If the SYSTEM is Flawed, Fix the SYSTEM, Don’t Privatize It!

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The title of this post is the implicit conclusion of Michael Easterday’s post in The Hill titled “The Japanese Education System May Solve the Problems of US Public Education”. After describing the pushback Betsy DeVos faced in her appointment based on her “solution” of privatization, Mr. Easterday offers a different approach to “fixing” public education: adopting the teaching methods used in Japan… methods that were developed in the US!

If privatization approaches, such as vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and abolishing tenure haven’t provided the magic bullet to improving education, it is because they don’t directly address how we improve teaching.

What may solve the problems of American public education is what already works in Japan.

In researching the K-12 Japanese educational system, typically compared favorably to ours, Catherine Lewis, senior research scientist at Mills College, asked Japanese teachers how they learned problem-solving approaches to teaching mathematics. Reportedly Lewis reacted in disbelief when they told her that were developed by American researchers.

Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and how to Teach it to Everyone) found a similar pattern when she interviewed Akahiko Takashi, once one of Japan’s leading teachers and now Associate Professor of Elementary Math Teacher Education at DePaul University.

As Green describes in her book, Takashi came to Chicago to observe classrooms using the innovative teaching approaches of John Dewey, George Polya and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He had read about the teaching models and applied many in his own classroom, but he couldn’t find them.

“The Americans might have invented the world’s best methods for teaching math to children, but it was difficult to find anyone actually using them,” Green wrote in the New York Times in 2014.

Of course, improving teaching isn’t about improving a specific technique, it’s about creating a system that can continuously design these improvements. 

Reading these paragraphs brought to mind the work of W. Edwards Deming, an engineer who travelled to Japan to teach his approaches of total quality management to their automobile factories, approaches that resulted in Japan producing superior products that ultimately outsold US products. Deming’s methods, which called for continually revision and rethinking, were not embraced in our country where volume was deemed more important than precision. When volume is valued, a “specific technique” is applied and once it is in place within a system it is difficult to unseat. In Japanese manufacturing, the continuous improvement ethos requires that each and every technique be reviewed to determine it’s efficacy. This means that lesson plans and teaching techniques are deconstructed to see if they are achieving the intended purpose. Mr. Easterday describes this Japanese system, called “lesson study”, with the last paragraph echoing the experience of our auto industry who failed to adopt the methods Mr. Deming advocated:

In lesson study, teams of teachers research, design and test a single new lesson over several weeks. The team teaches this lesson publicly in front of the whole school, sometimes in front of hundreds of other teachers, who observe and provide feedback. Teachers share their lessons, which are aligned to a shared course of study, so that other teachers can build upon the lessons through lesson study journals.

Innovators will immediately recognize the similarity of lesson study to other design processes, such as that used by Google Ventures to develop new products, agile software development, and lean manufacturing.

This should be no surprise — the lesson study approach has many of the same intellectual roots about improving quality that Japan has applied for more than half a century.  The systematic application of the lesson study design process has allowed Japan to relentlessly improve its teaching, incorporating pedagogical insights still sit on the shelf in the U.S.

And, as Mr. Easterday notes, the privatization of our flawed system is unlikely to yield any change in our system:

If anything, privatization advocates’ proposals undermine the conditions needed for this sort of collaborative design. Improving teaching requires supporting teachers’ design collaboration, rather than having them compete for merit pay. It promotes the sharing of instructional insights across schools, rather than protecting intellectual property.

This collaborative design provides a stable work environment where teachers have autonomy to make long-term improvements, rather than eliminating due process so teachers can be fired based on the whims of a principal, administrator or an angry parent.

Privatization has not succeeded in improving education, because it does not directly address the root causes of improving teaching. We need to stop trying to do more of what doesn’t work, and start investing in improving teaching.

As noted in many posts on this blog, the biggest flaw of the “reform” movement and its ultimate endgame of privatization is the implicit embrace of the factory school model that batches students by age cohorts and uses standardized norm-referenced tests as the basis for determining “success”. Privatizing a flawed system will do nothing to improve our public schools. Changing the system itself is the best way forward.

The Opioid Epidemic Hits Schools On Multiple Levels

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

I just finished reading “The Opioid Epidemic and the Face of Long-Term Unemployment”, Yves Smith’s post in Monday’s Naked Capitalism. It draws heavily from what she accurately describes as “a must-read story at Bloomberg“, This Is the New Face of American Unemployment. The Bloomberg article profiles five examples of individuals facing long term unemployment, all of which, Ms. Smith contends, are directly or indirectly caused by addictions to opioids.

Two items related to education policy jumped out in the first profile, about a 23 year old from West Virginia who dropped out of school, got a GED, but is finding it difficult to land a job:

“….(the Bloomberg story includes) a factoid that indicts the performance of our ruling classes: “Nearly half of U.S. children now have at least one parent with a criminal record.”


As Nobel Prize winner James Heckman has found, a GED isn’t equivalent to a high school diploma. GED holders do worse in terms of lifetime earning that high school graduates. Heckman posits that the socialization of going to class makes a difference in being able to hold jobs.

When a parent has a criminal record, it is virtually impossible for that parent to secure a decent job because most employers will not hire someone with a record, especially a felony record for drug possession. Yet drug addiction is viewed by medical professionals and— in most cases— by politicians and the public as an illness. The result of criminalizing a medical condition is that those who suffer from the condition find it difficult to land a decent job, which throws them into despair, which then creates a situation where they are inclined to use drugs again. It is a vicious cycle that undercuts the ability of a parent to support his children and thereby diminishes the social mobility that education is intended to promote. The way out of this would be to expunge the criminal records of individuals who remain clean and sober for a set amount of time. This would provide an incentive for the former addict to remain clean and enable them to achieve higher earnings as a result of their hard work.

The connection of socialization and job retention is often overlooked by those who view technology-based learning as the best means of attaining a degree and those who seek to home school their children to avoid subjecting them to the “values” promoted in public education and/or the peer groups and peer they are likely to encounter in public schools. The GED is often offered as an alternative to those students who don’t fit in to school, like the gay young man profiled in the Bloomberg article. But what if schools compelled students to be inclusive instead of accepting a culture that forces LGBT students to seek an alternative to the “traditional” school? Wouldn’t such an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere benefit all children in the school? And wouldn’t such an atmosphere help reduce the possibility of students feeling the need to use drugs to deal with their despair?

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Ohio Governor Kasich Proposes Teachers Learn About the Local Economy… How Will That Work Where No Local Economy Exists?

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s post this weekend included a link to an article by Doug Livingston, Akron Beacon-Journal staff writer on Governor John Katich’s proposed mandate that teachers “…see what it’s like to work outside the classroom so they can better match their students to the needs of local employers.” How will this be accomplished?

“It could be as simple as teachers touring local business and having those conversations … to just get a better sense of what those in-demand jobs are,” said Ryan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation, which put together the group that developed the “on-site work experience” externships and about 20 other proposals in Kasich’s budget.

Asked how kindergarten teachers might benefit from touring a local business, Burgess said it’s never too young to explore a career.

For the next generation of firefighters, he said, teachers who have toured fire stations can work the experience into lessons. “As the governor would say, how do we capture the imagination of young people?”

One of the rebuttals was that schools should require that the business leaders be required to spend a day in schools so that they could understand the public school teachers’ perspective. We did such a thing in the mid 1990s in the MD district I led at the time, whereby some businessperson spent a day in the classroom and the teachers spent a day at the businessperson’s worksite. Unsurprisingly the businessmen came away with an appreciation for how difficult teaching is! You have to be at work by 7:00 AM??? You have over 100 kids a day at the HS??? You don’t have “at-will” bathroom breaks at the elementary school??? You’re on your feet five+ hours a day??? There is so much information to keep track of!!! Egads! Oh, and this was the reaction even with a teacher with them in the classroom who had prepared a skeleton lesson plan for the visiting businessperson to follow! Some of the teachers couldn’t resist pointing out that they needed to work part-time after school to help cover mortgage payments or set aside money for their kids’ educations.

In fairness to Mr. Kasich’s proposal, the exchange worked well the other way. Teachers DID see how the workplace had changed from what they either recalled (from summer temp jobs in college) or read about… But it was purely voluntary and, consequently, rewarding for both parties.

But there is one reality to pulling this off at the state level: the paperwork is DAUNTING! Worksites will require the signing of waivers (many businesses DO have non-governmental workplace regulations to follow!), some sort of structured activities for the visiting teachers to follow, and someone at some level will have to make certain that the teachers comply with the externship regulation. What concerns Becky Higgins, president of the Ohio Education Association and members more than anything is “…the apparent devaluing and extra mandates placed on teachers“. As Ms. Higgins asked:

“Are there any other licensed professionals who have to do an externship outside of their area of expertise to get their licenses approved?”

Will this idea work in Ohio… I have my doubts. I wonder how businesses will feel about finding time and space for thousands of teachers to spend time visiting? More importantly, how will districts with no industry or local businesses deal with this? Will teachers spend time observing in local convenience stores? Or shadowing a local contractor? Or will they need to trave to the nearest town that has a Walmart? Or what if the only local enterprise is a coal mine? Or a military base? Or another government agency? And lastly, I wonder how some employers will feel about inviting a union member to work in their midst?

NY Times Article Offers Glimpse of Public Education’s Fight Ahead Under DeVos… and it Will NOT Be Easy!

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Yamiche Alcindor’s NYTimes article on Betsy DeVos’ first week as Secretary of Education is titled “Rough First Week Gives Betsy DeVos Glimpse of the Fight Ahead”. It could just as easily been titled “Betsy’s First Week Gives Public Education a Glimpse of the Fight Ahead”, and the fight will be daunting!

Ms. Alcindor described some of Ms. DeVos mis-steps, including one doozy where she told a conservative news outlet that that teachers at a DC school she visited were “wonderful” but their “attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child.” Unsurprisingly, this created a tweet storm where several DC teachers and the ex-chancellor of DC schools took her to task to the point where Ms. DeVos was compelled to send a tweet clarification: “Great teachers deserve freedom and flexibility, not to constantly be on the receiving end of government dictates.” 

As noted in earlier posts on interviews she conducted, Ms. DeVos restricted her interviews to friendly news sources. But the quotes emanating from those interviews, like the tweet she sent to teachers after her visit, indicate her intentions to scale back government oversight, even though it is needed now more than ever. The penultimate paragraph indicates where DeVos’ thinking is on her department:

She did say that the Education Department has historically helped protect students and keep them safe, citing segregation and providing equal opportunities for girls’ athletics, but she said there were few current issues that warranted federal intervention.

I guess that problems with racial and gender equity are all taken care of and the inequities with regard to funding, internet access, and opportunity are all taken care of as well. Nothing to see here… move along…

AZ Superintendent’s Letter to Editor Shows Where “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” Lead

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Sierra Vista AZ Superintendent Kriss Hagerl’s letter to the editor of her local newspaper the Sierra Vista Herald, describes the how AZ’s proposed “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” would play out in her school district. Having downloaded, read, and bookmarked the Center for Media and Democracy’s (CMD) 2016 report on ALEC’s privatization movement, it is evident that AZ legislators are proposing a bill of the “scholarship genre”, described in the CMD report follows:

A handful of ALEC bills claim to offer “scholarships” for sympathetic populations—like students with disabilities or foster kids—but are actually targeted voucher programs that act as the proverbial “camel’s nose under the tent” to advance a privatization agenda.

One ALEC bill, the Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, carves out vouchers for students with special needs, regardless of family income. Nine states—Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island—considered similar legislation in 2015, or expanded existing laws. This bill uses taxpayer funds to send vulnerable children to for-profit schools not bound by federal and state legal requirements to meet a student’s special needs that public schools must follow.

Another ALEC bill, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, would create a voucher program specifically for children in foster care, and was introduced in Missouri.

Opportunity Scholarships,” introduced in four states—Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New Mexico—earmark vouchers for students in schools deemed “failing.”

The similar Smart Start Scholarship Program, introduced in four states—Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Tennessee—offers vouchers for pre-school and kindergarten on a sliding scale starting with families eligible for reduced price school lunches. The strategy with these bills is to use the notion of helping poor families as a first step towards expanding taxpayer-funded, private “scholarships” to any family, regardless of their ability to afford private school.

ALEC and its allies have additionally sought to move away from the term “vouchers” and towards “education savings accounts,” even though the impact is ultimately the same: to shift taxpayer funds from public schools to private or religious institutions.

Versions of the ALEC Education Savings Account Act were introduced in seven states—Iowa, Illinois, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—in 2015. The bill subtracts funds directly from state school aid and deposits these funds into savings accounts for low-income students that can be used to pay private school expenses.

And how would this bill affect Sierra Vista, AZ schools? Ms. Hagerl explains that uncertainties regarding enrollments make it impossible to develop budgets since her district must educate all children while “…private schools can choose to be open or can shut their doors at any time.”  Moreover,  public schools cannot say “we are full; you will have to go somewhere else” nor can they turn away students who are disabled or disruptive. And most unjust is the fact that the private schools and homeschool parents who are siphoning money from public schools do not need to meet the accountability standards established for public schools. Ms. Hagerl writes:

A parent may accept Empowerment Scholarship dollars for their child on a yearly basis and never have to demonstrate their child’s learning in any way. I am at a loss as to how the state has decided to provide taxpayer money from the state’s general fund to parents who opt to take their child out of a public school and send them to a private school or home school them in a program that does not have to keep track of academic progress or be held accountable for student growth and success.

This issue is hitting close to home for me since the NH legislature is considering SB 193, which would effectively accomplish the same ends as the bills under consideration in AZ… and the bill is currently labelled as “ought to pass” and, according to the fiscal note at the end, will have no impact on state finances. Why? Because no additional STATE funds are needed to implement the bill!

After writing this post I intend to be in touch with my local delegation, urging them to oppose this bill, which would clearly have an adverse impact on NH public schools across the state. In the meantime, I urge any readers of this blog to see if your State legislature is proposing “scholarship” bills that get the camel’s nose under the tent…. Because it is evident that privatization and vouchers— and the destruction of “government schools” are the ultimate goals of the legislatures— and not just in AZ and NH!


Global Capitalism = Borderless Economy = Scary Results

February 19, 2017 Leave a comment

On Thursday, Diane Ravitch posted an excerpt of a report from Buzzfeed that described how Betsy DeVos’ brother, Eric Prince, was expanding his services into China. An unapologetic global capitalist, according to a former associate

“He’s been working very, very hard to get China to buy into a new Blackwater. He’s hell bent on reclaiming his position as the world’s preeminent private military provider.”

Given our current administration’s inconsistency in enforcing the laws on the books and it’s consistency in acting on behalf of its donor base, it would not be surprising for them to look the other way on this issue or even modify the law to enable Mr. Prince to expand his business abroad on the logic that any government regulation of free enterprise is necessarily a bad thing. After reading this post, I left the following comment:

All of the corporations are eager to sell their products to anyone who will buy them and equally eager to locate their headquarters in whatever State will charge them the lowest taxes. As a result these corporations are not beholden to any government and they are disdainful of any government that tries to regulate them.

When any corporation that manufactures commodities that we want to buy inexpensively locates its headquarters offshore, our politicians shrug and say they are powerless to do anything about it. When those same corporations use de facto off-shore slave labor to provide the cheap flat screen TVs, electronic gadgets, and other products our consumers love to purchase our politicians shrug and say they are powerless to do anything about it. When those same corporations seek to build factories in countries with lax environmental laws and consequently pollute water and foul the atmosphere, our politicians shrug and say they are powerless to do anything about it.

Eric Prince’s “product” is “protection”… and like his fellow global capitalists he is eager to sell his product to anyone who will buy it. He doesn’t care if the buyer is a despot or a democratic leader because he and his shareholders only care about the bottom line. And again, our politicians shrug and say they are powerless to do anything about it.

It isn’t too difficult to connect the dots and see a dystopian future unfolding as Eric Prince eagerly hires “protectors” who want to avoid working for the slave wages being paid in factories… and those “protectors” who are thrilled to avoid the drudgery of the factory floor are not only OK with the “new world order”, they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep that “new world order” in place. And once again, our politicians shrug and say they are powerless to do anything about it.

I hope that we don’t come to the point where an interlocking directorate of global CEOs formulate a global governance structure that is indifferent to borders and beholden to an ever shrinking number of shareholders. The best way to avoid such an outcome is to vote out of office any candidate who shrugs and says they are powerless to do anything about it. There are steps they can take, the first of which is to explain to voters why it is important to regulate capitalism so that the dystopia outlined above to not come to pass.

MAYBE public education could help… but it is unlikely given our current leadership.


My Open Letter to Frank Edelblut

February 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Pasted below is an open letter I composed for newly appointed NH Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut. I submitted it to the local newspaper who indicated they might find space for it when I emailed it last week. As of today it had not been published… and so I am prospectively posting it for tomorrow. If it doesn’t find its way into print I will mail it to Mr. Edelblut when I return from a weekend trip.

Dear Commissioner Edelblut-

Congratulations on your appointment to Commissioner of Education in New Hampshire. Earlier this month when the Governor nominated you, I wrote to the Executive Council during their deliberations to express my concern about your appointment as Commissioner. As a retired public school superintendent I felt that your lack of experience as a teacher, administrator, board member, or public school parent would place you at a decided disadvantage given the complex challenges facing the New Hampshire Department of Education. Now that you are appointed, I want to offer some thoughts on how you might proceed in your new assignment.

Until a few months ago No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT) effectively dictated state educational practices. With the passage of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), however, states have the responsibility for curriculum design, for the development of student assessments, and for setting the parameters for school accountability. This provides the State Department of Education with an opportunity to transform public schools in New Hampshire in a way that has not been possible for over a decade.

Given this opportunity to replace the top-down system that was imposed by the Federal government in years past, I would encourage you to use a grassroots approach. I urge you to spend as much time as possible in face-to-face meetings with educators, School Board members, and parents to get their views on how to improve public schools. I know that your predecessors made a point of attending Superintendents’ regional meetings and visiting schools that had had exemplary programs, and I know their presence was always appreciated. In those meetings and local visitations we learned from each other and developed a mutual respect and understanding. I am certain the School Boards Association would welcome an opportunity to meet with you to describe the challenges they face governing schools, meeting existing standards, and managing their budgets. I am also confident the NEA and AFT leaders would welcome an opportunity to share their views on how the State department might help teachers succeed in the classroom.

After meeting with those working in the field, I recommend that you draw on the expertise of the State Department staff and a team of practitioners to help develop an accountability system that is less reliant on standardized tests. This revised accountability system will help you define the direction for public schools in the coming years and help school boards and administrators develop long and short term goals accordingly. Under NCLB and RTTT, scores on standardized achievement tests linked to the Common Core were the primary measure of student and school success. These scores determined if school was “in need of improvement” or “failing”. As the scores required for a passing grade rose, almost every school in the state fell short of the mark. Your predecessor, Dr. Virginia Barry and her staff resisted this over-reliance on tests and worked with educators across the state to develop alternatives to these one-size-fits-all assessments mandated by NCLB and RTTT. By capitalizing on their earlier efforts, you can expedite the development of a new accountability plan, one that will not require a complete change in direction or philosophy.

As I am sure you realize from your experience as a legislator, the provision of equitable state funding for schools is an ongoing problem in New Hampshire. The reliance on property tax means that school districts with a strong tax base can raise adequate funds for schools without overburdening homeowners. At the same time, school districts in less affluent communities struggle to hire and retain qualified teachers and maintain their facilities, which in some cases are in dire need of improvement. Should the State be willing to raise more funds for public education or should federal funds become more flexible, I urge you to advocate for full funding of the formula designed to provide equity for those communities who cannot raise sufficient funds through property taxes. This would not only address a longstanding disparity in educational opportunities for children in the state, but also ensure that small rural schools and schools in poverty stricken communities can survive.

I read with great interest that you wanted to move toward a more “personalized” education system where students “could earn credits in traditional classroom settings, through online courses or vocational settings”. As I trust you learned in your recent meetings with members of the State Board, those opportunities already exist for New Hampshire students. Since 2005 high schools have been able to grant credits based on the fulfillment of competencies. By 2008-09, every high school in the state had created their own sets of competencies and they were authorized to award credits outside the traditional classroom based on the mastery of those competencies. Two years ago, EdNext, a publication of the conservative Hoover Foundation, rightfully hailed New Hampshire as a “trailblazer” in the development of this competency based education program, which is the prerequisite for developing an effective personalized learning system. If you haven’t done so, I recommend you read the article by Julia Freeland. It explains the remarkable accomplishments of the State Department of Education to date and provides a good description of the challenges they are facing in scaling up their personalized learning initiative. Drawing on the information in that article and feedback from administrators and teachers in the field, you should be able to build on the foundation Dr. Barry and her staff and fulfill the promise of a wholly personalized education system.

I know that you are an advocate for charter schools. When you visit with school board members, administrators, teachers and parents, you will discover that many who are affiliated with public education also support charter schools. The Department of Education webpage lists 26 charter schools that are governed by publicly elected boards or authorized by the State Board. I believe local school districts and the State Board would support the expansion of charter schools to meet the needs of students who are currently struggling in school. However, I do not believe School Boards, educators, or taxpayers want to see funds directed to for-profit, sectarian, or un-regulated charter schools. They expect all publicly funded schools to be held to the same levels of academic and financial accountability as their local public schools.

In closing, the Commissioner of Education does not “offer a product” or “run a business”. The Commissioner is responsible for overseeing a government agency that delivers a public good, a government agency that develops and implements policies and regulations designed to ensure that the state provides all children in the state with an equal opportunity to receive a high quality education. You are fortunate to have a State Department staff that is committed to this mission and fortunate to be working with School Boards, administrators and teachers who want children to succeed in school and in life. I think you will find that leading schools is as rewarding as it is difficult. I wish you well!



Wayne Gersen