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“Poor Elijah” aka Peter Berger Longs for a Yesteryear that is Not Coming Back

February 28, 2017 Leave a comment

“Poor Elijah”, the pseudonym for Weathersfield (VT) English teacher Peter Berger, is a frequent contributor to our local newspaper who also publishes op ed pieces that appear elsewhere in New England. His most recently published article, Legitimate Concerns About Our Public Schools, which appeared in the New Haven Register, like many of his pieces, expresses a yearning for the kind of public education that once existed in our nation. Mr. Berger’s narrative describes a time when each town had its own school populated by children eager to learn who lived in a community where parents supported the schools financially and supported the teachers by insisting that homework be completed before the children could listen to their favorite radio show. In this column, as in many of his columns, Mr. Berger rails against the “reformers” who have a “disdain for teaching content, knowledge, and facts” and instead champion “critical thinking.” Like E.D. Hirsch and many other critics of public schools who believe that there is an irreducible set of common facts that all students must learn through direct instruction, Mr. Berger believes that critical thinking cannot be taught because “…you can’t think without something to think about.” What Mr. Berger and Mr. Hirsch don’t acknowledge, though, it that identifying a common set of irreducible facts is increasingly difficult in this day and age as Bill Gates and the advocates for the Common Core learned the hard way.

“Poor Elijah” also longs for the kind of schooling that existed “before 1970″…  before schools were asked “…to assume responsibilities that once belonged to other social agencies and home.”  Mr. Berger contends that a consequence of assuming these new responsibilities is a willingness for more and more parents to give the responsibility for raising children to the schools, which further diminishes the emphasis on academics. He writes:

At the same time that classrooms have become less focused on academics, they’ve also become more disrupted and even violent. Time is lost. Focus is lost. Learning is lost. Parents rightly are concerned about the threat to classroom order and their children’s safety. Sadly, the crusade against what reformers brand “school-to-prison pipeline” discipline, the inclusion of profoundly disturbed children in regular classrooms, and a return to the permissiveness that characterized schools in the 1970s have rendered too many classrooms hostile learning environments where behavior expectations are set by the most disruptive child in the room. This is just one of the lessons of the 1970s that schools have chosen to ignore.

The highlighted language is Mr. Berger’s biggest issue: he wishes that teachers did not have to deal with what he characterizes as “…profoundly disturbed children” whose behavior presumably sets the norm for the classroom. But this just in: federal laws require public schools to provide a free appropriate education for ALL students, even profoundly disturbed children… and that education must be provided in the least restrictive environment. Mr. Berger and his colleagues who wish schools could go back to the pre-1970 era need to adjust to this “new” reality or advocate a return to the days when these children were excluded from school or a future era where everyone needs to pay a premium to exclude them from public schools and presumably public life forever.

Mr. Berger also inveighs against the trend to individualize learning. He is clearly in the “stand and deliver” school of teaching, whereby the teacher crafts a well conceived lesson and presents it to the class who, in turn, take notes and are later tested on the information presented, presumably incorporating essay questions that give the students an opportunity to show that they can think using the information the teacher presented. This method, though, assumes that all children in the class are equally capable of absorbing the information, an assumption that is problematic unless the students are homogeneously grouped. In Mr. Berger’s idealized classroom, students are all equally capable, all eager to learn, and all parents are in full support of schools. Unfortunately, and it is unfortunate, that is not the world we live in today or the world teachers are expected to work in. Schools are expected to meet each student’s individual needs… and that reality unsettles Mr. Berger.

Parents have also been gulled by promises of individual attention that schools can’t actually deliver. These assurances sometimes have been well-intentioned, but in many cases they’ve been crafted to elicit parental support. Despite ballyhooed mechanisms such as “personal learning plans” for every student, there’s a limit in a classroom with 20 students as to how personalized and “individualized” any student’s program can be. Parents nonetheless understandably expect to hold schools accountable for these assurances. The difficulty is I’m a public school classroom teacher, not a private tutor. That makes a difference, especially when you’re the guy who’s expected to keep someone else’s impossible promise.

I’m not sure where or when teachers were NOT expected to keep “someone else’s impossible promise”. Teachers and public school have long been expected to provide equal opportunities for all children, have been asked to overcome societal obstacles like racial segregation, have been expected to overcome external obstacles like poverty in the child’s home, and have been expected to deliver day-in-and-day-out no matter what is happening in their personal lives. But Mr. Berger seems to believe that there is some positive external force that can make things right at the school level without asking teachers to make things right at their own level. His closing paragraphs are telling in this regard:

The problems at school aren’t all at school. Many reside at home. But until and unless schools address their particular failings, until schools acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong and continue to go wrong, parents’ demands for alternatives to public education will persist and grow.

I don’t believe that choice and alternatives to public schools can solve our nation’s education problems.

But I also don’t believe that schools can afford to ignore why parents increasingly want to choose something else.

IF parents want to choose something else because they don’t like their children being educated with profoundly disturbed children or children whose parents have different values or different religious beliefs, schools must ignore the reason those parents want something else and, I believe, the public should insist that they pay for that “something else” themselves. And if teachers want to work in an environment that is free of profoundly disturbed children or with children who are less engaged than they would like, then they should feel free to seek employment in a non-public school that is not supported by taxpayers.

Is The Kansas GOP Rebuke of Governor Brownback Good News or Bad News?

February 27, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve written several posts about the horrific budget cuts made to Kansas public education over the past five years as a result of Governor Sam Brownback’s decision to use trickle down economics as the basis for developing his budgets and opening the door for business. As reported in today’s NYTimes, after four years of waiting, the cuts to corporations and private business heads has not resulted in the economic growth Mr. Brownback and the Tea Party faction of the Kansas GOP promised. And here’s the result:

The multibillion-dollar cuts have not moved employers to invest and hire more; the state budget is now flooded with red ink. Kansans have become alarmed at years of deep deficits, shrinking state support for education, two downgrades in the state’s credit rating and enough regret among legislators to prompt an extraordinary uprising last week by Statehouse Republicans.

So… it’s clearly good news that the majority of GOP legislators pushed back on the Governor…. and even better news that they did so with passage of a bill that required the imposition of $1,000,000,000 in taxes over a two year period. But the bad news is that the Governor vetoed the legislation and the Senate failed to override the veto. And here’s the result of that:

Kansas faces a $1.2 billion budget gap across the next two years that must be dealt with. There is talk of further cuts in education, which would deepen the crisis in poorer districts that have already suffered reductions in staff and school days.

Unfortunately these disagreeable facts from Kansas that illustrate the true impact of trickle down budgeting will fall on deaf ears in Washington when the President proposes his new budget, which is rumored to increase spending on anything related to the military and cut spending on anything that might secure the safety net and assist with regulating the environment. And the result will be prolonged suffering by children raised in poverty and an increase in the economic divide.

Niche.com’s Ratings Reinforce Reformers Vision of Schools as Commercial Commodities in a Competition

February 27, 2017 1 comment

For the past several days my daily Google feed has features a succession of articles like this one hailing the high ratings of Scotch Plains NJ Schools based on data analysis by Niche.com. The Google feed articles seemed to be cascading state-by-state and after ignoring the posts for the past several days, it struck me this morning that this kind of rating system reinforces the reform movement’s notion that public schools are commercial commodities that compete for “customers” in an open marketplace. That, in turn, led me to see who was behind the rating system, what the basis for the ratings was, and how to help the public understand that this “ratings game” plays into the hands of the privatization movement.

So who or what is Niche.com? From what I can tell looking at their web page, they appear to be a group of well-intentioned “quants” from Pittsburgh PA. Here’s a description of their leadership team accompanies a page full of thumbnail pictures of 20 and 30 somethings:

Niche is a small team based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We’re a unique blend of data scientists, engineers, parents, and “yinzers” who are passionate about helping you discover the schools and neighborhoods that are right for you.

There was no Board of Directors page or no page outlining donors. Instead, it appears that Niche.com is funded by colleges and K-12 systems advertising fees! Here’s the page describing advertising opportunities, with some sections highlighted:

Advertising and Enrollment Marketing

Explore cost effective ways to reach students and parents on the largest website for researching K-12 schools and colleges.

Solutions for Colleges

Niche is where students choose their college. More than 50 percent of college-bound high school seniors use Niche to research colleges. Colleges can claim their school for free to manage their presence on Niche and upgrade to a Premium Profile to showcase their school and motivate next steps – Apply, Visit, etc. For more information, please email sales@niche.com.

Solutions for K-12 Schools and Districts

Niche.com offers rankings, reviews, and statistics for more than 120,000 public and private K-12 schools. Parents use Niche.com to decide where to enroll their children. Schools can claim their school for free to manage their profile and upgrade to a Premium Profile to showcase their school, generate referrals, and get their message across to prospective families. For more information, please email sales@niche.com.

Solutions for Real Estate

To discuss custom advertising solutions for real estate agents and brokers, please email advertising@niche.com.

Advertising and Partnership Opportunities

To learn more about advertising opportunities or to inquire about a partnership, email sales@niche.com.

It didn’t seem plausible to me that a company of Niche.com’s scale could suddenly start-up and produce such a robust and wide ranging product based solely on advertising… and a few clicks of “research” led me to the discovery that College Prowler, the original enterprise founded by Niche.com’s current CFO, got a $500,000 infusion from a hedge funder named Glen MeakemWikipedia reports that he made his money from the $500,000,000 he made from the sale of an enterprise he started called FreeMarkets Inc., a software company that offers services to the Global Supply Management market.

And College Prowler itself seemed to have a somewhat shady history, which may have led to it’s re-branding and mission change. The “criticism” section of the Wikipedia entry on Niche.com succinctly describes a controversy College Prowler faced less than a decade ago:

In a 2008 scandal known as “Facebookgate”,[8][9] hundreds of spurious “Class of 2013” groups were created on Facebook for the purpose of promoting College Prowler.[10][11] Such groups would normally be created by actual students or colleges themselves. According to the CEO, “The original purpose was to use these groups as a way to inform students that they can access a free guide about their new college on our site.” He also added, “No employee or anyone else associated with College Prowler has used these groups to send out messages or wall posts.”[12] College Prowler later removed all administrative access from the 125 groups, admitting “It was clearly over the line”.

After reading the history of Niche.com, I have no reason to question their ethics or motives, though I could easily construct a sinister narrative given the facts I just gathered in the past 15 minutes. Being someone who believes people operate from the best intentions, here’s what I believe happened. Their founder, Luke Skurman, came up with the idea for the “College Prowler” website when he was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon,  believing  high schoolers who are swamped with information regarding college needed a more streamlined means of sifting through that information in order to decide which college is best for them. Because he had a background in data crunching, he devised an algorithm that he used to sell a print publication. When he saw an opportunity to increase the circulation of his idea to a wider audience he sought out some seed money and launched an on-line version of his product, which he called “College Prowler”. Seeing how Facebook’s de facto algorithms for spreading information worked, he created virtual “groups” that promoted his product without thinking about how that might be perceived by end users. When he was called on this mis-use, he disabled the groups and eventually decided to re-brand and expand the service to cover “an emerging market”: K-12 education.

Which leads back to the advertising page, because ultimately Niche.com’s money flow will rely on advertising… and  implicit in the advertising for K-12 schools is the notion that “parents can decide where to enroll their children” and the corollary notion that a K-12 school has the resources to “upgrade… to showcase their school” so they can “get their message across to prospective families”.  But what is even worse is the notion that advertising implies that education is a commodity that can be acquired in the marketplace the same way a loaf of bread or a used car can be acquired. If a parent doesn’t like a particular bread or a particular brand of automobile, they can always find another option further down the grocery shelf or at another dealer. And while a shiny new K-12 for profit charter school can always spend money advertising it’s “product” (and determining who can “buy” their “product”), public schools will never have the funds available to compete in the Niche.com advertising marketplace nor will they ever be able to exclude any “buyers”.

I am a blogger, not a journalist… but absent any evidence that Niche.com is being underwritten by the likes of the Walton Foundation I can only conclude that they are unwittingly playing into the hands of privatizers with their ratings … and public schools who trumpet their rankings are unwittingly playing along. But I know from experience that parents, teachers, school boards, and— yes— even school administrators love to tell the world when they achieve high ratings. I couldn’t resist looking to see that the district I led was ranked #1 in NH, for example… But I am not sure that most public school advocates realize that in playing the ratings game they are playing along with those who want to create a marketplace for public education.

Study Identifies Nation’s Most Fiscally Disadvantaged Districts… But Overlooks One Clear Solution

February 26, 2017 Leave a comment

The Education Law Center issued a report earlier this month identifying the 200 districts in the United States with the greatest financial disadvantage. The method they used to identify these districts was straightforward, but, as the highlighted language indicates, it effectively exclude every small rural district in the country.

A fiscally disadvantaged district is one in which the state and local revenue per pupil is lower than the labor-market average while the child poverty rate is higher than the labor-market average. To achieve a manageable list of school districts for further exploration, somewhat arbitrary cutoff levels were applied as follows:

Fiscally disadvantaged =
State and local revenue per pupil < 90 percent labor-market average and
U.S. Census poverty rate > 120 percent labor-market average

Only those districts enrolling at least 2,000 pupils were considered, as they should be able to operate with efficiency of scale. Non-rural districts were given particular attention. These districts are in either metropolitan areas—based around a population hub of 50,000 or more residents—or micropolitan areas—based around a population hub of 10,000 to 50,000 residents.

The report did identify a solid rationale for why some districts require more funding than others:

Put simply, districts with higher student needs than surrounding districts in the same labor market don’t require the same total revenue per pupil to get the job done. They require more. Higher need districts require more money for higher salaries to recruit and retain similar quantities (per pupil) of similar quality teachers. In addition, higher need districts must be able to provide the additional programs, services and supports (including smaller classes and early childhood education) necessary to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds, while still maintaining advanced and enriched course options.

Given the recent happenings in Washington in terms of federal funding, I felt the report’s conclusion was disappointing. It focussed on the responsibility of STATES to fix their funding mechanism and overlooked the role the federal government did play and, more importantly, could play in encouraging better funding. As noted in several earlier posts, the elimination of the “supplement-not-supplant” regulation as part of the ESSA rule making process will exacerbate financial disparities in funding. Moreover, if progressive principles were applied, the federal funds could be specifically targeted to those “most financially challenged” districts instead of being spread to every district that serves any financially disadvantaged child.

 

Trumplandia: When Facts are Immaterial, Easy Answers to Complicated Problems are Unchallenged

February 25, 2017 1 comment

One of the most distressing elements of the new administration in Washington is its willingness to create and promote “alternative facts” thereby creating a reality that enables them to propose easy answers to complicated problems. The latest instance of this was Sean Spicer’s rationale for cracking down on the use of recreational marijuana. Why?

In explaining the rationale of greater enforcement of federal marijuana laws, Spicer cited growing problems with other illicit drug use.

“I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people,” Spicer said. There is still a federal law that we need to abide by.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the National Cannabis Industry Association took issue with that argument.

Science has discredited the idea that marijuana serves as any kind of gateway drug, and the addiction and death rates associated with opioids simply do not occur in any way with cannabis,” said Aaron Smith, the organization’s executive director.

There is NO link between the use of cannabis and the opioid epidemic. The opioid epidemic is the result of the under-regulation of prescription medication production and the over-prescribing of opioids as pain-killers. But in the alternative-fact universe the current administration operates in they begin with a counter-factual premise and then offer an easy solution to the problem… a solution that inevitably involves the need for more order.

By deregulating everything from education to oil and mineral extraction to banking, by writing Executive Orders that are almost certainly going to be appealed, and by behaving in a way that it far outside the norms, Mr. Trump and his administration are intentionally creating chaos by overloading the courts and legislative systems. To what end? The more I watch this slow motion train wreck, the more I am convinced that the ultimate endgame of this tsunami of disorder is the imposition of a “new order” that benefits the rich and squelches protest from “the elites”. Stand back and take a look at who might benefit from a new order and who might lose out.

  • The NEW order calls for the deportation of “illegal immigrants”, which requires an expansion of law enforcement and prisons
  • The NEW order calls for the criminalization of protest (18 states are proposing such legislation), which requires an expansion of law enforcement and prisons
  • The NEW order encourages the arming of all citizens and the opportunity for armed citizens to “defend themselves” when they feel threatened, which enables citizens to take the law into their own hands
  • The NEW order calls for the elimination of state and local environmental regulations, which enables corporations to “fast track” projects that involve pipelines, fracking, and mining
  • The NEW order calls for the transfer of public assets, like parklands, schools, hospitals, municipal services, and even police and fire protection to private enterprises which enriches the investor-class while diminishing democratic control over these assets.

I could make a longer list and welcome other examples… but the direction we are heading is clear. And here’s the problem I face as one individual who tries to spend as little time as possible indoors and as much time as possible in nature: there are too many fronts to fight against. For the past fifteen years I mostly argued against the “reform” movement in public education on this blog. I was distressed that President Obama was unable to enact the kind of agenda he envisioned when he was running for office, that he failed to hold the banks accountable for their role in the mortgage debacle, that he relied too much on drones to fight against terrorism, and that he failed to act quickly enough on Keystone XL and DAPL. But despite his shortcomings,  I was confident he valued and respected democracy and was trying to find some kind of peaceful settlement to conflicts in the world. Now, with norms facing by the wayside daily and democracy being challenged at all levels of government it is easy to be overwhelmed.

In the end, though, facts are facts and solving complicated problems requires time, patience, and a grounding in reality. The only way to make the solution to problems easy is to simply them: to reduce them to binary choices. I cannot allow complicated problems to be simplified by changing the facts that underly them. To do so would be the end of democracy.

 

Contrived Chaos and States of Confusion

February 25, 2017 Leave a comment

I was about to write a post titled “Trumplandia: When Facts Are Immaterial Easy Solutions to Complicated Problems are Unchallenged” when I cam upon this Common Dreams post which suggests that the elimination of a fact-based debate is part of a plan to impose order on the chaos that inevitably follows when arguments are unmoored from factual reality. The ultimate endgame of this tsunami of disorder that results from the planned deregulation of everything is the imposition of an order that benefits the rich and squelches protest from “the elites”. 

There has been a lot of analysis suggesting that the executive-level politics we’re seeing play out right now are about incompetence or irrationality. The psychology of the President himself has been called into question, with bizarre public performances and blatant falsities being propagated, mirroring that of others in the Administration.

Source: Contrived Chaos and States of Confusion

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This Just In: Research Shows Vouchers are a Terrible Idea!

February 24, 2017 Leave a comment

A maddening article by Kevin Carey in the Upshot section of the NYTimes breathlessly wrote:

“But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of NEW research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.”

Which prompted me to write the following comment:

Wait just a minute! The “NEW” research you cite was readily available BEFORE the election… which leads to the question of why it wan’t used by the Democratic party. The answer: BOTH parties have embraced the notion that the free market can solve the problem of “failing schools”, in part because both parties have received generous donations from those who stand to profit if such schools are put in place. Thus they overlook the research that shows “the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

From my perspective both the NYTimes editors and staffers like Kevin Carey are complicit in the forthcoming voucher debacle. Why? Because this “new research” was in plain sight in 2015 and 2016 when it was released and they effectively squelched reports on it because it was contrary to their narrative that deregulated charter schools were the solution to the “failing” public schools. By ignoring research on public education because it contradicts their narrative, the NYTimes is behaving the same was as the petroleum industry who ignore proof that their products are not damaging our environment.

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