Archive for February, 2017

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

February 28, 2017 Comments off

“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 Comments off

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.’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 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 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 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

Solutions for K-12 Schools and Districts offers rankings, reviews, and statistics for more than 120,000 public and private K-12 schools. Parents use 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

Solutions for Real Estate

To discuss custom advertising solutions for real estate agents and brokers, please email

Advertising and Partnership Opportunities

To learn more about advertising opportunities or to inquire about a partnership, email

It didn’t seem plausible to me that a company of’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’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 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, 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’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 advertising marketplace nor will they ever be able to exclude any “buyers”.

I am a blogger, not a journalist… but absent any evidence that 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.