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The Naked Capitalist Takes on Bill Gates Privatization Efforts

April 30, 2016 Leave a comment

Earlier this week Yves Smith’s blog, The Naked Capitalist, cross posted an article by Joanne Barkan from the Nonprofit Quarterly titled “How Bill Gates and His Allies Used Their Wealth to Launch Charter Schools in Washington State”. At the outset of the article, Ms. Barkan contrasts the traditional foundations of bygone years, who turned the operation and oversight of their philanthropic work to independent Boards, with those started by today’s billionaires, who want to control and direct the way money is spent…  and she then underscores the major problem with the current state of affairs:

Call it charitable plutocracy—a peculiarly American phenomenon, increasingly problematic and in need of greater scrutiny. Like all forms of plutocracy, this one conflicts with democracy, and exactly how these philanthropists coordinate tax-exempt grantmaking with political funding for maximum effect remains largely obscure. What follows is a case study of the way charitable plutocracy operates on the ground. (This results in) a tug-of-war between government by the people and uber-philanthropists as social engineers.

The balance of the article uses the funding of the charter school movement in Washington State as an example of how this “charitable plutocracy” is changing the face of philanthropy. Ms. Barkan offers a blow-by-blow description of the 20+ year history of legislation and referenda in Washington State on the creation of charter schools and how, after successive defeats on ballots and in the legislature, the “charitable plutocrats” eventually prevailed by a slender majority… only to have the Washington Supreme Court declare the public funding of private schools unconstitutional. The latest workaround? The plutocrats persuaded the Washington legislature to pass a law that earmarks lottery funds for charter schools, thereby circumventing the Constitutional mandate that moneys raised from taxes be used only for public schools.

Barkan concludes her essay with this synopsis:

American democracy is growing ever more plutocratic—a fact that should worry all admirers of government by the people. Big money rules, but multibillionaires acting as philanthropists aggravate the problem by channeling vast sums into the nation’s immense nonprofit sector. Their top-down modus operandi makes this a powerful tool for shaping public policy according to individual beliefs and whims. And they receive less critical scrutiny than other actors in public life. Most people admire expressions of generosity and selflessness and are loath to find fault. In addition, anyone hoping for a grant—which increasingly includes for-profit as well as nonprofit media—treats donors like unassailable royalty. The emperor is always fully clothed.

So, what to do? The measures required to rein in plutocracy in the United States are plain to see and difficult to achieve: radical campaign finance reform to end the corruption of politics by money, and steeply progressive taxation without loopholes to reduce inequality in wealth and power. Private foundations, too, are due for reform. Congress hasn’t overhauled their regulation since 1969, and watchdog agencies are woefully underfunded. But few, if any, megaphilanthropists give these reforms top priority, although many talk endlessly about reducing inequality and providing everyone with a chance at a good life. The interests and egos of philanthro-barons rarely incline toward curbing plutocracy.

Questioning the work of megaphilanthropists is a tricky business. Many readers of this article will be fuming in this way: Would you rather let children remain illiterate, or allow generous people to use their wealth to give them schools? Would you rather send more money to our bumbling government, or let visionary philanthropists solve society’s problems? Here is a counterquestion: Would you rather have self-appointed social engineers—whose sole qualification is vast wealth—shape public policy according to their personal views, or try to repair American democracy?

In my work as a Superintendent for 29 years and school-based administrator and teacher before that I found the glacial pace of change to be frustrating… but the long I worked the more I appreciated the fact that school boards were the purest form of democracy. They receive little to no compensation and are only interested in what they believe to be the public’s interest… and the public is generally satisfied with the overall way schools are operated and are, therefore, resistant to the kinds of changes the mega-philanthropists advocate. Indeed, they are often resistant to the kinds of changes that I view as beneficial for children: changes like the provision of social services within the school and support for parents before children enter school. But school boards DO listen to reason and CAN be persuaded, especially if it will yield a better life for the children they serve. I would urge the mega-philanthropists to use their funds to help underwrite the “education” of school boards, administrators, and teachers— to persuade them that the approaches they want to take will work in their schools. Inside Out and Bottom Up takes time… but the end result is always better and who knows… in their efforts to “educate” school boards, administrators, and teachers the mega-philanthropists might educate themselves!

5,000,000 Children Need More Than Higher Test Scores: They Need A Parent

April 30, 2016 Leave a comment

I just finished reading KJ Dell’Antonia’s latest Well column in the New York Times after watching Michael Moore’s movie “Where to Invade Next” and couldn’t help but think that our country is on the wrong track who it comes to prisons and family support. Dell”Antonia’s piece, “When Parents Are in Prison, Children Suffer”, offers this sobering set of facts gleaned from a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

The Casey Foundation points to research showing that children with an incarcerated parent tend to move frequently, and their family income drops when a parent, particularly a father, is incarcerated. The parent left behind, or the family member who steps in to care for a child, faces reduced earning potential and difficulties finding child care, even as debts and expenses associated with court and legal fees mount.

How many children are affected? Five million American children… have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. And while the article doesn’t mention it, I find it hard to believe that these children who move frequently, experience a decline in their family’s income, and have a parent they cannot see or talk to. And in many cases they cannot even talk about their experience because it causes them shame. Worse, these children hardly have an equal opportunity to advance. What can be done to help?

The Casey Foundation report suggests that investing in programs designed to help children and families during a parent’s incarceration and then to ease a parent’s return could help equalize opportunities for the children of incarcerated parents. “A prison sentence for a parent shouldn’t be a life sentence for a family,” said Ryan Chao, the foundation’s vice president for civic sites and community change…

Programs that offer education and training in prison, and those that provide job-placement assistance upon release, decrease recidivism and better equip parents to return to their families. That kind of support, according to the Casey Foundation, can help lift children out of a cycle of prison and poverty, and build communities where that cycle is less likely to start again.

“Kids do better when families do better,” Mr. Chao said.

These ideas resonated after watching Michael Moore’s movie, which offered a series of vignettes illustrating how other advanced countries deal with complicated social problems, one of which was incarceration where Norway’s penal system was held up as an example. Unlike our country, where prison is viewed as punishment or retribution, Norway views prison as a place to retrain and refine those committed of crimes so there that when they return to society they can find work and be attuned to the needs of the society whose rules they violated. His movie didn’t show how Norway deals with offenders who are parents, but it DID make it clear that Norway bends over backward to provide job placement assistance and “after care” and, as a result, has the lowest recidivism rate in the world.

We need to rethink the way we treat those who violate the law, particularly those who have children and families they will be returning to. And we should be especially mindful of the needs of the children who are shunted from place-to-place and wonder where their next meal is coming do not fall into the same pattern of behavior…. and remember that “Kids do better when families do better,”

Pennsylvania’s “Experiment” Proves What Everyone Knows: Money Matters

April 30, 2016 Leave a comment

The Public Interest Law Center, a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates for social justice, just completed a study of school funding in Pennsylvania that illustrates the consequences of cuts in State funding and the results were devastating to districts serving poverty stricken children. The overview section of the study describes the impact of the $800,000,000 in cumulative budget cuts made since 2011, cuts enacted by the conservative legislators and supported by then Governor Pat Toomey:

The impact from that cut was as foreseeable as it was widespread: Districts eliminated 27,000 jobs and class sizes increased, while test scores and the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college immediately declined. Moreover, those cuts continue to reverberate five years later, with most districts—particularly the poorest districts—still with less state funding than before the cuts.

State funds, like Federal funds, are supposed to mitigate the inability of property poor districts to raise sufficient revenues to operate schools that can provide an equal opportunity for success for the children who reside in the communities and neighborhoods they serve. When State funds are cut, then, the poorest districts suffer the most because they are more reliant on State funds. Moreover, cuts to affluent districts are easier to mitigate because those districts can increase local property taxes or even consider implementing more fees for extra-curricular activities… and residents of affluent communities understand that the value of their homes is dependent on the quality of their schools and they will reluctantly dig deeper into their pockets to retain the programs in their school district that make the purchase of a home an attractive proposition.

Conservative legislators in Pennsylvania, though, demonize public education spending, and especially the unions that push teachers salaries and benefits. They believed that “throwing money at the problem” was not solving the problem and they diverted increasing levels of funding toward for-profit charter schools while cutting funds of public education. And here’s what they learned: taking money away from the problem made it worse.

And now they are learning something else: when the baseline funding is reduced, recovering lost ground is extremely difficult. For the past several months the newly elected Governor, Tom Wolfe, has been at an impasse with the legislature. He wants to restore $500,000,000 of the cuts made to public schools to get most of them back to where they were five years ago and is running into a wall. The Public Interest Law Center, in an effort to underscore the fact that this new money was not going to be “wasted” and to illustrate how devastating the cuts were to public schools, analyzed the plans school districts submitted to the State in order to secure the funds the Governor requested. They summarized the requests on several charts and found that “…districts planned spending funds on basic, integral services such as early childhood programs, books up to date with state standards, and smaller class sizes.” When they reviewed the more detailed explanations for how funds would be used, they found “…districts from every corner of the state in distress, desperate to provide students with basic educational resources.”

The white paper prepared by the Public Interest Law Center concluded with this final lesson the Pennsylvania legislature and— hopefully– the Pennsylvania taxpayers learned:

 Pennsylvania, according to a federal study, has the most inequitable system of education funding in the United States, with a child’s education vastly different depending solely on what side of a school district border he or she was born. Not only is that system inequitable, but it is grossly inadequate, leaving school districts of all shapes and sizes unable to provide children with the resources they need to become productive members of society.

In a fair and just democracy taxpayers would be appalled to reside in such a state. Here’s hoping that in 2016 the voters will change the face of the legislature and help the children born into poverty by funding their schools in a fair and equitable fashion.

Maryland is About to Make a BIG Mistake

April 29, 2016 Leave a comment

In the mid-1990s I was Superintendent of Schools in Maryland and served as the Superintendent’s Association representative on the High School Assessment Task Force. During that time period the testing mania that gripped our nation once NCLB was launched was just beginning. Maryland had State Assessments were administered to students in grades 3 through 8 and the results were included on Report Cards for each school. The Report Card data we collected on the tests, graduation rates, attendance, and other information was disaggregated by race, gender, special education, and free and reduced lunch counts. The intention of the Grade 3 to Grade 8 tests was largely diagnostic. It was designed to help schools identify groups of students who were not sufficiently prepared in reading and mathematics and not intended to be used as a means of measuring individual student performance. The idea behind the test was to track the progress of schools as they worked to close performance gaps among various groups of students and to help districts identify which approaches were working best to accomplish that end.

The State Superintendent at the time, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, promised the State Board her staff would work with constituent groups to develop a high school assessment, which led to the creation of the High School Assessment Task Force. We never did finish the task in the three years I served on the group because developing a high school assessment that would measure college or career readiness and did not leave thousands of students in the lurch was a far more complex task than our work team could accomplish, especially if the intention of the test was to determine if a student would graduate or not.  To Dr. Grasmick’s credit– and the State Board’s credit as well– the purchase of an off-the-shelf test was quickly rejected. Why? Because the State Department’s test designers and Task Force members all realized that any norm-refereced assessment would necessarily yield a bell-curve that would result in 50% of the students scoring “below average”. That meant that our committee needed to develop a criterion referenced test to determine if a student was “ready to work or ready to go to college or both”… When we looked at the skills sought by employers, we ultimately concluded we needed to develop a means of measuring soft skills that defied a pencil and paper assessment.

Two decades later this all seems to have been forgotten… and nothing has changed except the State Board’s thinking. According to an article by Liz Bowie in the Baltimore Sun the Maryland State Board is now planning to use the PARCC assessment as a graduation examination to ensure that its students all get a rigorous and solid background. And what happens to those students who will invariably fall into the bottom half?

Thousands of students, education officials say, will be taking the tests multiple times to try to pass, and many will likely use a loophole that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge by doing a project that is approved by their teacher and other administrators.

With such a large percentage of students failing the exams, teachers will have many more students doing projects who they must work with individually.

This approach is completely wrongheaded. Teachers will spend the freshman and sophomore years preparing students to pass a test knowing full well that 50% or more are likely to “fail” and will then spend the last two years developing individualized projects for students.

If Maryland wanted to get their program right, they should look to the north where Vermont is approaching high school with a polar opposite approach. Students entering 7th grade in Vermont public schools must develop a Personalized Learning Plan that will help them determine what they expect to learn and do while they are in school and after they graduate, a plan that is reviewed annually and used as the basis for course selection and/or external work or projects that can be used to demonstrate they have mastered the skills expected of high school graduates. And based on my experience working with several school districts in the state, teachers are not viewing working individually with students as something they must do: it is something they re eagerly embracing. I’ve led districts in both states and I do not buy the notion that the Vermont approach cannot work in larger states. Vermont’s approach to individualized plans beginning is 7th grade certainly won’t cost mare than repeatedly giving tests to every child and then individualizing the program. Al that’s needed is a change in thinking… but moving away from seat time, the accumulation of credits, and the passing of standardized tests challenges our factory mentality that sorts and selects students into “winners” and “losers”.

 

The Top Quintile Pulls Away… and Ignores the 80% Left Behind

April 28, 2016 Leave a comment

Thomas Edsall’s NYTimes editorials are full of statistics and analysis and yesterday’s piece, “How the Other Fifth Lives”describes how the top fifth is markedly different from the bottom four quintiles and, sadly, how their priorities do not include addressing the needs of their fellow citizens who are struggling.

As Edsall notes with charts and quotes from sociologists and political scientists, the top fifth have:

  • More education (56 percent of heads of households in the top quintile have college or advanced degrees, compared with 34 percent in the third and fourth quintiles and 17 percent in the bottom two quintiles)
  • More stable family structures (83 percent of affluent heads of household between the ages of 35 and 40 are married, compared with 65 percent in the third and fourth income quintiles and 33 percent in the bottom two).
  • More political clout (Although by definition this group represents 20 percent of all Americans, it represents about 30 percent of the electorate, in part because of high turnout levels)
  • More investments in their children’s well-being (we have seen a threefold increase between 1972 and 2007 in top-decile spending on children, an increase that suggests that parents at the top may be investing in ever more high-quality day care and babysitting, private schooling, books and tutoring, and college tuition and fees)
  • More money relative to those in the lower quintiles (the gap between the average income of households with children in the top quintile and households with children in the middle quintile has grown, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $68,600 to $169,300 — that’s 147 percent)
  • Less interaction with those outside of their economic strata (the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent. At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.)
  • Less concern with the effects of poverty (a recent Pew survey (indicates) dealing with the problems of the poor and needy ranked 10th on a list of public priorities, well behind terrorism, education, Social Security and the deficit).

This increase in the gap between the affluent and the poor and the increase in geographic isolation of the two groups is de-stabilizing for our country and our democracy. Mr. Edsall captures the dilemma in his concluding paragraphs:

It turns out that the United States has a double-edged problem — the parallel isolation of the top and bottom fifths of its population. For the top, the separation from the middle and lower classes means less understanding and sympathy for the majority of the electorate, combined with the comfort of living in a cocoon.

For those at the bottom, especially the families who are concentrated in extremely high poverty neighborhoods, isolation means bad schools, high crime, high unemployment and high government dependency.

The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics, but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy.

I live in one of the top quintile cocoons: a college town surrounded by a ring of communities that become progressively poorer as one moves outward. The professors and doctors from the nearby medical center live in my community and the one across the river and the college’s service staff and hospital orderlies commute in from rural communities. This hasn’t always been the case for me. I’ve lived and worked in urban areas, inner-ring blue collar suburbs, rural outposts, and economically diverse communities. In retrospect, even when I lived in less affluent areas I always shopped in upscale areas for clothing and got my New Yorker and Sunday NYTimes. But I had to pick up the New Yorker at the local post office and buy the NYTimes at the local convenience store where contractors congregated to discuss politics and sports…. and as the leader of the schools in the areas where I lived I got a sense of the community’s values and, especially, the values of the parents. And here’s what I find especially distressing after reading Mr. Edsall’s analysis: the parents who are living in poverty want their children to succeed every bit as much as the parents living in affluence… and because of the cocoons we are living in these two groups of parents have a very limited social interconnection and our divides are widening. if we want to be the United States of America we need to find a way to restore the social interconnections we’ve lost over the past five decades.

If the Return to a Manufacturing Economy is a Mirage, What Kind of Schooling Is Needed to be “Ready to Work”?

April 27, 2016 Leave a comment

The Mirage of a Return to a Manufacturing Economy“, Eduardo Porter’s column in yesterday’s NYTimes, describes the cold hard facts about the direction our economy is headed. Three paragraphs in the middle of the article outline the problem:

Look at it this way: Over the course of the 20th century, farm employment in the United States dropped to 2 percent of the work force from 41 percent, even as output soared. Since 1950, manufacturing’s share has shrunk to 8.5 percent of nonfarm jobs, from 24 percent. It still has a ways to go.

The shrinking of manufacturing employment is global. In other words, strategies to restore manufacturing jobs in one country will amount to destroying them in another, in a worldwide zero-sum game.

The loss of such jobs has created plenty of problems in the United States. For the countless workers living in less developed reaches of the world, though, it adds up to a potential disaster.

The article offers  liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz’ perspective on the phenomenon of technological advances replacing manufacturing followed by Porter’s reaction to the political response:

“The observation is uncontroversial,” said Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist at Columbia University. “Global employment in manufacturing is going down because productivity increases are exceeding increases in demand for manufactured products by a significant amount.

The consequences of this dynamic are often misunderstood, not least by politicians offering slogans to fix them.

While Porter focuses on the slogans dealing with economic issues like increasing tariffs and/or stepping away from trade agreements, he could just as easily have focussed on the slogans about “preparing our students to compete in a global economy”. After reading Porter’s analysis and the reactions of economists like Stiglitz, it is hard to imagine how public education as it exists today is doing anything to prepare students for a global economy where manufacturing jobs are on the decline across the globe. The notion that offering more STEM courses or teaching coding to students is the answer seems foolish. So if the jobs of the future are not in the manufacturing sector, where will they be and what policies should be put in place to prepare students? Mr. Porter offers his advice to politicians:

Note to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump: A grab at the world’s manufacturing jobs is the wrong answer. Walls will damage prosperity, not enhance it. Promises to recapture industrial-era greatness ring hollow.

The United States, though, does have options: health care, education and clean energy, just to name a few. They present big economic and political challenges, of course — not least the enormous inefficiency of private American medicine and Republicans’ blanket opposition to more public spending.

Yet just as the federal government once provided a critical push to move the economy from its agricultural past into its industrial future, so, too, could it help build a postindustrial tomorrow.

Mr. Porter concludes his column there… without describing what the federal government could do to “…build a postindustrial tomorrow”. From here, I doubt that an education policy that uses standardized test results to measure the quality of education is the direction to head since health care requires the ability to interact effectively in providing face-to-face services, education requires the provision of face-to-face tailored instruction, and clean energy requires the use of creative thinking. Most importantly, someone needs to begin promoting the notion that we might need to scale down our standard of living if we hope to avoid the “…worldwide zero sum game” that Porter envisions if we DON’T find a way to deal with the replacement of middle class wages that a large sector of our economy earned performing tasks that are now done cheaply and effectively by robots.

Bernie Sanders’ issued a message to the 1% that “enough is enough”. What Mr. Sanders DIDN’T note is that his proposal for a $15/hour wage would ensure that every American would earn an amount that would make them the 1% in the global economy… and in a zero sum game that would inevitably lead to some country or culture wanting to destroy ours. Maybe part of our curriculum in public schools should be to challenge students to examine what they have and what they need and determine their own definition of “enough”. That would be a far greater challenge than learning how to code.

 

The Misunderstanding of Mindfulness: It’s NOT a Tool for Efficient Thought; Is IS a Means of Observing Thought

April 26, 2016 1 comment

When I am not writing blog posts in the morning I try to spend 30-40 minutes meditating and reading the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve attended several retreats he led before a stroke left him incapacitated and as recently as last weekend visited Blue Cliff Monastery where monks and nuns lead retreats in the Plum Village tradition he established.

Given this background in Eastern teachings, I found a recent NYTimes column in the “Job Market” section, Achieving Mindfulness at Work, No Meditation Cushion Required, to be maddeningly misleading. Written by Mathew May, an author and— based on the content of his essay— a management consultant, Mr. May oversimplifies mindfulness and waters it down in a fashion that I find to be misleading and, frankly, indicate his limited understanding of the term. He writes:

By most definitions, mindfulness is a higher-order attention that involves noticing changes around us and fully experiencing them in real time. This puts us in the present, aware and responsive, making everything fresh and new again.

Meditation is simply one of several tools for achieving mindfulness, and in the context of work it may not be the most suitable for many people. For those who, like me, can’t seem to get the hang of meditation, there is good news: You don’t have to meditate to become more mindful.

There are two approaches to mindfulness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern view indeed positions meditation as an essential tool to achieving a mindful state. But the Eastern view is more about quieting the mind and suspending thought. This philosophy is almost the complete opposite of the Western view of mindfulness, which centers on active thinking.

I would argue that given the speed of change today, it may not be realistic to suspend or stop thinking. Rather, we need to actively think through problems in new ways to achieve innovative, elegant solutions. These will not rain from on high in a meditation session.

These paragraphs indicate that Mr. May has two notions about mindfulness meditation that are incorrect. First and foremost, nothing “rains on high” as a result of meditation. Everything about meditation is an inside-out process and not top-down or outside-in. Second, and nearly as important, the “Eastern view” is not about “suspending thought” it is about “observing and accepting” thought. Part of the meditation practice is recognizing when thoughts arise on the cushion so that one can eventually control one’s reaction to those thoughts when they arise off the cushion.

At the end of his essay, Mr. May offers an algorithm for using meditation on the job, one that presumes an individual can achieve “self-distancing” in “a few easy steps”.  My response to this approach is a mixture of envy and dismay. It might be possible that Mr. May was able to achieve the “self-distancing” by applying an algorithm that is fast and efficient, and it might be possible for others to do so as well. In that case I am envious. But it may also be possible that Mr. May— in his goal oriented desire to sharpen his active thinking— is completely avoiding an opportunity to dig deeply into his own nature and diverting others from that same opportunity. In that case I am filled with dismay. Developing the self-awareness that leads to “self-distancing” takes a long time and— at least in my personal experience— leads to a humility because I am beginning to understand how little I really know about myself and the world around me.

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