mr. Bowling works on his end to provide good teachers for children raised in poverty I will try to find ways to get middle class and wealthy people to think of themselves as citizens instead of taxpayers.



VAM Nailed in NYS as 250 Educators Receive Erroneous Ratings

January 27, 2016 Comments off

An article by Elizabeth Harris earlier this week drove another nail into the Value Added coffin. The article uses lots of obfuscatory verbiage to paper over the blunt headline, “Over 200 Educators in New York Receive Erroneous Scores Linked to Student Scores”. Using language from a letter sent by the NYSED, Harris writes that the errors in calculations effected “less than 1 percent of the more than 40,000 educators who received such feedback” and to further diminish the impact quoted Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the Education Department, who noted that “…that while about 250 principals and teachers received incorrect scores, the error was large enough only to change the growth ratings for 30 educators, all of whom were principals.” The NYSED insinuation seems to be that just because “only” 30 principals got bad scores the system is just fine…. but their actions speak louder than their words:

Nonetheless, (Tompkins) said scores for the more than 40,000 educators would be recalculated at the contractor’s expense; the higher score would be the one that counts.

Sorry, reformers, the recalculation will not restore credibility to VAM….

An Under-Reported Statistic: Spending on Education Declined for 4 Straight Years

January 27, 2016 Comments off

To read reports in the media, one would surmise that school budgets have risen uncontrollably over the years and are higher now than they’ve ever been. I was therefore surprised to read in the Politico education blog that school spending had declined for the previous four years… and the decline was substantial! Here’s a paste from the post that was sent to my email address:

National spending on public school students has fallen for the fourth straight year in a row, but decreases in per student spending are starting to slow down, according to two new school finance reports from the National Center for Education Statistics. That means education spending in the U.S. is starting to get a boost from the gradual economic recovery, said Stephen Cornman, author of the reports. Nationally, spending per student increased steadily each year between 2003-04 and 2007-08, peaking in 2008-09 at $11,621 per student. While it has decreased each year since then, it only decreased by a marginal 0.6 percent between FY 2012 and FY 2013. “I think it’s possible that expenditures per pupil will increase in the next fiscal year we report, which is 2014, just because this trend of decreases has been dwindling down,” Cornman said. National spending per public school student was $10,763 in FY 2013, ranging from $6,432 per student in Utah to $20,530 per student in D.C. All 50 states and D.C. reported more than $603 billion collected in total funding for public education in 2013, 91 percent of which came from state and local governments.

That works out to being roughly 8% less spending over a four year period, a time when both political parties have been paying lip service to the need for more Pre-school programs, better results from public schools, and the need for us to upgrade our schools to compete globally. The NCES study also indicated how the funding is disparate based on the location of the schools:

Nationally, and without any geographic cost adjustment, median spending per student was $9,353 in cities, $11,041 in suburbs, $9,214 in towns and $10,347 in rural areas.

These figures undercut the claim that money doesn’t matter. When suburban schools spend nearly $1700 more per student than urban schools is it any surprise that they get higher test scores? Higher per pupil spending translates to higher salaries, lower class sizes, better facilities, and more access to technology and materials of instruction. Any one of those items would make a difference… but taken together they illustrate the inequities that exist in public education funding today.