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Wichita’s Wonder School Looks Wonderful… Despite the Founder’s Surname and Assumptions that Competition is the Answer

February 22, 2018 Leave a comment

The headline in a Wichita Times article earlier this month immediately repelled me. It read “Koch Family to Open New Kind of Private School at Wichita University“. But in an effort to be open minded, and, quite frankly expecting my repulsion to be reinforced by an article describing an ill conceived “anti-government school” that would lead to a denigrating post, I read the article. And when I read that one of the partners and co-founders of the new school, called “Wonder” was Zach Lahn, a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed conservative political advocacy group, I was certain the whole project was going to be badly conceived. But as I read deeper into the article I was stunned to find that the school envisioned by the son and daughter-in-law of one of the Koch brothers and a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity actually looked wonderful! The article described the school’s program as follows:

▪ Students will be grouped into multi-age studios, rather than traditional grade levels, and advance only after they achieve certain academic and social milestones – a mastery-based approach touted by Kahn Academy founder Sal Kahn.

The first level, Wonder One, will be a Montessori-model preschool, Lahn said. Wonder Two will be for children roughly in second through fifth grades. Wonder Three and Wonder Four, part of the school’s long-range plan, will be geared toward middle- and high-schoolers.

▪ The school’s floorplan reflects a trend toward flexible seating, rather than traditional desks, with glass walls and wide-open spaces designed to encourage collaboration and creativity.

The school’s outdoor space, which will feature berms, tunnels and various climbing structures, was designed by Katy Bowman, author of “Move Your DNA,” who argues that movement should be a part of people’s everyday lives.

▪ There won’t be any teachers at Wonder, but rather “guides” and “coaches,” Lahn said. The school plans to allow students more say in what, how and at what pace they learn.

“We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now,” Lahn said. “We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.”

▪ There won’t be traditional grades or report cards either. Students will spend four to six weeks working on theme-based, hands-on projects, presenting them at the culmination to family and community members, who will offer feedback and ratings.

“There will be conversations happening every day in the studio: ‘Is this your best work?’ And they’re constantly being challenged to produce more iterations and better iterations,” Koch said.

▪ And no homework – at least not in the early years, Koch said. Older students who want to start a business or pursue a specific career goal might work on those projects outside of school.

“We think there’s so much value in spending time with your family, having free time, playing,” Koch said. “We really want to preserve that for the kids.”

In reviewing and reflecting on these elements, I was struck by how much they align with the libertarian– AND progressive— notions of self-direction and individuality… and how contrary those notions are with the current “factory model” of schooling. I was also struck by how the “Wonder” structure was developmentally appropriate as compared to the “factory model” that groups children by age cohorts and measures their progress based on comparisons to children who are the same ages.

While I liked everything about the Wonder design, I DID find it unsettling because it was only possible because of the resources the Koch’s could bring to bear… resources that can underwrite a small start-up but would defy scaling up without a marked increase in funding levels for public schools. And in the final paragraphs, after reading that the Koch family did not want their schools to be perceived as having any kind of political mission, I was distressed to read this statement from Shirley Lefever, dean of the College of Education at WSU, who said she was “…excited to partner with the school, which will serve as a kind of living laboratory for teaching students”:

“I think they have an incredible vision, and we just feel very privileged to be a part of that conversation,” Lefever said… “We’re always looking for ways that we can continue to learn and continue to try to understand how to improve educational outcomes for students.”

Koch said she envisions sharing ideas and encouraging other startup schools.

“We want other people doing this. We want competition,” she said. “We want somebody else to open another one of these, because we feel like that would make us better.

“We’re a small school, but we feel like we could have a big impact.”

A note to Ms. Koch: the notion that competition is the only way to make schools better is reinforcing a political notion that schools are a commodity and not a public good… Schools can get better faster through collaboration… and underfunded schools can get accelerate their improvement even more rapidly if they receive the funding they need. But that cannot be seen as a viable solution in Kansas where the legislature has decided that schools don’t need more money.

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The Conservative-Libertarian Federalist’s Analysis is ALMOST Correct… Offers Some Possible Avenues to Undo “Reform”

February 22, 2018 Leave a comment

The Google feed that provides me with articles on public education from the entire political spectrum offered up an op ed piece by Federalist writer Stella Morabito with the click-bait title “13 Ways Public Schools Incubate Mental Instability in Kids“. After reading the article, I came away convinced that libertarian-conservatives and progressives share many of the same perspectives about the ways public schools function in an adverse way for many students… but clearly do not share a common perspective on how to address the defects.

As I read through the list of thirteen ways public schools create a negative environment for most children, I found myself nodding in assent in most cases, particularly in large urban schools where test-driven “reform” has taken root:

  • The size and model of mass schooling IS alienating
  • Public schools are abnormal settings that feel like prisons
  • Public schools are breeding grounds for hierarchical cliques
  • Giant public schools are breeding grounds for aggression
  • Public schools are increasingly politicized
  • Schools are becoming more repressive
  • Public Schooling stunts personality development
  • Kids with special needs are especially judged as different

In most cases I could have written (and maybe HAVE written) similar observations, albeit coming from a completely different perspective. The school-to-prison pipeline, which is not referenced at all in Ms. Morabito’s article, is the result of schools becoming more repressive. The next four “ways schools incubate mental instability” are arguably accurate, but for completely different reasons than Ms. Morabito offers:

  • School bureaucracy tends to reinforce social pecking orderThe social pecking order is reinforced more by the way school attendance zones are established than by “the school bureaucracy”. Moreover, the “school bureaucracy” doesn’t SET “the social pecking order”, it mirrors “the social pecking order” that parents want to see in place. 
  • Reduced content knowledge promotes conformity: Ms. Morabito attributes the “reduced content” to “identity politics, fads, and political activism” instead of the true culprit, which is the slavish adherence to standardized tests as the means for measuring whether schools are “successful”. This has narrowed the curriculum so that the topics Ms. Morabito values— like “history, geography, and classics”– are pushed out. 
  • Public schools disregard students’ family and non-school lives: This is true but NOT for the reasons Ms. Morabito contends. While she sees that “Parents and families are increasingly treated as nuisances to the collectivist agenda of training children to conform to politically correct attitudes and emotions”, I see the problem as schools disregarding the needs of single-parent families and/or families where both parents work. And where Ms. Morabito laments the hours children spend in school, I would focus on the hours many children spend before schooling begins sitting in front of screens.  

 

Then there are two completely groundless assertions:

  • Public schooling is increasingly hostile to Christianity: Ms. Morabito writes: “Growing and intense aggression against any form of Christian prayer in the schools has a further alienating effect. It teaches any child who is emotionally hurting that he can’t even seek solace in a private and silent conversation with God without knowing he’d be ridiculed if his peers knew. The hostility towards religion also leads us on a path to utter lawlessness, since the rule of law evaporates when left to the devices of elites.”  While Ms. Morabito professes to desire that we do a better job of instructing children about the Constitution, she chooses to ignore that part of the Constitution that provides freedom from religion in government… the basis for precluding prayer in school. While many teachers, administrators, and “bureaucrats” may wish to allow prayer in school, those who work for the government are required to follow the laws of the land as interpreted by the courts. 
  • Enforced conformity promotes peer victimization: This somewhat confusing statement makes the point that the anti-bullying initiatives in schools are falling short of the mark, which may be the case in some school districts. But Ms. Morabito’s analysis of anti-bullying is off the mark. She groundlessly asserts that “…A bully is free to target with the taunt “bigot” any child who comes from a traditional Christian home, and the curricula will back them up”, but fails to suggest that additional counseling and direct instruction on the teaching of tolerance might be helpful in addressing the bullying behavior that is arguably a part of human nature that needs to be controlled if we want to live under a rule of law as opposed to a rule of vigilantism. 

As I read about the libertarian thinking on education, I am struck by how often I find myself agreeing with some of their principles, many of which are grounded in common sense and research. But too often their anti-establishmentarian ideas ascribe intent and power to bureaucracies that do not exist. Ms. Morabito’s belief that the “school bureaucracy” sets the pecking order in schools is a case in point. For better or worse, there is no monolithic “school bureaucracy” that exists in our country. Our public education system is radically decentralized and immune to edicts from the Supreme Court. If that were not the case we would have fully integrated and equitably funded public schools and adhering to a “Common Core” curriculum that would would have been in place for decades. Instead our schools operate democratically under the control of local boards elected at the levels established by each state. It’s a cumbersome system that is exceedingly difficult to change… but it better than any alternative… especially an alternative that is based on religion.

 

A Connecticut Neo-Liberal in the Koch Brothers’ Court: A Cautionary Tale for 2020

February 19, 2018 Leave a comment

Whenever I read about “Centrist Democrats” who might be plausible candidates to oppose Donald Trump I get a chill because many of them, like “Centrist” Governor Daniel Malloy of Connecticut, are often willing to adopt the positions of the Koch Brothers if it suits their “reform” agenda. Yesterday’s post by Diane Ravitch describing Governor Malloy’s advocacy for the expansion of 529 plans is a case in point. Quoting at length from a retired Connecticut school teacher who is calling out the Governor in her state, Ms. Ravitch offers a detailed explanation of how the expansion of “Education Savings Accounts” will draw funds from the public school coffers and redirect them into the coffers of private sectarian and private for profit schools.

As I noted in a comment I left at the conclusion of the post:

The ALEC playbook is not read only by libertarians… the neoliberal “reformers” like Malloy, Cuomo, Booker, HRC, and– yes, Obama— all like any gambits that undercut unions and empower privatizers… in 2020 those of us who want to take public education in a different direction need to avoid supporting ANY Democrat, particularly those who are good public speakers strike a seemingly sane alternative to our current Prevaricator…

I haven’t witnessed anyone emerging from the pack who will stand up for public schools or the need for us to expand government regulations. Instead Democrats seem content to run on the “Not Trump” platform and hope that they can retain the support of the billionaires who favor deregulation and privatization while activating their base voters who loathe the divisiveness of our current leadership. We need more than an anti-Trump if we hope to restore faith in government and democracy. We need someone who will give full throated support for the rule of law, for re-regulating Wall Street and the environment, and for restoring the social justice that has unravelled. Anyone who supports the expansion of 529 plans should not receive the support of any thoughtful progressive.

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.

 

Koch Brothers Warning Redux: Voting in ALL Elections, ESPECIALLY Primaries, Is Essential!

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

On of Diane Ravitch’s posts early yesterday included a link to an article by Jeff Bryant, a politically progressive and reliably insightful blogger on public education issues that covered the meeting the Koch Brothers heard recently that placed public schools in their cross hairs as a major target for “reform” in the coming year. Unlike Diane Ravitch, who often sidesteps criticism of the Democratic Party, Jeff Bryant is not reluctant to criticize the party for it’s failure to stand up to the “reformers” who advocate anodyne sounding initiatives like “choice”. Pulling no punches, he writes:

Democrats, over the years, have pulled away from their historical support for public schools and classroom teachers and have gradually embraced the language of “reform” and “choice” Republicans use. Many Democrats have turned against teachers union, joined the Republican chorus to “bust” the public school “monopoly,” and embraced numerous alternatives to traditional public schools that sap the system of its resources.

The Koch brothers’ 700 cronies contributed $100,000 each PER YEAR. That’s $70 million dollars… more than twice the $32 million the AFT and NEA gave to campaigns in 2016! And while that list is not available to the public, I’m guessing that some on that list might own newspapers and TV stations… I’m guessing the Sinclair broadcasting group and Rupert Murdoch might be on the list…

The unions DO need to push back harder against the neoliberals in the Democratic Party, but they will never have a megaphone as big as the Koch brothers…

And one other problem unions face is resentment among taxpayers that translates into a lack of support for their efforts to provide decent wages and working conditions for their employees. Teachers and school district employees who are union members, unlike most employees in the private sector, receive good health benefits, leave time for illnesses, and defined benefit pensions. The fact that these wages and benefits are underwritten by taxes leads to resentment and that, in turn, reduces the public’s support for public education. As long as the public sector wages and benefits mirrored that of the private sector, support for school district employees was relatively strong. Now that the private sector has embraced the private sector’s concept of employees as “free agents” and former President Reagan’s assertion that “government is the problem” there is less support for school district employees compensation packages.

And last but not least, all who read this blog need to be vigilant at the state and local level. Formerly non-partisan school board races and GOP primaries are places where a small investment by the Koch’s will go a long way toward tilting state legislatures toward the ALEC mindset! Laurence Lessig cautioned in a talk I heard a few years ago that the real damage inflicted on democracy by Citizens United was in the primary elections where small bands of voters could be activated to nominate candidates who hold extreme views on either end of the political spectrum. This has contributed to the polarization as much as the echo chambers on Facebook and other social media. Informed voting in ALL elections is the only cure for this malady.

Minnesota High School Promoting Social Justice Berated for Lower Ranking, Stagnant Test Scores

February 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Two articles in today’s Google Alert for Public Schools excoriate the Edina, Minnesota public schools for their decision four years ago to emphasize social justice (see here and here). Both articles draw from a Weekly Standard article written by Katherine Kersten, a Senior Policy Fellow with a free-market think tank called the Center of the American Experiment, an article that criticizes the school districts decision to place an emphasis on racial inequality. And both articles flag the same quotes from Ms. Kersten’s article:

The shift began in 2013, when Edina school leaders adopted the “All for All” strategic plan—a sweeping initiative that reordered the district’s mission from academic excellence for all students to “racial equity.”

“Equity” in this context does not mean “equality” or “fairness.” It means racial identity politics—an ideology that blames minority students’ academic challenges on institutional racial bias, repudiates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s color-blind ideal, and focuses on uprooting “white privilege.”

The Edina school district’s All for All plan mandated that henceforth “all teaching and learning experiences” would be viewed through the “lens of racial equity,” and that only “racially conscious” teachers and administrators should be hired. District leaders assured parents this would reduce Edina’s racial achievement gap, which they attributed to “barriers rooted in racial constructs and cultural misunderstandings.”

And both articles use standardized test scores to conclude that this emphasis is a failure:

Four years into the Edina schools’ equity crusade, black students’ test scores continue to disappoint. There’s been a single positive point of data: Black students’ reading scores—all ages, all grades—have slightly increased, from 45.5 percent proficiency in 2014 to 46.4 percent proficiency in 2017.

But other than that, the news is all bad. Black students “on track for success” in reading decreased from 48.1 percent in 2014 to 44.9 percent in 2017. Math scores decreased from 49.6 percent proficiency in 2014 to 47.4 percent in 2017. Black students “on track for success” in math decreased from 51.4 percent in 2014 to 44.7 percent in 2017.

The drop was most notable at the high school level. Math scores for black students in 11th grade at Edina Senior High dropped from 31 percent proficiency in 2014 to 14.6 percent in 2017. In reading, scores for black students in 10th grade at Edina Senior High dropped from 51.7 percent proficiency in 2014 to 40 percent in 2017.

And one of the articles indicated that (horror of horrors):

“US News & World Report ranked Edina Senior High as the 4th best high school in the state in 2017 (based on 2014-2015 academic year data), but that’s down from 1st place in US News’ 2014 ranking (based on earlier data). It’s still an outstanding high school but the trend appears to be heading in the wrong direction.

I don’t know if the “All for All” plan is working well or not, because the effectiveness of the plan cannot be measured by the seemingly precise standardized test scores or the US News and World Report’s ranking system that is rooted in test scores. I am certain that when the Edina School Board adopted their strategic plan they did not intend to rely on standardized test scores to determine if their program was effective, for I am certain that the test scores were not the sole factor that compelled them launch the “All for All” initiative. But I am certain of this: the Weekly Standard and the two sites that published these articles— Hot Air and the Independent Women’s Forum are full of articles promoting the kind of libertarian ideas that the Koch brothers hold… and libertarians, contrary to their professed beliefs, are not open minded when it comes to economic and racial equality or the funding equity that “government schools” seek. Here’s hoping that these broadsides fall on deaf ears in Edina… but my hunch after reading about the Koch brothers’ intentions to spend freely to introduce “reform” is that these articles are the beginning of a drumbeat to unseat the “soft-headed” Board members who introduced the idea of social justice and replace them with board members who seek accountability based on hard data.

What Can Be Done When Local Boards Fail? Remove the Leadership and Give an Administrative Team Carte Blanche

February 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes includes an article by Kate Taylor that profiles the failures of the Hempstead School District on Long Island. The district serves close to 8,000 students. Ms. Taylor offers this description of the demographics:

Seventy percent are Hispanic, and many of those are recent immigrants. Nearly 40 percent of students are not proficient in English, and 70 percent come from families who are on some form of public assistance.

But Hempstead’s failures predate the influx of immigrants. It is longstanding:

For almost 30 years, the district has been failing its students, most of whom are Hispanic and black. During most of that time, a badly divided school board has been at war with itself. Test scores and graduation rates have been among the lowest in the state. School buildings have deteriorated so much that they have closed while children went to school in trailers. And board members have been convicted of theft and fraud.

And the problems go beyond governance. The violence in schools is a serious problem:

In interviews, parents and students in the Hempstead district expressed distress about the schools, in particular the violence at the district’s middle and high schools.According to the report prepared for the state by the retired superintendent, Jack Bierwirth, there were more than 50 fights at the high school between September and early December.

“It disrupts me from learning in class,” said Tamia Grant, 17, a senior at the high school. She said she hears the students fighting right outside her classrooms. “The doors are so thin, they’re like plexiglass, and they knock into the door,” she said. “My teacher has to stop what she’s doing to lock the door, because we’re scared that they’ll come into our classroom.”

And if mismanagement at the Board level and violence in schools isn’t enough of a problem, the failure to provide support to parents who speak English as a Second Language makes matters even worse:

Several Hispanic parents said that they felt that Hispanic students and families were particularly marginalized. They said that there were no Spanish interpreters at school meetings or at parent-teacher conferences.

“I always go to my kids’ meetings, but they say there’s no one there that speaks Spanish, so I don’t understand what they say to me,” said Emily Flores, 40, an immigrant from Mexico who has two children at Hempstead High School. Ms. Flores spoke in Spanish through an interpreter.

As one who believes in local governance by elected officials, but one who also believes every child deserves an opportunity to learn in a safe and orderly environment, and one who believe parent engagement is a key element in the success of any school, addressing a systemic failure like that of Hempstead presents a real problem. The headline of Ms. Taylor’s article, “In a District Known for Failure, Will the State Finally Step In” implies that the State could save the day. Alas, there is evidence to the contrary in New York:

The state has only ever once taken over a district completely, when in 2002 it took control of the Roosevelt School District, a nearby district with similar demographics to Hempstead. Like Hempstead, Roosevelt’s schools were low-performing and dangerous, and the leadership was chaotic. In addition, partly because the district lacked almost any commercial tax base, Roosevelt had very little money.

The state’s takeover lasted 11 years and is not generally regarded as a success: The state spent millions of dollars; some of the leaders it appointed were problematic; and the district’s results improved only marginally.

Ms. Taylor DOES imply a possible solution: merger with neighboring districts that are more affluent… and more integrated.

Hempstead and Roosevelt are among the poorest and most segregated districts in Nassau County. According to state records, Roosevelt did not have a single white student in the 2016-17 school year. Roughly 2 percent of Hempstead’s students were white. Nassau County’s population overall is 61 percent white, according to census records. In the district just north of Hempstead, Garden City, 88 percent of the students are white.

Dr. Singer, …Hofstra professor of education, said he felt the state’s decision to take over the Roosevelt district was a way for it to avoid dealing with the larger segregation issue.

Assuming the State DOES choose to take over, I would recommend that they remove the existing board and Superintendent– who has been a lightning rod through no fault of his own– and install an administrative team with a three year contract and broad powers. The team would consist of a CEO/Superintendent who would oversee academics, a CFO, a CIO, an HR specialist familiar with working with NYS’s civil service framework and capable of working with the union, and a curriculum consultant familiar with districts that are disproportionately ESOL. The team should be empowered to:

  • Replace and/or reassign all administrative staff in the district.
  • Develop a budget that sets per pupil costs at the same level as Garden City. In FY 15 Garden City spent $5,597 more per pupil than Hempstead. A three year boost of $134,000,000 ($5,597 X 8,000 X 3) would provide funding for the much needed services outlined below. While this funding boost will arguably sustain the avoidance of dealing with the larger segregation issue, it will force the state legislature to provide a tax-starved community with the same funding levels as its more affluent neighbor.
  • Immediately hire home visitors to meet with ESOL parents to acquaint them with how public education works in our country and the medical, mental health, and support services available to them and their children. This should be done by forging partnerships with existing community agencies and community groups, including churches.
  • Train board members to seek office and oversee the management of the schools. (This could be done in conjunction with the NYSBA).
  • Identify capital improvements that are necessary in the district and prepare warrant articles for the community to not on for funding these initiatives. Any capital improvements identified by the Administrative Team, supported by the Regents, and approved by the local voters should be given priority funding by the State Legislature.

To do anything less than this will fall short of the mark. But my hunch is that the state will avoid giving administrators the short term powers and funding authority they need to find and hire the best talent available— recognizing that some of that talent may be within the district. The state will also sidestep the funding issue by providing lump sums of money that may or may not address the facilities deficiencies and may or may not be targeted to obvious needs like parent outreach.

One thing I learned from assuming the leadership of a district that experienced financial difficulties: do not spend time trying to figure out what went wrong. Instead, it is better to design a financial system that is clearly understood internally and in the community and show the employees and the public that spending controls are in place and violations of this controls will not be tolerated going forward. The more time Hempstead’s leaders spend trying to ascertain what went wrong and who’s to blame, the less time they will have to establishing a new set of standards going forward.