Conservatives Invite Public School Teachers to Blow the Whistle on Frivolous Spending… and the Plan Backfires

February 14, 2018 1 comment

A recent Dallas Morning News story by Corbett Smith described the hilarious and heartwarming unintended consequences of an effort by a conservative anti-public education group to enlist teachers in a whistleblowing campaign. When Empower Texans, a powerful conservative group in that state, attempted to solicit examples of the “misuse of school district funds” in the State, they instead sparked an effort by public school teachers to provide countless examples of how their colleagues selflessly donate time, energy, food, and clothing to school children who were experiencing problems at home. Here are some examples Mr. Smith cited in his article:

“Hey, @EmpowerTexans, I have a colleague who took a kid’s clothes home (in an inconspicuous backpack) every day & washed them for her AND brought it back filled with snacks [because] the kid lived in her mom’s car.”

“I’m #blowingthewhistle on a teacher of mine that gave me a shoulder to lean on when I was crying, food when I was hungry, and a second family. Teachers don’t get enough credit for what they do. They do more than teach. They change lives.”

“@EmpowerTexans I am #blowingthewhistle on one of my public school teacher friends. She has purchased several pairs of cool tennis shoes for some of her students. The kids aren’t positive who they are from. They just magically end up in their locker. This way no one knows but them.”

Public schools do a terrible job of trumpeting their successes, which occur on a daily basis and are too often taken for granted by teachers, administrators, parents, and students. If “success” was determined by the acts of kindness described above instead of by standardized achievement tests we would be hearing far more heartwarming stories and far fewer tales of woe and despair.

 

 

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The Trump Infrastructure Plan Privatizes Public Services, Relies on Profit Motive to Define Projects

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Over the past several days, countless articles have appeared either touting President Trump’s so-called “Infra-structure Plan” or calling it out as flim-flam. Whether one views it favorably or not depends in large measure on how one views the notion of the market as a force for good… and whether one believes that market forces have applicability to public projects. As anyone who reads this blog regularly realizes, I am skeptical about the marketplace as a positive force and I see some huge limitations to the proposal… especially as it applies to public schools.

First and foremost, as Valerie Strauss notes in her blog post, the reporting on the Trump administration’s “Plan” has downplayed one key fact: the Democrats assessment of the 2019 proposed budget indicates that it “calls for more than $240 billion in federal funding cuts to current infrastructure programs, which is more than he proposes spending on new infrastructure.” 

Secondly, the recent tax bill will make it increasingly difficult for state and local governments to raise the matching funds envisioned by the federal government.

Thirdly, if private funds are the source, there must be a means of making a profit in order to attract investors. While road and/or bridge repairs could be funded by tolls, it is hard to fathom how school facilities could be upgraded while collecting an analogous “user fee” from students or parents.

Finally, no one in either party seems to be wiling to tell American voters the truth: if we ever hope to find the estimated $2,000,000,000,000 needed for infrastructure upgrades in the next decade we will need to raise taxes… and the public seems unwilling to do so. Better for them to believe that by cutting “waste fraud and abuse” it will be possible to fix the roads, repair the dilapidated schools, and replace the crumbling bridges.

Blogger Peter Greene Notes that Neo-liberals and Friedman-ites are Kindred Spirits

February 13, 2018 Leave a comment

In many previous blog posts I’ve lamented the fact that neither Presidential candidate in 2016 offered much in the way of hope for change in public education policy… and when I read Peter Greene, who’s blog Curmudgucation, post yesterday about the Center for American Progress’s (CAP’s) latest white paper celebrating the fact that under ESSA many states are continuing the “reform” initiatives I was even more convinced that was the case. CAP is often help up as a counter to the right wing think tanks funded by the likes of the Koch brothers. But, as Mr. Greene points out, there isn’t much difference between what the neo-liberal “reformers” beloved of CAP want to do to public schools and what the pro-voucher Friedman-ites want to do.

Mr. Greene described the CAP’s leadership under John Podesta as “…a holding tank for Clinton politicians and bureaucrats who were biding their time, cooking up policy advocacy, while waiting for Hillary to take her rightful place in DC”, citing the unyielding support for the Common Core, for state intervention when a district “fails” based on successive standardized tests, and/or the imposition of “alternative governance structures” if the struggles seem to emanate from Board mismanagement. Mr. Greene has particular scorn for the SIG grants that were embraced by the Obama administration, grants that imposed solutions from the top down and prescribed how funds would be used in schools:

We have the results of the School Improvement Grants used by the Obama administration to “fix” schools, and the results were that SIG didn’t accomplish anything (other than, I suppose, keeping a bunch of consultants well-paid). SIG also did damage because it allowed the current administration and their ilk to say, “See? Throwing money at schools doesn’t help.” But the real lesson of SIG, which came with very specific Fix Your School instructions attached, was that when the state or federal government try to tell a local school district exactly how things should be fixed, instead of listening to the people who live and work there, nothing gets better. That same fundamental flaw is part of the DNA of the takeover/turnaround approach.

The “takeover/turnaround” model— like the voucher model— implies that educators and elected community members are incapable of solving the “problems” in a school, “problems” that are defined by stagnant scores on standardized tests that often vary over time. This just in, CAP: the problems children bring with them school have an impact on their schools and need to be addressed in tandem with the academic program.

 

National Review Assessment of DC School District’s Flaws is On the Mark. It’s Solutions? Not so Much

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

I keep going against hope that some day the conservative thinkers will come to the conclusion that public schools will only be successful when we stop pretending that their problems can be solved by “more accountability” and “more competition”. As I read the first 90% of the National Review’s op ed piece by Max Eden and Lindsey Burke, “Fraud and Failure in DC Public Schools“, I thought that was going to be their conclusion… but instead they parroted the canard that “parental choice” is the only way forward.

The opening paragraphs could have been written by Diane Ravitch or any one of the bloggers she quotes from. It describes how the use of metrics like graduation rates, test scores, and suspensions are manipulated by enterprising administrators in an effort to “prove” their schools are improving. And this paragraph captures the flaws of the current “accountability” systems that are based on easily manipulated metrics:

None of this should be surprising. DCPS’s “accountability” system essentially requires principals to post impossible statistical improvements. You can’t make student behavior better through a dictate banning traditional school discipline. You can’t change life trajectories by ordering teachers to graduate students who fail their classes. Do things the old fashioned way — by offering teachers support, encouraging students and giving them structure, and making incremental improvements to curriculum and instruction — and you likely won’t achieve the so-called “transformational” change you’d need to be deemed a successful principal.

Right on! Do things the “old school” way by “offering teachers support” and “giving students structure”! If this appeared in Diane Ravitch’s column it would inevitably conclude with a paragraph calling for more equitable allocation of resources and especially more support for the children raised in poverty. But this was the National Review and so instead of trusting the government to level the playing field and improve schools, we should “trust the parents” by giving them choice.

Yet to skeptics, school choice is problematic because there’s not enough “accountability.” If the “accountability” they seek is metric-chasing mandates, then its absence in school-choice programs is a virtue, not a fault. But to most parents, “accountability” means having a school that’s responsive to their child’s needs. The way to make that happen is to give parents choices, which will encourage schools to pursue safety and academic quality with integrity. True accountability won’t come from forcing school leaders to squeeze schools into producing statistical improvements. True accountability will come only when parents and the community, rather than clueless bureaucrats, are the ones putting pressure on schools.

My hunch is that the National Review writers never worked in or attended a school where parents and the community are not putting ANY pressure on the schools… except for them to keep taxes low and children off the streets. The communities and neighborhoods where this attitude is prevalent are the ones whose schools require some kind of pressure to improve… albeit a slow relentless pressure as opposed to the quick fixes beloved of “reformers”.

I am not naive enough think that the National Review will ever commit to “throwing more money at schools”… but I DO keep hoping they’ll at least see the commonsense value of providing more support to working parents— especially single parents— who are working as hard as they can to make ends meet. When the Betsy DeVos’ of this world talk about parents making an informed choice, they tend to base that recommendation on their experience as children and parents and they tend to believe that everyone else has the same wherewithal as they do when it comes to having enough time to make an informed choice. If that day ever comes, choice might make sense. But without the time and economic resources to make an informed choice, the whole pretext of “choice” is bogus.

 

What Inequitable Funding Looks Like On the Ground… and How it Diminishes Opportunities for Change

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Last week Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss posted an open letter from the faculty of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, a high school modeled after Outward Bound’s approach to learning. The title of Ms. Strauss’ post was “This is What Inadequate Funding at a Public School Looks Like and Feels Like— as Told by an Entire Faculty“, and it was sobering to see just how spreadsheet analyses play out in real life.

The budget cuts in large districts like NYC have to be administered in as fair and evenhanded basis as possible, which inevitably requires someone in a business office to use staffing ratios to serve as a proxy for “equity”. But an unconventional program like Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School requires more teachers tone successful because it requires teachers to have time to collaborate with each other, to confer with small groups of students, to accompany students on field work projects in the city, and to mentor students one-to-one. Each of these programs became increasingly difficult to sustain as the city budget cut its per pupil allocations to schools four out of seven years since the school opened. But the problems for the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School go beyond per pupil cuts. Reading between the lines, the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School was effectively penalized for not being a traditional high school, as these paragraphs illustrate:

When we appealed this year’s budget cuts, the city audited our budget and told us that we had a dozen more teachers than we needed. We were dumbfounded: with 34 students per class and 100-120 students per teacher, we have too many teachers?

We have cut the planning time among teachers that permits us to work together and bring our best to classrooms. While we thankfully remain well above the contractual standard of 45-minute-a-day planning periods, we have seen the time diminish steeply some years. Our special-education teachers, who manage a caseload of students with individual needs in addition to providing differentiated instruction in classrooms, have increasingly asked: “How can we adequately serve our neediest students when we already feel like we’re spread too thin?”

This year we can no longer afford to provide free after-school programming, despite our belief that all students deserve access to a rich after-school program.

Since we began charging students to participate in after-school activities, our 30 clubs from last year plummeted to nine. Gone are Model U.N., Jazz Ensemble, Photography Club, Yoga, Outdoor Club, Live Poets Society, Dance Club, Flag Football. Saddened by the change, one eighth-grader innocently asked, “Can’t everyone just keep the school open for free?”

The truth is, many of us are doing just that.

The city’s audit speaks volumes about the expectations when it comes to changing from the traditional format. Thou shalt operate school within a seven hour time frame,  thou shalt avoid any variances from the standard CBO, thou shalt stick to academics and forget about “clubs” unless you can find a way to raise money for them. The letter was published in the context of the recent federal cuts, which are going to hurt city schools serving children raised in poverty even more! As the faculty’s open letter indicates:

In the wake of debates over the latest federal tax bill passed in December, we also wish to point out that the fate of our schools is tied to our taxes. Our school lost Title 1 funding when school funds tied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were not renewed. In New York City, 60 percent or more of a school’s students must come from households whose incomes qualify them for free lunch before the school receives a single cent of additional funds.

The latest tax plan gives families a tax cut to attend private schools, a proposal that caters to our wealthiest families while harming investment in public schools. Likewise, the controversy over the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT), absent from the original Senate bill, has enormous implications for schools: a 2011 report from the Center on Education Policy estimated that the complete elimination of state and local tax deductions in 2009 would have slashed public school funding by at least $16.5 billion.

At some juncture the dedicated teachers in the Metropolitan Expeditionary School will see a want ad for a job in the suburbs that would offer them the chance to develop a similar program at a much higher wage and with assured funding for the foreseeable future. Teachers want to teach and don’t want to do so under a perpetual cloud. Don’t be surprised to read a de facto obituary for schools like the Metropolitan Expeditionary School in the years ahead. Their replacement? No excuses high school that schedule six classes of 40 students a day plus lunch for students and at least 200 students per teacher. It works well on a spread sheet….

 

DC Schools Testing Scandal Proof of the Immutability of Campbell’s Law

February 11, 2018 Leave a comment

For the past several days, report-after-report has emerged from Washington DC where the public schools “fudged” the accountability data they were submitting in a way that made them look good. Here’s an excerpt from one of the latest reports of such “fudging”, which was brought to light by the local ABC station WJLA:

The DC Council Education committee held an accountability hearing with the DC Public Schools Chancellor, the State Superintendent and the Executive Director of the Charter School Board Thursday morning.

An investigative report from WJLA revealed the recording of a DCPS principal, telling teachers that the DCPS central office pressured principals to pass more students,” pointed out Councilmember Robert White.

White referenced a secretly recorded conversation with Roosevelt STAY High School’s principal in 2015 directing teachers to ignore DC attendance law, first reported by ABC7 News Monday.

“Here’s the thing: we have to pass and promote. If we are not then what are we here for? I’m sitting in a meeting to tell the chancellor you’ve got to give me more resources. I can’t sit in the meeting with the chancellor and I’m with big stats in red,” said Principal Young in the recording.

White called the recording, “a clear indication of widespread fraud in DCPS that was only brought to light because of investigative journalism.”

A few days ago, Diane Ravtich wrote a post on the immutability of Campbell’s Law, which was formulated by psychologist Donald Campbell at the end of the 1900s. Here’s the law in its entirety:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

The Roosevelt STAY High School Principal’s directive to “pass and promote” illustrates the immutability of Campbell’s Law… and here’s the way to avoid Campbell’s Law coming into play: avoid the use of ANY quantitative social indicator for social decision-making. 

Virginia Superintendent Describes Plight of School Districts Across America: High Needs and Lower Funding

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I read a Virginia Pilot Online column written by James Roberts, the Chesapeake (VA) Superintendent of Schools, that could have been written by any superintendent in our nation. The specifics of Mr. Roberts’ plight might vary from state to state, but the basic outline of his description of the funding challenges his district faces are the same anywhere. Here’s the problem he faces in Virginia:

=> From 2009 to 2017, the total state operating budget increased by 40 percent. During the same period, the funding Chesapeake Public Schools received from the state decreased by 2.7 percent.

=> Thanks to the recession, we have a backlog of capital projects — HVAC projects, roof replacements, other modernizations and replacements, new tracks, and yes, stadiums.

=> The state doesn’t provide any money for capital needs to school divisions. That funding falls completely on each locality.

=> Now that there is some recovery in local funding, we can work on some capital improvement projects, but we must prioritize. We can’t put the need for a new football stadium ahead of the large backlog of HVAC repairs and roof replacements. That wouldn’t be the best use of the money we have available. However, as long as we depend only on local funding, we will never catch up with all our needs.

=> Now local school divisions, including Chesapeake, are facing a major shortage of teachers. Competition among divisions is fierce. We have had only minimal solutions at best. The real problem with low pay for teachers in Virginia lies with state funding. Without realistic, sustainable state funding, our teacher pay won’t attract quality candidates into the profession, and good teachers are key to the success of our core responsibility.

=> And…. competition between our own operating needs (mainly pay for teaching and support staff) and our capital needs (such as roof, HVAC systems and stadiums) will only increase.

Unfortunately, this algorithm for internal competition among local needs is nothing new. I wrote a similar column to this when I was Superintendent in rural Maine in the early 1980s, in the Seacoast region of NH in the mid-1980s, in Western MD in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, in Upstate NY in the late 1990s though early 2000s, and in the Upper Connecticut River Valley in the early 200os. But I did see a major difference among the districts I led. The districts I led in NH and the one in Upstate NY I led were more affluent than those in ME and MD. Consequently the operating needs (pay for teaching and support staff) were not as urgent and, as a result, the districts did not have the same kinds of staffing shortages as many of my colleagues encountered. Moreover, as the burden for facilities upgrades fell increasingly to local districts, the tax base in the relatively affluent districts was able to fund building improvements for more easily than the less affluent districts. Finally, in the affluent districts there was a core of parents and community members who rallied the importance of maintaining high-quality schools, and that cadre would help the local board persuade voters to support bond referenda when they were needed to ensure that facilities were kept in good shape and support budgets that kept our operating costs relatively high on a per pupil basis. This phenomenon of local support for schools in affluent districts being greater than local support in less affluent districts results in the rich getting richer and the poor falling further behind. And when the state fails to offset this phenomenon, the result is an ever widening economic disparity.

There was a time when state legislatures and the Federal government took steps to address this by adjusting state formulas for the distribution of funds and by providing “compensatory education” funds. But as money for public education diminished at the state and federal level, the funding formulas did not have the same impact. And once President Reagan’s declaration that “government is the problem” and “taxes are confiscatory” took hold in both political parties, funding equity was no longer seen as a priority… and the algorithm for internal competition among local needs became a reality for all districts in our country.

Mr. Roberts’ solution to this is to call for an increase in state funding for the infrastructure needs his district has. It seems obvious to me that there is another solution: an influx of federal dollars to help districts address unarguable needs like the upgrade of HVAC systems, the replacement of roofs, and the installation of the infrastructure required to provide all students with equitable access to technology. If a local or national business wants to make a name for themselves, they can offer to fund tracks, stadiums, and gymnasiums. But the notion that a local or national business will offer to fund core infrastructure needs is far-fetched at best…. and the notion that local taxpayers in poor districts will ever be able to find local funds to fix their facilities is downright delusional…. and the panacea of “choice”? Don’t get me started!