Posts Tagged ‘Governance’

The Foundation Conundrum: Do We Accept Donations That Help Public Schools or Not?

September 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I wrote a post in response to an article written by Lisa Haver in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The post discussed the possibility that some donations from some billionaires might be worthy of consideration despite the fact that they were offered by “unqualified” individuals. The following is a comment I left on Diane Ravitch’s blog in response to her reaction to the same article:

Until we get a change in thinking in our country about the role of government, we are going to be stuck with plutocrats determining where investments should be made in the public good. As this Slate article from 2006 notes (see link below), we’ve been through this before at the turn of the 20th Century… and the result was the construction of libraries in many small towns across America, the donation of lands for several national parks, and the creation of foundations whose funding sources were the result of exploitative practices by plutocrats who short-changed their employees and the government because they believed they had a clearer understanding of the needs of the country. 

I am no fan of the plutocrats… but I am open to the idea that in some cases their intentions are pure (i.e. see the billions Mr. Gates spent to eliminate polio) and am open to the notion that some of their ideas might have merit (i.e. advances in technology, algorithms and brain science that are being exploited by market researchers could be applied to education).

Here’s a conundrum: If billionaires like Ms. Chan and Ms. Jobs are offering additional resources to public education should we reject the money under all circumstances? I don’t have a clear answer… yet… but I do appreciate the libraries Mr. Carnegie provided and the National Parks the Rockefellers gave to our country.

A footnote: to the best of my knowledge no one in the international medical community complained that Bill Gates had no training in medicine and therefore had no business tackling polio… And while it might be possible that his investment portfolio included some stocks in medicine that enriched him, I don’t believe he was driven by the profit motive.


Chan Zuckerberg, Lorene Jobs, and Joel Barker’s Rule About Paradigms

September 18, 2017 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize, I am no fan of billionaire plutocrats who attempt to make a profit from public services… which makes this blog offering a qualified defense of Priscilla Chan and Lorene Jobs something of an outlier. And given that this defense is in the context of an article opposing the two billionaire’s efforts to “reform” Philadelphia public schools, (see several posts lamenting the sorry state of public schools in my former hometown) it’s even more of an outlier!

The post was prompted by an op ed piece by Lisa Haver, a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools lamenting the impact of two billionaires on public education policy in Philadelphia. Ms. Haver provides a brief background on each of the women and a brief description of the ideas they want to “impose” on teachers, with her commentary on their limited qualifications edited out:

Priscilla Chan is a physcian and wife of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, now the world’s fifth wealthiest person. Laurene Jobs is the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and the world’s fourth wealthiest woman. Neither has a degree in education or any experience teaching in public schools, but both have embarked on massive projects to impose their ideological visions of education on schoolchildren across the country.

The recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is funding the development and distribution of software that would create an online profile of each student’s “strengths, needs, motivations, and progress” and may, according to a June Education Week article, “help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs while also supporting a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional and physical development.”

…Meanwhile, CZI is investing in lobbying for legislation that would enable the imposition of this unproven program in schools and districts across the country in the same way the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation successfully lobbied for the use of Common Core standards in all 50 states before they had been tested in a pilot program.

Laurene Jobs… and her XQ Institute bought an hour on the four major TV networks to simulcast a star-studded (but not educator-studded) extravanganza  to hawk her plan to “reimagine” the country’s high schools — mostly by using more technology… (and) When you run a technology company, not surprisingly, the answer to everything, including the things you know nothing about, is more technology.

I share Ms. Haver’s concern about CZI’s investments in legislation without any evidence that the programs CZI is advocating work, and I share her dismay that these programs are not emerging from qualified classroom teachers. But I also realize that in many cases the best ideas about how to change the dominant paradigm come from those outside of the system. The notion that paradigms are changed most often by outsiders is one of the cardinal principles of paradigm change that Joel Barker discovered in his groundbreaking work in the 1980s and 1990s.

I am willing to accept the possibility that neither Ms. Chan nor Ms. Jobs are seeking profits with their efforts to improve education and I DO believe that advances in technology, algorithms and brain science that are being exploited by market researchers should be applied to public education. Finally, I would prefer that such exploitation be introduced by non-profit foundations and NOT by private corporations seeking to exploit children in the name of profits. The fact that the source of funding for these foundations is from the spouses of billionaires instead of government funded researchers or publicly funded colleges and universities is unfortunate… but the fact that the funds are being invested in public education and not for-profit charter schools is a step in the right direction.

My bottom line: I hope that those who oppose change driven by those “unqualified to teach” based on certification standards might be open to ideas provided by “outsiders” whose hearts are in the right place no matter their source of revenue. In this era, we need billionaires who support the principles of public education more than ever.


Interesting Reporting on Gallup Poll from Right Side of Aisle

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

While I try diligently to keep politics out of my blog, it is increasingly difficult to do so given the slant various news outlets show in their reporting on cold facts. The CNS News report on the recent Gallup poll is a classic case in point. The article by Michael W. Chapman published by that conservative news outlet has this headline:

Poll: Only 36% of Americans Confident in U.S. Public Schools

The article does note, however, that this “… is a six-percentage-point increase from 2016 and marks the highest confidence rating in eight years”. The headline was surprising, though, given that the Gallup organization played into a narrative a conservative organization might like!

“The boost in public school confidence this year is part of an uptick in the average confidence rating (35%) across all institutions that Gallup measures,” reported the polling company.  “Public school confidence ranked second in positive year-over-year change among 15 institutions tested in the June survey.”

“Eleven institutions received a confidence boost from 2016, largely attributable to rising confidence among Republicans, which might be ascribed to the election of President Donald Trump,” said Gallup.

It is distressing to think that simply replacing President Obama with President Trump made that much difference among Republicans… but is IS a sign that politics and public education are hopelessly intertwined!

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This Just In: NJ Sees the Light! Restores Local Control in Newark. I Await Reformers’ Rebuke

September 14, 2017 Leave a comment

The headline for David Chen’s Tuesday’s NYTimes article on September 12 doesn’t acknowledge defeat for reformers, but it DOES mean a victory for democracy:

After More Than 20 Years, Newark to Regain Control of Its Schools

While the headline doesn’t acknowledge a defeat for “reformers, this part of Mr. Chen’s does:

…the decision to give authority back to the city is in many ways a recognition that state control is an idea whose time has passed. Around the country, 28 other states enacted similar policies, fueled by a desire to hold districts more accountable.

In handing the control back to the city, the State declared victory by citing the fact that the takeover ended what a judge 20 years ago identified as a situation where”... “nepotism, cronyism and the like” had precipitated “abysmal” student performances and “failure on a very large scale.”

The State ended the “…nepotism, cronyism and the like” but in doing so lined the pockets of many for profit enterprises, experienced horrific deficits, and many unsuccessful attempts to make substantial improvements to performance as measured by test scores, graduation rates, and attendance data. It wasn’t until Ras Baraka took over as mayor three years ago and forged a solid working relationship with the state appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, that things started to get better. Mr. Baraka used $10,000,000 of the $100,000,000 donated by Mark Zuckerberg to “finance a network of “community schools,”…to provide health care and social services beyond classroom hours”, an action that increases community engagement and ultimately made the transition away from State control possible.

As Mr. Chen noted in his article, Newark was the second city to get a release from State control. Jersey City preceded them… and their mayor had nothing good to say about the impact of the State:

But (Jersey City mayor) Mr. Fulop gives little credit to the state. “Those things converging have helped the school system gradually get better; it has nothing to do with the State of New Jersey’s policies,” Mr. Fulop said. “You wouldn’t find anybody who points to state control and says, thankfully the state was here.  

Mr. Baraka, among others, is hopeful that when the transition is complete, the city will have learned its lesson.

“Local control means that you’re in charge now — you can’t cuss out people now unless you’re cussing yourself out,” he said. “Stop thinking about us versus them, because us is the them.”

Democracy prevails over corporatism. Here’s hoping the voters in Newark make certain they elect responsive and responsible board members. If they do, they will continue to thrive.


Back to School Means Teachers, Parents Dig Deeper Into Their Pockets… Taxpayers? Not So Much

September 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Philadelphia public school teacher Jan Cohan’s op ed article in described HER back to school shopping list includes basic school supplies and asks parents to accept the reality that THEIR back to school shopping list should include supplies for their children. It wasn’t always so.

When I began teaching in Philadelphia in 1970 the junior high where I worked was on a double shift due to overcrowding, which posed logistical challenges for administrators and teachers alike. As a math teachers I had access to the department’s supply of chalk, paper, its mimeograph machine, textbooks that were appropriate for the grade levels I taught, and the AV equipment needed to teach mathematics: an overhead projector and a box of acetates to use on the projector. That was not all, though. Each teacher on the staff received a stipend they could use to acquire school supplies or instructional support materials of their choice as long as the department head approved. I forget the size of the stipend, but it was sufficiently large that I was able to use it to buy enough paper to put together my own “textbook” that included exercises for my students that matched their abilities, which, sadly, were well below the 8th grade level they were assigned to based on their age.

Throughout my career as a Superintendent, which ended in 2011, the districts I led ensured that teachers had sufficient supplies, though I would not be surprised if some teachers bought supplementary materials out of their own pockets the same way some parents who could afford to bought fancier calculators and tutorial texts for their children. From 1997 on I worked in a relatively affluent districts, which meant that there was no expectation that parents would need to provide basic materials like toilet paper for the bathrooms, tissues for the classroom, or blank paper for the teacher to use to photocopy assignments.

But from 2000 onward, I began to hear anecdotes from my colleagues about shortfalls that resulted in them cutting essentials from their budgets, essentials that led to districts serving children in poverty essentially requiring teaches to dig into their pockets and asking parents to do the same. And since 2008 I am confident the situation has gotten even worse, as inflation adjusted spending for public schools has declined since the so-called Great Recession. Contrast my recollections as a teacher in Philadelphia with this description provided by Ms. Cohan:

In order to adequately educate kids, we have to pick up the slack, spending on average $500 on our classrooms annually.

And first-year teachers spend significantly more. I easily spent a thousand dollars in my first year on basics like pencils and paper and markers, of course, but also on dictionaries, binders, a hole punch, a pencil sharpener, classroom posters (and absurdly expensive lamination), bulletin board borders, crates and bins, and a projector so my students could see all the lessons I prepared.

Because of the limited resources in many schools, it’s common for teachers to ask parents to provide supplies not just for their own children, but supplies like tissues to be shared with the entire class. It’s helpful to the teacher, who otherwise will be spending even more  out of pocket, but community supplies also reinforce sharing and cooperation and give students ownership of their classroom.

Most parents support their children’s teachers and graciously provide these community supplies, but I have to roll my eyes at the parents I’ve seen posting about greedy overpaid teachers having the nerve to ask for some glue sticks and pencils…

My colleagues and I have relied on crowdfunding to make ends meet. Our engineering teacher raised money on DonorsChoose last year to buy a robot kit and enter our students in a robotics competition. We crowdfund to defray the cost of field trips so our kids can experience the world outside the classroom. English teachers raise the money to buy class sets of novels for their students. Science teachers raise money for labs and experiments.

Ms. Cohan has been teaching for six years, which means she has only experienced budgets that shortchange teachers on supplies, fail to provide needed equipment for activities like a robotics, fail to provide “frills” like field trips, and fail to provide essentials like novels for literature classes and materials to perform experiments in science class. Consequently she sees the lack of supplies as an opportunity for students learning the value of “sharing and cooperation” and giving them “ownership of their classroom”. And she also turns to online sources that effectively equate public schools to charities.

I find this acceptance of deficient budgets distressing. Taxpayers of all ages should dig a little deeper in their pockets to “crowd fund” schools so that teachers can focus their time and energy on preparing for classes. If they did so in a spirit of sharing their resources with children in the community they might regain the sense of ownership in their schools that my community experienced when I attended schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s and in the districts I served during my career.


In an Evidence Based World, Deregulated Charter Schools Would be Banned. In Our World of Magical Thinking About Free Markets, They Will Expand… and Children Raised in Poverty Will Lose

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment

This weekend the NYTimes publishes its semi-annual Education issue, and the articles from that special supplement have been emerging in the past couple of days indicate that our country is ignoring evidence about the seemingly intractable problems facing our public schools.

The title of one of the articles by Mark Binelli, “Michigan Gambled on Charters. Its Children Lost“, provides a sweeping analysis of the profound failure of deregulated charter schools in Michigan. Sold to the voters as a means of equalizing funding and outcomes in public schools across the state in the early 1990s, deregulated for profit charters have done neither. Funding disparities persist and those districts taken over by the state and managed by the private sector instead of local school boards have not improved the outcomes or opportunities for children. Here are a couple of pieces of evidence Mr. Binelli offered in his article that describe the adverse impact of the vaunted free market after more than two decades:

…a Brookings Institution analysis done this year of national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency. And a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings…

The 2016 report by the Education Trust-Midwest noted: Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.

Charters continue to be sold in Michigan as a means of unwinding the inequality of a public-school system in which districts across the state, overwhelmingly African-American — Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, Flint — grapple with steep population declines, towering financial obligations, deindustrialization and the legacy of segregation. By allowing experimentation, proponents argue, and by breaking the power of teachers’ unions, districts will somehow be able to innovate their way past the crushing underfunding that afflicts majority-minority school districts all around the country. In reality, however, a 2017 Stanford University analysis found that increasing charter-school enrollment in a school district does little to improve achievement gaps. And in unregulated educational sectors like Michigan’s, there’s evidence that charters have actually increased inequality: A 2015 working paper by the Education Policy Institute determined that Michigan’s school-choice policies “powerfully exacerbate the financial pressures of declining-enrollment districts” — and districts with high levels of charter-school penetration, the authors found, have fared worst of all.

So the evidence is in: Michigan’s adoption of a free market model has NOT resulted in greater equity of opportunity and, even worse, has diminished the overall quality of education in all schools in the state. In the face of this evidence, one would expect that policy makers and politicians would abandon the idea that the free-market could solve the problems facing public schools. But instead, we have a Secretary of Education whose family funded politicians who support the “wild west” free market approach and who retains her faith in the free market… and we have a political party who also supports the survival-of-the-fittest approach of the free market over the equal opportunity approach of a “nanny state”.

Mr. Binelli matter-of-factly describes the reality of the problems facing public education in Michigan in this paragraph near the end of his article when he describes Mildred C. Wells Academy, a K-7 charter school in Benton Harbor, a small, poverty stricken district in SW Michigan overseen by the Bay Mills Indian Community, an Ojibwa tribe with over 2,000 members and 5.5 square miles of reservation land located over 300 miles away on Lake Michigan. Here’s the assessment of the school offered by B.M.C.C. charter leader Mickey Parish”

The school’s facilities, a pair of modular buildings, were “very poor,” and the same went for student test scores, though Parish stressed the context: “The level of learning is comparable to that of the local public-school system, which is dismal. So ours is dismal.” B.M.C.C.’s curriculum specialist, Kathy Tassier, pointed to selective testing gains, and suggested that the students had been motivated to “really take ownership for that growth” after learning of another local charter’s slated closure. Tassier meant the remark as a compliment. But inadvertently or not, she’d applied the language of market capitalism, of increasing productivity via brutal Darwinist competition, to a group of K-7 students. They could have been assembly-line workers being warned that the factory would close if the Chinese kept eating their lunch.

And why is the performance dismal? Because Benton Harbor’s students are raised in poverty and not afforded the same opportunities as the children in Bloomfield, an affluent suburb north of Detroit where the public schools are exempt from the brutal Darwinist competition because their taxpayers are able and willing to pay a premium for their schools. And why will the performance remain dismal? Because those in Bloomfield who are able and willing to pay a premium for their schools want to believe that the magic of the marketplace will solve the problem more than “throwing money at it”. Evidently, money thrown at schools in their district makes a difference… but money thrown at schools in other districts doesn’t.


Make School Lunch Great Again? By What Measure? By Whose Standards?

September 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Those who value public education have so many fronts to push back against might overlook one area where push back is crucial: the school lunch programs. And, Kim Severenson’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes indicates, school lunch is as divisive an issue as vouchers! Why? Because one of President Obama’s admirable efforts was an insistence that school lunches offer healthy and nutritious meals for children even if that meant introducing them to fruits and vegetables instead of french fries and pizza. Here’s an excerpt from the article on a speech Secretary of Education Sonny Perdue gave to the annual conference of the School Nutrition Association:

After reminiscing about the cinnamon rolls baked by the lunchroom ladies of his youth, he delivered a rousing defense of school food-service workers who were unhappy with some of the sweeping changes made by the Obama administration. The amounts of fat, sugar and salt were drastically reduced. Portion sizes shrank. Lunch trays had to hold more fruits and vegetables. Snacks and food sold for fund-raising had to be healthier.

“Your dedication and creativity was being stifled,” Mr. Perdue said. “You were forced to focus your attention on strict, inflexible rules handed down from Washington. Even worse, you experienced firsthand that the rules were failing.”

Mr. Perdue then outlined how his department was loosening some of those rules. He finished with a folksy story about a child who asked whether Mr. Perdue could make school lunches great again.

Some in the audience cheered. Some walked out. School food was not going to escape the sharp political divisions that began to simmer in the Obama years and have been laid bare by the election of President Trump.

The debate on food in schools may ultimately be a local one, but the regulations governing the content of free and reduced lunches will dictate the parameters of the debate in a majority of districts across the country, even those where a relatively small percentage of students qualify for free and reduced meals. Having led five different school districts in four different states, I have witnessed several debates at the district and school level. The board deliberations are over three broad issues:

  • Budgets: School boards tend to agree on one issue: as much as possible school lunch programs should be self sufficient. Invariably, self sufficiency is elusive for two reasons: the government subsidies do not cover the costs of the meals and some parents fail to pay for either reduced price or full price meals their children receive. School boards are then forced to debate policies on how to collect these funds, how much they are willing to divert from the operating budget to cover cost overruns, which leads to the second and third areas of debate.
  • A la carte menus: Boards can increase their revenues by offering an array of unhealthy a la carte items, like the “cinnamon rolls baked by the lunchroom ladies“, cookies, fat-laden menu items like french fries and cheeseburgers, and snack foods. These items can be sold at a price that yields a “profit” that can offset the deficits that result from limited government funding and shortfalls due to parents failing to pay their share. This frames the third debate issue.
  • Out-sourcing: There are many private for-profit firms that can operate a school lunch program at a limited or no-cost basis to school district. These firms often do so by supplanting union employees with lower wage workers and buying government approved foodstuffs through large conglomerates at a deeply discounted price. While such operations are more impersonal and offer meals that are arguably less tasty, they do meet the government meal standards and do guarantee a fixed cost or savings to the local school district.

Over the past several years school boards have also become arbiters of issues like whether schools can serve cupcakes for a child’s birthday, whether vending machines offering snacks and sugar-laden soft drinks can be placed in schools, and what kinds of foods and beverages booster clubs and PTAs can sell before, during, and after school hours. Some boards take a complete laissez-faire attitude while others develop detailed policies on the issue.

Ms. Severnson’s article underscores the reality that even though the federal government sets guidelines for meals, what children eat each day is ultimately a local school board’s call… and districts across the nation realize that the meals they provide need to be as nutritious as possible. She writes:

So far, one thing is clear: School-food leaders on both sides of the political spectrum — most of whom are trying to avoid politics altogether — say the Trump administration’s efforts are unlikely to affect what they agree is a powerful and well-established movement to improve school lunches. Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect in 2010, most of the key players have bought in: food producers, schools and even the children.

That’s why, in part, Mr. Perdue’s comments about local control resonated the loudest: Many districts are already improving school meals without federal intervention.

“All the conversations about school meals have been unnecessarily polarized,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy organization that represents 57,000 school-food professionals and counts many of the country’s largest food companies among its supporters. “People in every district are really dedicated to making sure kids are getting the healthiest food possible.”

The NYTimes article offers some detailed insights into the lunch program, and concludes with this paragraph:

The Trump administration has also called for a 21 percent cut to the Department of Agriculture budget, which could severely curtail school food funding and individual programs that pay for new kitchen equipment and fresh, local fruit and vegetables.

Those who support Mr. Trump will undoubtedly be happy that he is offering fewer regulations and more local control. Will their local school boards be happy to absorb a 21% increase in lunch costs? Will they pass the costs along to children by increasing the costs for lunches by asked to pay 21%? Or will they offset the higher costs by offering more “tasty” a la carte meals and snacks or by outsourcing? The downshifting of funding will lead to a downshifting in decision making and, ultimately, a greater disparity in the meals provided for children. That is the fruit of deregulation.