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Foxes Guarding Henhouses in Department of Education

June 17, 2019 Leave a comment

A few days ago I wrote a post about Pennsylvania’s laws that allowed profiteers to make billions by creating for-profit charter and cyber schools that siphoned taxpayer dollars away from revenue starved public schools. In fairness to the public school profiteers, they were not the only ones taking advantage of a system that rewarded them for converting tax dollars into profit: the post secondary for profit schools led the way…. that is until the Obama administration took some steps to close loopholes and enforce regulations that penalized these bad actors for their pillaging.

But with Betsey DeVos at the helm of the USDOE and Mr. Trump in the White House all-things-Obama are out the window and the profiteers are backing up their wheelbarrows to take advantage of guaranteed loans to attract students to their low cost-high profit enterprises. And who will be overseeing the newly de-regulated procedure for protecting the taxpayers money from being abused? That would be Diane Auer Jones… a former employee of the USDOE who resigned from the George W. Bush administration’s USDOE because she thought THEY were too strict with their accreditation procedures and joined an accrediting agency that was dis-credited by the Obama administration. The whole sordid story was described in a NYTimes article last week by Erica Green, who stuck to the facts which led to an inevitable conclusion: the foxes are now overseeing the henhouse. This paragraph from the middle of Ms. Green’s article summarizes the state of affairs:

Consumer protection advocates see the rules as part of a larger plan to allow Ms. Jones’s allies in the for-profit industry to proliferate and operate with few guardrails. Some of the proposals reflect wish lists that for-profit and career schools have lobbied for in Congress. They throw a safety net to accreditors and programs that have struggled to meet departmental standards.

When legislation cannot be passed to deregulate, the next best thing is to appoint administrators who will “be flexible” in enforcing the regulation and, if necessary, make wholesale changes that have the effect of legislation. Once again, taxpayers should get a firm grip on their wallets! The shareholders of for profit schools are after your money!

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Where’s The Money For “X”? Jesse Jackson Has the Answer: Cut the Defense Budget!

June 16, 2019 Leave a comment

Jesse Jackson’s recent Common Dreams op ed article offers the solution to the never-ending questions about lowering costs for college, funding Universal Pre-K, providing more resources for urban and rural districts whose tax bases have eroded, and upgrading our infrastructure. The title of the article, “Bring the Troops Home and Send More Kids to College“, gives the solution.

While Mr. Jackson’s article is narrower in scope than the list of needs in the opening paragraph of this post— he’s focussing on cuts to Pell grants that help low income students attend colleges— the fact is that defense spending is increasing while the costs for the safety net services are decreasing… and as I am writing this post it appears that President Trump’s cabinet members are ginning up a need for us to send troops (and, consequently even MORE money) to Iran.

I we REALLY want to make our nation stronger and our economy more vibrant, we need to pay workers more and provide an equitable opportunity for students of all backgrounds to make their lives better. Increasing spending on defense is not the best way to accomplish that.

Head of Local Private School Touts Role of Schools in Future While Ignoring Public School’s Realities

June 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Brad Choyt, the Head of Crossroads Academy, a nearby K-8 private school wrote a thoughtful and insightful op ed article for our local newspaper describing the need for schools in the future to change their emphasis given the advent of AI-based instructional tools. In the article, after describing the advances in AI, he writes:

Within forward-thinking schools, educators are creating environments that prize the very skills that the most advanced computers programmed with the latest algorithms can’t match. This includes a renewed emphasis on creative problem-solving, cultivating high levels of empathy that foster clear communication skills, a fluency when collaborating with diverse groups of people and an ability to analyze data with a critical eye to determine the sets of information that are relevant and also what needs to be disregarded.

The best schools are also maximizing student engagement in their classrooms and ensuring their coursework meaningfully connects to real-world issues. In these classrooms, students are given ample opportunity to grapple with knowledge and problems that are complicated and sometimes messy to learn, but that often lead toward deeper understanding and insights on complex and nuanced topics.

Also, high-functioning schools are continually enabling their students to develop into self-directed, lifelong learners. Skilled teachers do this by allowing students to explore their specific interests while empowering them to self-evaluate their academic progress. In these classroom environments, students are given ample opportunity to learn from and to teach their peers while fostering greater accountability for their own academic success. All of these qualities allow students to gain uniquely human skills and insight as they strive to internalize a deeper understanding of their communities and the world around us.

One day, a more advanced generation of algorithms might be able to do many of the things the best teachers can do. And these computers will hopefully also create a world with fewer diseases and greener sources of energy. But I also believe there will continue to be a need for places where students and teachers can come together both to learn and to prepare for a brighter future, one where we can continuously perfect our own human neural networks in the company of others who can become both role models and mentors.

Ultimately, my visits to different schools have reaffirmed this essential point: It is the potential and the power of human relationships that inspire students to learn life’s most important lessons, and no computer, no matter how advanced its algorithm, can be a substitute.

These ideas resonate with me. I wholeheartedly agree that schools should focus on interpersonal relations, self-directed learning, and higher order thinking skills. And the ideas Mr. Choyt presents are congruent with the mission of the school he leads, which describes itself as an “Independent, coeducational day school based upon the Core Knowledge Sequence, authored by E.D. Hirsch, and the character education program, Core Virtues, created by founder Dr. Mary Beth Klee.” The webpage for the school also notes that the Crossroads Program “includes a strong focus on the performance arts”. It’s motto is “Strong Minds. Kind Hearts”.  

There is one reality that Mr. Choyt overlooks: as a private school Crossroads does not use annual state test scores as the basis for determining it’s quality. And by the way, neither does it’s nearby public school district— the one I led for 7 years when NCLB was emerging as the coin of the realm for accountability. Why? Because our public school was a de facto selective school in the same way as Crossroads since the real estate within the communities that comprised the school district were among the wealthiest in their respective states.
If we want the kinds of schools Mr. Choyt describes we need to provide those schools with the kinds of resources Crossroads has, the kinds of resources that affluent public schools have, and— most importantly— stop using standardized tests as the primary metric for “quality”. If we want to value creative thinking, self-directed learning, and interpersonal skills we need to find a way to measure them acknowledging that any measure will be imprecise… an acknowledgement that should be made and emphasized even now!

As a Penn Graduate School Alumnus I Was Sad to Read This

June 14, 2019 Leave a comment
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Pennsylvania’s Charter Law Overreach FINALLY Gets Charter Scams on National Radar

June 14, 2019 Leave a comment

The original idea of charter schools, the one conditionally proposed by Albert Shanker who has undoubtedly turned over several times in his grave when his name is invoked by privatizers, was to allow public school teachers to create alternative programs within the context of the existing governance structure of public education law. The schools would use public funds to operate their schools, but the funds would flow through public schools boards governed in conformance with existing legislation.

Those who viewed “government regulations” and “union red tape” as the primary problems in public education, and especially members of that subset who also saw an opportunity to make a great profit with a small investment, began beating the drum for charter schools and helped enact NCLB, the biggest door-opener for their business model since it called for the creation of choices for parents who attend “failing” public schools.

No state did more to open the door to profiteers than Pennsylvania and, as Jeff Bryant writes in Common Dreams, no state has more scammers in the “virtual school” market. Mr. Bryant carefully researches his articles and does an excellent job of describing exactly how the profiteers passed seemingly innocuous legislation that enabled Pennsylvania charter schools to now collect “…over $1.8 billion annually and account for over 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding.” Like all state funding formulas, Pennsylvania’s is opaque… but with the help of fellow blogger Mark Weber (aka Jersey Jazzman) he describes the way current laws siphon money away from public schools who must education every child to charters who can exclude, say, special education students that public schools must education.

And how are those charter schools doing, you ask? Here’s Mr. Bryant’s answer:

If charter schools guaranteed some kind of education premium—a significant boost in test scores or other measure of academic achievement—then perhaps that could justify the extra costs public schools incur to provide some parents a choice. But in Pennsylvania, that’s hardly the case.

According to a recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, charter school students in Pennsylvania, when compared with their counterparts in traditional public schools, make similar progress on reading exams but fare worse in math. The study also found significant variation in performance within the charter industry—with cyber charters performing especially poorly and urban brick-and-mortar charters perhaps providing some academic benefits to African American and Hispanic students.

There is a silver lining to this outrageous example of greed, though, and it is described in the final paragraph:

In states like Pennsylvania, the upward spiraling costs are now fueling “a growing resistance to charters as any kind of answer to education problems,” Dan Doubet, executive director of Keystone Progress says. “People are catching on that inserting a private middleman into public services doesn’t diminish the costs of government.”

And since Pennsylvania is hardly the only state that opened the door to scammers (Ohio, for example might be even worse!), it’s embarrassing headlines combined with current Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ shilling for charters is compelling several Democratic Party candidates to speak out against profiteering in public education in particular ad the public sector in general. Hopefully, thing have gotten so bad they can’t get any worse…

Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris Are Right About Bernie!

June 13, 2019 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris, two leading anti-privatization activists, wrote an op ed piece for the NY Daily News titled “Bernie is Right On Charter Schools“…. and they offer lots of evidence to support Bernie Sanders’ position that charter schools need to be regulated and under the control of elected officials. They close their op ed with this:

Unfortunately, the charter industry is now overrun with scoundrels profiteering from people of color. Thank you, Bernie Sanders, for standing up and being willing to expose the scams that the charter establishment refuses to acknowledge or fix.

Thank goodness one of the 20+ candidates is speaking out forcefully against privatization and thank goodness two of the anti-privatization voices are amplifying his position.

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A Billionaire Who Gets It: Our Education System Cannot Compensate for the Injustices of Our Economic System

June 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Billionaire entrepreneur Nick Hanauer offers a mea culpa in an Atlantic article that appeared inCommon Dreams titled “Sorry, But Just Having Better Public Schools Will Not Fix America”. He opens the post with this confession:

Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

But Mr. Hanauer came to understand that this narrative lays the blame for all of society’s ills on public education without acknowledging the impact of those same ills on the schools…. and he came to conclude that the “egg” of economic dysfunction led to “chicken” of “failing schools”.

What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000…

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

By distracting us from these truths, educationism is part of the problem.

And educationism has distracted us mightily with its efficiency driven spreadsheet mentality whereby schools are “measured” and rank-ordered using seemingly precise standardized tests and other cheap and easy metrics and penalizing those schools that fall short for reasons that have nothing to do with their effectiveness and everything to do with the socio-economic factors of the children attending them. Mr. Hanauer goes on to burst other bubbles of his billionaire brethren, undercutting the narrative of the “skills gap”, the “under-educated workforce”, the need for more STEM, and the underlying belief that better schools will take care of the unarguable economic divide. And Mr. Hanauer does so with facts and data that counter the story lines embraced by the edu-philanthropists. His solution for improving public schools is one that is unsettling… and one rooted in de facto redistribution:

All of which suggests that income inequality has exploded not because of our country’s educational failings but despite its educational progress. Make no mistake: Education is an unalloyed good. We should advocate for more of it, so long as it’s of high quality. But the longer we pretend that education is the answer to economic inequality, the harder it will be to escape our new Gilded Age.

However justifiable their focus on curricula and innovation and institutional reform, people who see education as a cure-all have largely ignored the metric most predictive of a child’s educational success: household income.

Mr. Hanauer then lays out a series of facts his counterparts will, alas, be unlikely to accept and ideas they will also be unlikely to embrace:

Indeed, multiple studies have found that only about 20 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to schooling, whereas about 60 percent are explained by family circumstances—most significantly, income. Now consider that, nationwide, just over half of today’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, up from 38 percent in 2000. Surely if American students are lagging in the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills our modern economy demands, household income deserves most of the blame—not teachers or their unions.

If we really want to give every American child an honest and equal opportunity to succeed, we must do much more than extend a ladder of opportunity—we must also narrow the distance between the ladder’s rungs. We must invest not only in our children, but in their families and their communities. We must provide high-quality public education, sure, but also high-quality housing, health care, child care, and all the other prerequisites of a secure middle-class life. And most important, if we want to build the sort of prosperous middle-class communities in which great public schools have always thrived, we must pay all our workers, not just software engineers and financiers, a dignified middle-class wage.

His idea that employers could find qualified workers if they paid them more seems obvious to any student of Economics 101 in college… but in our era of outsourcing, robotics, and downsizing the profiteers seem content to displace workers in favor of accumulating profits.

Mr. Hanauer concludes his article with this Big Idea which no billionaire is likely to accept and only a handful of politicians are willing to talk about:

Educationism appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear: that we can help restore shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power. As Anand Giridharadas explains in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, narratives like this one let the wealthy feel good about ourselves. By distracting from the true causes of economic inequality, they also defend America’s grossly unequal status quo.

We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth. Fixing that problem will require wealthy people to not merely give more, but take less.

And fixing the problem will require people like me who are comfortable but not billionaires, to accept a reality described in a pin that reads: “End Economic Inequality: Tax Me”.