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WAKE UP! Koch Brothers Set Sights on “Government Schools”

January 31, 2018 1 comment

One of Diane Ravitch’s posts yesterday was headlined “BREAKING NEWS: Koch Brothers Declare War on Public Education“. The article had the extensive series of quotes taken from a Washington Post article by James Hohman that are outlined below. My reactions to the various points in the article are highlighted in bold red italics.

“Making a long-term play, the billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and his like-minded friends on the right are increasingly focused on melding the minds of the next generation by making massive, targeted investments in both K-12 and higher education.

“Changing the education system as we know it was a central focus of a three-day donor seminar that wrapped up late last night at a resort here in the desert outside Palm Springs.

We’ve made more progress in the last five years than I had in the last 50,” Koch told donors during a cocktail reception. “The capabilities we have now can take us to a whole new level. … We want to increase the effectiveness of the network … by an order of magnitude. If we do that, we can change the trajectory of the country.”  I fear that the data will back up the Koch brothers on this. While most Americans do not like the idea of vouchers in general, they seem willing to swallow the incremental laws that lead down the road to vouchers, like laws creating Education Savings Accounts, without any pushback. 

“Leaders of the network dreamed of disrupting the status quo, customizing learning and breaking the teacher unions. One initial priority is expanding educational saving accounts and developing technologies that would let parents pick and choose private classes or tutors for their kids the same way people shop on Amazon. They envision making it easy for families to join together to start their own “micro-schools” as a new alternative to the public system. As I wrote in 2002 for an article in Education Week, hybrid home-schools in California looked like the wave of the future. Public schools could still get in front of this and control these “micro-schools” by focussing on the need for uniformity in graduation standards and assurances that all “micro-schools” are convened in safe spaces overseen by qualified teachers. If public schools do not find a way to work with homeschoolers who are not motivated by religion “chains” will capture this potentially emerging market. 

“The Charles Koch Institute distributed roughly $100 million to 350 colleges and universities last year, up sevenfold over the past five years. What’s newer is the emphasis on elementary and secondary education. The network declined to offer exact figures but said it will double investment in K-12 this year, with much more planned down the road. This “investment” in all probability takes the form of political donations to state legislators, campaign contributions to referenda and/or political candidates who hold anti-government libertarian views, and possibly dark money behind charter schools. One thing IS certain: the public will never be able to trace most of the “investment”. 

“There are about 700 people who each contribute a minimum of $100,000 per year to the constellation of organizations that comprise the Koch network. For years, many of these megadonors have urged Koch to wade into the battles over what they call school choice. Charles resisted, believing that his network had no special comparative advantage to move the needle in this area. WHAT??!!! 700 x $100,000 = $70 million dollars. That’s more than twice the $32 million the AFT and NEA gave to campaigns in 2016! 

“Then he commissioned Meredith Olson, a vice president at Koch Industries, to interview members of his network about what they are doing in their home states to explore whether there is a way to scale their education efforts nationally. She developed a three-prong strategy: “reform, supplement, innovate.”

“The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12,” said Stacy Hock, a major Koch donor who has co-founded a group called Texans for Educational Opportunity. “I think this is the area that is most glaringly obvious.” Low hanging fruit” because, in most cases, the general public ignores local school board races and state legislature races.. and that’s where policy changes occur in K-12. The most disturbing trend in the past few years is the increased spending in local school board races. It began with races in large urban districts but is now trickling down to smaller districts. If Koch’s band of donors decides to focus their attention on public schools, there is no telling how quickly they can control the direction of public schools.  

“In 2018, Koch donors see Arizona as ground zero in their push. Doug Ducey, the former chief executive of Cold Stone Creamery, became a member of the Koch network in 2011. Since 2015, he’s attended the seminars as governor of Arizona. Last year, he signed legislation to dramatically expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program so that students can use taxpayer dollars that would be spent on them in public schools to cover private-school tuition or other educational expenses.

“Teacher unions, worried that this will undermine the public system, collected enough signatures to put the law on hold and create a ballot proposition to let voters decide in November whether to expand vouchers. [Note: Signatures for the referendum were collected by parents and SOS Arizona, not teachers unions.] The fact that Diane Ravitch needed to add this note is indicative of the tendency for reporters to take the information from groups like the Koch brothers at face value and to cast the battle lines as “union vs. the public” instead of “the public vs. the plutocracy”. As noted above, the donations from 700 billionaires far exceeded the donations from 4.6 million members of the AFT and NEA. Every time the “union vs. the public” narrative is repeated, the public comes away with the impression that “the union” is a monolithic power with lots of money and the “the public” is a scattered group of penurious home owners. 

“Addressing the seminar yesterday, Ducey touted the measure as further reaching than anything that’s been tried in other states. He warned that, under Arizona law, if advocates lose at the ballot box, they will not be able to legislate on the topic in the future. “This is a very real fight in my state,” Ducey said. “I didn’t run for governor to play small ball. I think this is an important idea.”

“The Koch network is likely to spend heavily to support the voucher law, setting up a battle royal with the labor movement. And the Koch’s are certain to cast “the union” as Goliath and the parents seeking alternatives in the form of “choice” as David. The battle is between plutocrats and democracy. 

“Ducey introduced Steve Perry, the headmaster of Capital Prep Charter Schools, who has been traveling Arizona to speak in support of the law. “The teacher unions are unencumbered by the truth,” he told the Koch donors. “It is a distant relative that is never invited to dinner.”

“Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, highlighted field operations that the network has built in 36 states to advance its agenda, including on education. “We have more grass-roots members in Wisconsin than the Wisconsin teachers’ union has members,” he said. “That’s how you change a state!”” My hunch is that the “grass-roots members” are folks who signed up to receive emails from the Koch brothers propaganda machine, a machine that casts “government schools” who “kowtow to unions” as the villain and the marketplace as the magical means of offering freedom. The “government school” brand has stuck with voters who watch Fox News and listen to Betsy DeVos and those “reformers” in BOTH political parties who value “school choice”. If “the unions” and those of us who treasure public education are to win, we need to emphasize that in a democracy the voters are the government… and the marketplace doesn’t care a whit about the voters— they only care about shareholders. 

 

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Another DC Miracle Debunked: 1/3 of DC Graduates Did Not Meet Standard

January 30, 2018 Leave a comment

WAMU in Washington DC provided a report on Washington DC public schools touting a miraculous turnaround in the percentage of students who graduated from high school… a miraculous turnaround that now seems to be the result of faulty reporting on the part of administrators and teachers. Multiple media outlets yesterday, including WAMU, reported on a recent audit conducted by by consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal which found that

…attendance policies were rarely followed and credit recovery programs, which allow students to retake courses they’ve failed, were misused at most DCPS high schools. Some students were allowed to pass courses even though they missed a majority of the class.

WAMU, after it’s initial report on the miraculous turnaround at one specific school, heard from hundreds of DC teachers who suggested that the miracle they touted was the result of tinkering at the main offices in the school district. WAMU then conducted its own investigation of one school and found that was true. Alvarez and Marshal was hired by the mayor’s office to determine if the failure to keep track of student records was limited to one school or was systemic. The results were embarrassing, to say the least.

The report pointed to a culture of passing and graduating students that had become the norm, even if it conflicted with academic standards and integrity.  It cites aggressive graduation goals, a burdensome amount of documentation required to fail a student, and empathy for students with serious needs as pressures that contributed to that culture. Finally, it found that a lack of support from the DCPS Central Office contributed to many of the system-wide policy violations. Training, communication and system monitoring were all considered inadequate.

Bowser blamed much of the failure on the district’s attempt to clarify and implement its grading policy a few years ago.

What DCPS failed to do was put together the training and controls and accountability necessary to make that a successful rollout,” Bowser said.

But what the report DIDN’T note was that as of February 2016, 45% of the DC students were enrolled in charter schools… and the fact that these charter schools were “successful” was a feather in the cap of the mayor, the Superintendent… and the “reformers” who often cited and lionized the leadership in DC schools. But the headlines trumpeting the successes of DC public schools always mention this fact… the stories that undercut the successes, well here are the headlines referenced in my Google Feed:

Third of DCPS High School Graduates Shouldn’t Have Graduated Last Year: Review

Attendance, credit violations by graduates at all but 2 DC high schools, report finds

Any mention that 45% of these schools were charter schools? And while the stories all talked about PRINCIPALS who were put on leave, none of them cited the Superintendent, the person who, in the words of the Mayor, “failed to… put together the training and controls and accountability necessary to make that a successful rollout” AND one of the leaders the NYTimes recently touted as an ideal candidate to lead the NYC schools. When schools “succeed” beyond expectations their “charter” pedigree is highlighted. When they engage in dishonesty, that pedigree vanishes… and the public schools are effectively smeared. The shame is that this mis-reporting by the media doesn’t garner the same headlines as the mis-reporting of the Principals.

 

Predatory Capitalism’s Impact on Public Education

January 29, 2018 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize by now, I am an avid reader of articles that discuss economics and political science. This morning I read a compelling essay by Eudaimonia blogger Umair Haque with the unsettling title “How America Collapsed” and a subtitle “What Happens When You Replace a Society with a Market?”. Most of the essay deals with the subtitle… and what happens when you replace a society with a market is NOT a pretty picture. In Mr. Haque’s telling of America’s story,”…a once thriving political economy collapsed like a black hole: into a place of absolute totalist nihilism.” Why?

The story I have told in recent essays is that stagnation, by inflaming old tribal and racial wounds, allows fascism to rise, in a series of authoritarian moments, reaching to the heights of power in a society. A failing social contract causes people to give up on the very democracy that cannot provide it, turn on their neighbors, and claim whatever is left of a dwindling society for themselves — and thus every catastrophe of human possibility ends in a contest over the purity of blood and race. This cycle is precisely the same in America as it was in Nazi Germany, and that is why the parallels feel eerier every day now — from ethnic “bans” to immigrant detentions to neo-Nazi marches.

But what causes the lack of a working social contract? Well, the unforgiving truth is that both sides of a polity must fail for people to give up on democracy, and turn to strongmen instead, rejecting democracy, civilization, and enlightenment in favour of authoritarianism, barbarism, and a childlike need for safety. The “sides” fail in different ways — but oddly, those ways are historically precisely the same. Simply put, the right fails to stand for conserving, and the left for liberating

Mr. Haque explains how each side in America failed: the right sought to “drown government in a bathtub”, which would, in turn, lead its citizens to turn to “…strong-men, mafias, and thugs” while the left “…gave up any interest in providing average, everyday people the basics of a good life, or of moderating the gain of winners” 

Both the left an the right DID agree on one principle, however: that markets can solve all of the problems that face society. Mr. Haque writes:

Markets are seen to be the cure-alls for every kind of social ill, challenge, or issue — the last, best, and only ways to coordinate every last aspect of human thought, action, effort, or ideas. Therefore, predatory capitalism — for there are many kinds of capitalism, but this one is a totalist ideology, which leaves no room to breathe, no space for consideration, no chance for anything else at all — was quickly applied to every sphere of life, from healthcare to education to energy to finance, and it was quickly assumed to be history’s final endpoint. But how can a social order and a social contract exist if everything is a market?

The short answer is: “it can’t”. Here’s an elaboration from Mr. Haque:

Markets are just one kind of social organization. A healthy society is made up of many others — whether civic organizations, great public institutions, or just families and communities. Markets maximize profits. What do these other kinds of organizations exist to maximize? …They maximize things that are worth more: trust, meaning, purpose, dignity, belonging, lifespans.

… Corporate profits have never been higher — since records were kept. But the well-being of Americans has been shattered like never before in modern history. Even Costa Ricans have longer life expectancies. All of Europe lives longer, healthier, happier, saner lives. No other society in all the world has regular school shootings, an over-the-counter opioid epidemic, and shrinking real incomes. These are not coincidences, misfortunes, anomalies — they are cause and effect, two sides of a coin. Markets did what they do: maximized profits — but only at the ruinous expense of a catastrophe of human possibility.

So how to public education as we know it today contribute to this? It strikes me that both sides did nothing to help public schools overcome the impact of the market. The right’s Southern Strategy effectively thumbed its nose at the Supreme Court’s decision that schools needed to be integrated with all deliberate speed and pushed back against LBJ’s civil rights and anti-poverty legislation. The left, in the meantime, “…gave up any interest in… moderating the gain of winners“, which meant when President Reagan used “Welfare Queens” as the basis for shredding the safety net and the first President Bush used Willie Horton as the basis for incarcerating increasing numbers of African Americans, the left “…gave up any interest in moderating the gain of winners”. Instead the left elected a President who used his criticism of an African American musician (Sister Souljah) and a pledge to “End Welfare as We Know It” to get elected.

But the left’s abandonment of the principle of “moderating the gain of winners” and devotion to market-based solutions came in the early 2000s with the passage of NCLB and the implementation of RTTT. Instead of using federal leverage to provide supplemental funding for disadvantaged students attending public schools in disrepair, the left decided to punish those students by taking away their schools from local control in the cities and turing them over to private enterprise. In the end, public education as it existed in the 1970s has collapsed as well: it is no longer capable of “moderating the gain of winners” because the notion of integration, funding equity, and any form of compensatory education has gone out the window and been replaced by… markets-in-the-form-of-charters-and-choice. And as for-profit schools governed by faceless shareholders replace public schools governed by elected officials, democracy dies along with equal opportunity.

 

Ohio HS Alumni Connects Dots… Why Can’t Ohio Legislators?

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Pasted below is a letter to the editor that appeared in today’s Columbus Dispatch: 

Let me connect the dots for Dispatch readers. Columbus City Schools are laying off teachers. The layoffs are from a budget shortfall. The shortfall is because the state cut funding. The state cut funding because the money had already been spent. The money had already been spent because more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds have gone to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, a charter school operating fraudulently by inflating its attendance figures.

ECOT was not shut down earlier because the state officials who were supposed to have oversight looked the other way. Not coincidentally, ECOT made big donations to those same state officials who were supposed to be safeguarding students’ interests. So indirectly, the money that was supposed to pay Columbus teachers has somehow found its way into the campaign coffers of state-level officials.

In other words, this is not a story of financial mismanagement by a local school district; it’s a story of state-level misconduct at the expense of local schools and their students. Follow the money, connect the dots.

Christopher Sunami

Columbus Alternative High School ’93

If Ohio were the only place this happened it would be a local story… but it has happened across the nation and is being exacerbated by the “reformers” who want to encourage parents to choose deregulated charter schools like ECOT in favor of closely monitored schools governed by locally elected officials. Hopefully readers of the Columbus Dispatch will connect the dots and let their legislators know that they are wise to their shenanigans.

 

New Research on “Nature vs. Nurture” Debate Indicates it’s BOTH… and Neither…

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

In recent “head-spinning” research in Iceland on how DNA affects learning, geneticist Albert Kong and a team of researchers in Iceland determined that the impact of DNA variants carried by parents but not passed to their children had about 30 percent as big an impact as that of the genes that the children actually did inherit. Dr. Kong elaborated on his findings in a recent NY Times article by Carl Zimmer:

“The direct genetic effect is quite a bit smaller than what people thought,” said Dr. Kong, who now a professor at the University of Oxford.

How can that be? Dr. Kong speculated that the genes carried by parents influence the environment in which their children grow up. “Variants that have to do with planning with the future could have the biggest effect on nurturing,” he said.

In effect, the interplay between genes the parents possess and those the children don’t possess can have as much impact on the intellectual growth of a child as the genes the children DO possess. A geneticist from the Netherlands offered an example of how this plays out in the field of livestock:

“I am not surprised by the findings,” said Piter Bijma, who studies livestock at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “These are to be expected.”

Dr. Bijma and other researchers have amassed a wealth of evidence showing that animals are influenced not just by their own genes but by the genes of their parents. Calves may grow quickly thanks to their own growth-promoting genes, or because the same genes in their mothers make them produce more milk.

A calf may inherit those milk-boosting variants from its mother. But just because the calf carries them doesn’t mean they directly make the calves bigger.

Compared to other mammals, Dr. Bijma observed, human children are especially dependent on their parents — not just for food and other essentials, but for social development. So it stands to reason that they’d experience similar effects.

Humans provide substantial care to their offspring, and so the nurture they create is very likely to have a genetic component,” said Dr. Bijma.

At the conclusion of the article, Mr. Zimmer draws on the studies of Paige Harden, a psychologist at the University of Texas who co-authored a commentary on Dr. Kong’s research:

Dr. Harden said that taking account of genetic nurture could improve research on the effects of poverty on how children do in school, as well as studies of methods to improve educational attainment.

“It’s so obvious in retrospect, and so elegant,” she said. “A lot of people are going to say, ‘I can see my data in a new light with this.’”

Exactly HOW this research will help teachers who are dealing directly with “the effects of poverty on how children do in school” and  improve educational attainment are unclear to me, unless family therapy is somehow combined with DNA analysis to develop parent-child IEPs. But given Dr. Bijma’s observations based on his research on livestock— that human children are especially dependent on their parents– it seems to me that it is imperative to work closely with parents who are disengaged from their child’s schooling. That is, instead of addressing the concerns of parents who are sufficiently engaged in their child’s well-being to make an informed choice about where their child should attend school, “reformers” should instead find ways to engage those parents who are NOT making applications to charter schools to determine how to engage them more effective in their child’s learning.

Given the Choice, 2011 NYTimes Articles Indicates Tech Moguls Choose Waldorf Schools… I’ll Bet They STILL Do Today

January 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch shared one of her favorite articles in yesterday’s stream of posts, a NYTimes article from 2011 titled “A Silicon Valley School that Does’t Compute“. The article describes the curriculum offered at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, described as

…one of around 160 Waldorf schools in the country that subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.

The irony is that this particular Waldorf School attracts the children of several tech magnates who reside in the area, technology experts who intentionally keep devices out of their children’s hands. Why?

“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” said Alan Eagle, 50, whose daughter, Andie, is one of the 196 children at the Waldorf elementary school; his son William, 13, is at the nearby middle school. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”

Mr. Eagle knows a bit about technology. He holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. He uses an iPad and a smartphone. But he says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

The article describes the kinds of activities Waldorf students engage in at each grade level and how Waldorf schools ignore any metrics that involve standardized testing. Waldorf parents, though, are confident that their children will learn the skills needed to succeed given Waldorf’s 94% college placement figures. But how will Waldorf students cope in a Google-world where cell phones and technology are ubiquitous?

And where advocates for stocking classrooms with technology say children need computer time to compete in the modern world, Waldorf parents counter: what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills?

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

Knowing several Waldorf teachers and several Waldorf students, I believe their mantra might be “WHAT’S THE RUSH? Waldorf Schools batch students by age but allow their skills to develop at whatever pace is comfortable for the child… and they allow the children a lot of freedom in selecting the content they pursue. The notion of slavishly following a curriculum based on test questions tied to an age is preposterous to them.

Could the Waldorf model work in public education? Matt Richtel who wrote the article for the Times seems to infer that it couldn’t be because their results are largely the result of the families who enroll in the schools. He notes that Waldorf students are “…from families that value education highly enough to seek out a selective private school, and usually have the means to pay for it“. In that observation, Mr. Richtel seems to echo the attitude of the “reformers”, who think that instruction driven by standardized tests is good for children raised in poverty but inappropriate for those with the means to attend selective schools. Poor children need to rush… affluent children, not so much…

Proof that a Blind Squirrel Will Occasionally Find a Nut: Betsy DeVos’ View of Bush and Obama “Reform” is Spot on… BUT…

January 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Readers of this blog know that I am no fan of Betsy DeVos, but I must acknowledge that her assessment of the Bush and Obama administration’s results is on the mark….and this headline summarizes her point well:

Nothing Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush did in education reform really worked

As Valerie Strauss reported in a blog post last week in the Washington Post, Ms. DeVos “…delivered her first speech of 2018 and flatly declared that school reform efforts under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush had not worked…” Had she stopped there she would have won my unequivocal praise for her insights. But she went on a little longer and, in doing so, demonstrated her lack of understanding about “reform”. in examining the two administrations, she stated:

We saw two presidents [George W. Bush and Obama] from different political parties and philosophies take two different approaches. Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem. Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.

This is wrong on two counts. The approaches the two administrations took were identical… and both came from the misguided belief from the hinterlands that schools could only be improved if they were standardized like cars or computer software.

She also saw fit to characterize the standardized-test obsessed DOE as “a giant nod to union bosses”, none of whom, to the best of my knowledge, favor the “reform” endorsed by BOTH political parties.

Ms. Strauss’ post includes the speech in it’s entirety, but focusses on the points Ms. DeVos DIDN’T make but should have.

  • The market driven “choice” model of reform Ms. DeVos favors had not improved any schools anywhere
  • The charter schools Ms. DeVos favors provide less opportunities for teacher-led initiatives than the traditional “government schools” she disdains
  • The Common Core is NOT dead: it’s been effectively re-branded and re-inforced at the state level because when ESSA gave states greater latitude they did not seize the opportunity. Instead the great majority of states adopted test-driven metrics that are based on— you guessed it— the Common Core!

As is often the case with Ms. DeVos and her fellow reformers, they get the “bullet points” highlighting the flaws of public education correct. Who could disagree with this statement?

Our children deserve better than the 19th century assembly-line approach. They deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced and challenging life-long learning journey. Schools should be open to all students — no matter where they’re growing up or how much their parents make.

That means no more discrimination based upon Zip code or socio-economic status. All means all.

But who could agree that the solution implied in the next paragraph, that deregulated market-based reform is the way to improve schools?

It’s about educational freedom! Freedom from Washington mandates. Freedom from centralized control. Freedom from a one-size-fits-all mentality. Freedom from “the system.”

Let me translate what Ms. DeVos is really saying. “Washington mandates” means those pesky desegregation orders. “Centralized control” means requiring all children to learn how democracy works and how to think independently. “One-size-fits-all” means providing children in less affluent areas with the same funding levels as children in wealthy areas. “The system” in this case means government funding and regulation that ensures equal opportunity for all…. and the provision of revenues through a fair and just system of taxation.