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Philanthropy is Undermining Public Education – Part Two: Billionaire’s Think Tanks Promote Privatization

September 2, 2018 Comments off

Over the Labor Day weekend when I will be unable to write extended posts, I am posting a three part series making the case that philanthropic giving is having an adverse impact on public education. The case is drawn primarily from Gospels of Giving, a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert that, in turn, draws from several books that have recently been published describing how philanthropic giving is distorting the inequities that exist in our economy.

Today I want to examine how 501(c)(3) groups, which the tax codes deems as charities, provides a means for mega-donors to advance anti-democratic ideas that can be amplified even more when combined with relatively small political donations. In her essay, Ms. Kolbert gives several inches of print to David Callahan, David Callahan, the founder and editor and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a website that provides a penetrating look into the way philanthropists operate. He is quoted as follows:

“An ever larger and richer upper class is amplifying its influence through large-scale giving in an era when it already has too much clout,” he writes in “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.” “Things are going to get worse, too.

Part of the problem, according to Callahan, lies in the broad way that philanthropy has been defined. Under the federal tax code, an organization that feeds the hungry can count as a philanthropy, and so can a university where students study the problem of hunger, and so, too, can a think tank devoted to downplaying hunger as a problem. All these qualify as what are known, after the relevant tax-code provision, as 501(c)(3)s, meaning that the contributions they receive are tax deductible, and that the earnings on their endowments are largely tax-free. 501(c)(3)s are prohibited from engaging in partisan activity, but, as “The Givers” convincingly argues, activists on both sides of the ideological divide have developed work-arounds.

At this point in the article, Ms. Kolbert cites examples from left-leaning as well as right leaning websites, using Tim Gill, who’s spent hundreds of thousands supporting the L.G.B.T.Q.-rights movement as the left-leaning example and Art Pope whose used his millions to support a network of foundations that “…advocate for voter-identification—or, if you prefer, voter-suppression—laws.

But here’s what is true in public education: there is no right or left argument to be made. Instead, the debate is between those advocating non-sectarian “school choice” and those advocating a pure voucher system that can incorporate sectarian schools. NO ONE IS ADVOCATING FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION GOVERNED BY ELECTED SCHOOL BOARDS. When it comes to public education, the “bi-partisan reformers” have co-opted the think tanks that draft public education policy. Unions and professional organizations with no deep packets and, therefore, no lobbying clout are the only groups advocating for public schools. And their arguments are drowned out. These paragraphs from Ms. Kolbert’s article describe the situation:

It is difficult to say what fraction of philanthropic giving goes toward shaping public policy. Callahan estimates that the figure is somewhere around ten billion dollars a year. Such an amount, he says, might not sound huge, but it’s more than the annual contributions made to candidates, parties, and super-pacs combined. The result is doubly undemocratic. For every billion dollars spent on advocacy tricked out as philanthropy, several hundred million dollars in uncaptured taxes are lost to the federal treasury.

“It’s not just that the megaphones operated by 501(c)(3) groups and financed by a sliver of rich donors have gotten louder and louder, making it harder for ordinary citizens to be heard,” Callahan notes. “It’s that these citizens are helping foot the bill.”…

“When it comes to who gets heard in the public square, ordinary citizens can’t begin to compete with an activist donor class,” Callahan writes. “How many very rich people need to care intensely about a cause to finance megaphones that drown out the voices of everyone else?” he asks. “Not many.”

The 501(c)(3) deductions, then, are hurting public education in two ways: they are eroding the tax base AND they are funding foundations that hammer away at the message that public schools are failing and the only way to improve them is to compel them to compete for “customers”.

Can bloggers and advocates for increased funding to ensure equity among public schools hope to compete against billionaires like Bill Gates? Mr. Gates spent millions underwriting think tanks who promoted the Common Core, millions more helping those same think tanks underwrite the common core, and tens of thousands more supporting presidential candidates in both parties. His rewarded was President Obama’s misbegotten Race to the Top which alienated not only teachers but most “on the right” who disfavor “federal overreach” when it comes to schools. The right was, however, eternally grateful that Race to the Top helped convince a majority of voters that “choice” was the solution, which opened the door for Betsy DeVos to promote vouchers as the antidote.

It will be an uphill fight to persuade the public that given time and resources all public school students could perform at the same level as those enrolled in the “elite” districts…. but rather than spend more money and be more patient the public is now persuaded that a fast, cheap and easy solution exists… and fast, cheap, and easy is ALWAYS better than slow, expensive, and difficult. But change takes time, costs money, and requires effort. MAYBE when fast-cheap-easy fails minds will change and we’ll set a better course. MAYBE a billionaire can help change the public’s thinking on that issue the same way they’ve persuaded the public that their democratically operated schools are “failing”.

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The Hard Bigotry of NCLB: State Takeovers Undercut Democracy in Predominantly Black Districts

August 27, 2018 Comments off

One of the phrases that George W. Bush coined when he was Governor of Texas that he used to sell the nation on No Child Left Behind was “the soft bigotry of low expectations“. This captured the fundamental idea of federal legislation since NCLB: the reason that inequity existed in public schools was NOT an issue of inequitable funding. Rather, the inequities in public education were the result of inequitable expectations. Children were not failing. Schools where teachers did not expect enough were failing and if those schools changed their mindsets children would flourish. So NCLB set out to identify and reward successful schools as measured by standardized test scores with the intention of using the programs in those schools as models for “failing” schools.

This paradigm was appealing to politicians because it meant that inequitable funding was not the issue! Thus, it was unnecessary for them to raise and direct more funding to schools serving underprivileged children. Instead, funds would be directed to “successful schools” that would replace the “failing schools”.

What happened over the next decade, though, was unsurprising to anyone who knows how norm-referenced standardized tests work: the “highly successful” schools were all found in well-heeled districts serving affluent children and the “failing schools” were all found in property poor districts serving underprivileged children. But instead of looking at the test results and concluding that property poor districts serving underprivileged children needed more money, NCLB’s baked in conclusion was that these failing schools needed to be taken over by the states and turned over to (ka-ching) private for profit schools.

But when states took over districts, where were local school boards replaced with state operated appointees? Rutgers political scientist Domingo Morel explored that question and came up with a disturbing answer: districts serving minority children! As reported in a recent NY.Chalkbeat post, research in his forthcoming book showed that as of 2017, 33 states had takeover laws and by then 22 states had actually taken over school districts. And what happened when the States took over school districts? Here’s what Diane Ravitch reported:

A chart from Morel’s work shows that in the rare event that a majority white district is taken over by the state, 70% keep their elected school board.

In a majority Latin district, 46% keep their elected board.

But when a majority black district is taken over, only 24% retain their elected school board.

The NY.Chalkbeat article featuring an in-depth interview with Mr. Morel leads to one inevitable conclusion: when NCLB began closing schools and replacing them with for-profit charters, the hard bigotry of racism replaced the soft bigotry of high expectations and democracy in majority black districts was undercut. If we ever hope to end racism, we need to examine the way we implement laws that are intended to be even handed and face the reality that in order to establish equal opportunities we need to establish more equitable funding for schools.

Kavanaugh’s Court Likely to Rule in Favor of Vouchers for Parochial Schools… Reaping What NCLB, RTTT, and “Reformers” Sowed

August 22, 2018 Comments off

Blogger Gaius Publius, who writes for several websites is who is frequently featured in Naked Capitalism, wrote a post last week forecasting that should Brett Kavanaugh be confirmed to the Supreme Court that “his” court will ultimately rule that public funds may be used to underwrite sectarian schools. And he convinced that once sectarian schools are funded, it is highly likely that those funds will not be available for ALL religiously affiliated institutions:

The purpose of that flow of funds would not be to ensure that a broad spectrum of religious ideas get funded — imagine the response from conservatives, for example, if a large group of Muslim madrassas were funded by the U.S. government or one of the states. That response would be like the response from whites if a large group of blacks in, say, Alabama exercised their Scalia-minted Second Amendment rights and took open-carry to the streets.

The purpose of that new funding would be to “save the nation” by creating an army of politically active fundamentalist true believers.

I am less certain that Gaius Publius that funds might be limited to Christian institutions given that Indiana, which already has de facto vouchers in place, provides funding for Muslim schools as well as parochial schools. In making his case that the intent of any case brought before the Supreme Court would be to create “…an army of politically active fundamentalist true believers” he seizes on this quote from Betsy DeVos and concludes that is one of the reasons Mr. Kavanaugh should be rejected:

Here’s Ms. DeVos belief about the mission of education: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

DeVos wants to devote government dollars to that mission. And that’s the mission a Kavanaugh Court will enshrine into law. Just one of many reasons confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court would be a generational disaster for a nation already in crisis.

But, as I noted in a comment left on the Naked Capitalism website, we are reaping what the “school reformers” sowed when they decided to use “choice” and “competition” as the mechanism for “improving failing public schools”.  After all, if schools are a commodity like grocery stores and parents are “consumers” who are given the opportunity to “shop”, how can a court deny them the opportunity to shop wherever they wish to make a purchase?

Schools are not commodities… they are a public good. One of public education’s primary goals is to help children develop the skills needed to become informed voters who can help guide the direction of local, state, and federal government and who can live harmoniously with their fellow citizens. Isolating children into tribes based on religion or demographics will undercut that mission.

 

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If You “Run-Schools-Like-a-Business” Privatization is the Ultimate Result… and Democracy Loses Out

August 18, 2018 Comments off

In one of her posts yesterday, Diane Ravitch bemoaned the fact that the Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) was in fact comprised of hedge funders who were Republicans as well as Democrats. After reading her critique of DFER, it struck me that she missed DFER’s over-arching message, which ISN’T that schools should be privatized: it’s that schools should operate like a business.

As a retired school superintendent I can attest to the fact that many newly elected school board members and in some instances a majority of taxpayers share this sentiment. On most school boards the experienced school board members would patiently explain to their newly elected “run-schools-like-business” colleagues that public schools, unlike businesses, are operated democratically and decisions that a school board makes need to be done openly and democratically. And unlike a business, which can determine their “success” based on the bottom line, schools lack a clear metric for success.

This is why the “run-schools-like-a-business” reformers love standardized tests: test scores provide them with a seemingly precise metric that serves as a proxy for “profit”. In this way the “run-schools-like-a-business” crowd can make a cold determination on which schools are “successful” and which are “failing”. Many Democrats, wanting to show that they can run government with the same kind of cold efficiency as CEOs can run a corporation, buy into the “run-schools-like-a-business” ethos. That’s why there is bi-partisan support for test-driven “reforms” like NCLB and why a “liberal president” spent billions on testing and test-based “merit pay” instead of on programs that would help children or help states equalize funding disparities.

DFER is very comfortable with privatization because that is the ultimate consequence of “running-schools-like-a-business”… and until voters realize that businesses are not democratic we may see our all our public services operated by the private sector. And instead of getting a human voice on the phone when your child encounters a problem in school, expect to get a menu urging you to go to a web page and engage in a chat with someone who will likely be housed offshore following a prescribed problem solving algorithm.

 

Arne Duncan Continues Tour, Amassing Evidence of His Obliviousness

August 14, 2018 Comments off

Yesterday’s Common Dreams included a reprint of a column by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post titled “Arne Duncan Never Learns“. Ms. Strauss, like most reviewers who do not support his brand of “reform”, was appalled at his opening statement in his new book titled “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.” That sentence? “Education runs on lies.” Ms. Strauss, ever the thorough researcher, offered a long list of times that Mr. Duncan used that phrase while he was Secretary of Education, and as I read through each one it became clearer and clearer that Mr. Duncan was not only lying to the audience when he uttered these epithets about public education, he was lying to himself and using these lies to buttress his narrative about “failing public schools”, a narrative that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Like earlier columns that review his latest book, Ms. Strauss’ includes highlights of an interview Mr. Duncan conducted, this time with  journalist Margaret Brennan on CBS’s “Face the Nation,.”The interview included this exchange, which includes my highlights:

BRENNAN: So, some colors and personal anecdotes but you also really, it’s not so much about how schools work but really an indictment of how schools aren’t working. It’s a very critical take in this book about the education system, and you say, “the education system runs on lies.” What do you mean by that?

DUNCAN: That’s a tough statement to make. But let me just give you a couple of notes. We say we value education, but we never vote on education. We never hold politicians accountable, local, state, or national level, for getting better results, higher graduation rates, more people graduate from college. We say we value teachers, but we don’t pay teachers. We don’t support them.We don’t mentor them the way they need to do their incredibly important, tough, complex work. And then maybe the toughest lie, for me, Margaret, is that we say we value kids and we’ve raised a generation of young people, teens who have been raised on mass shootings and gun violence. And that simply doesn’t happen in other nations. So I don’t look at what people say. I look at their actions. I’d look at their policies. I’d look at their budgets. And our values don’t reflect that we care about education, we care about teachers or that we truly care about keeping our children safe and free and free of fear.

Ms. Strauss, like me and presumably like most readers of this blog, looked at Mr. Duncan’s actions and was appalled at his ignorance and hypocrisy. First, we ALWAYS vote on education in America by adopting budgets at the local and the State level. Second, most parents assess the quality of their local schools by examining the quality of their child’s experience— not test scores or graduation rates. And, as I HOPE Mr. Duncan realizes, those parents who are engaged in the lives of their children are well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the schools their child attends and work with the schools to make them better. Finally, and most appallingly, when he held the seat as Secretary of Education Mr. Duncan never spoke out about the shootings that took place in the same way as he is now, he never enacted policies or budgets that would help schools serving disadvantaged kids get a good start and have an even playing field, and never supported teachers. Worse than his hypocrisy is his obliviousness. He fails to see that his policies damaged the equity in schools by diverting stimulus funds to assessments and the Common Core, crushed the morale of teachers by using standardized tests to measure their “performance”, and diverted attention away from the need to create the kind of nurturing environment in schools that might reduce the loneliness and alienation children feel.

Ms. Strauss does an excellent job of contrasting the failures of Mr. Duncan’s administration, page-by-page and section-by-section… but her best rejoinder dealt with his insistence that VAM would be a “game changer”:

Ample evidence exists that Duncan’s push for annual standardized testing for high-stakes decisions on teachers, students and schools was destructive and in some cases nonsensical. In some places, teachers were evaluated on students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach simply because test scores had to be used as an evaluation metric.

I do not believe Mr. Duncan intentionally undercut public schools. Rather, he had a narrative about education and how to “fix” it that he clung to steadfastly in the face of accumulating evidence that his “fix” was wrongheaded and destructive. It was his obliviousness more than his incompetence or ignorance that troubles me. When the facts on the ground were not matching his beliefs he chose to ignore them and as a result children and teachers across the nation suffered an extension of the test-and-punish regimen imposed by NCLB, a regimen that is now extended even further into the future at the State level by ESSA.

When President Obama was elected I hoped that NCLB would be replaced. When it was evident that the USDOE would be the beneficiary of stimulus funds, I hoped to see an upgrade to technology infrastructure or a redoubling of the redistribution of funds that was implicit in Title One. Instead, we got Arne Duncan’s RTTT: more tests linked to adverse consequences and less respect for the hard work being done by teachers. Hope vanished… and fear was increased. John McCain would have been happy with Mr. Duncan’s work.

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Arne Duncan Still True Believer in VAM, “Failure” of Public Schools, Standardized Testing

August 9, 2018 Comments off

Arne Duncan has written a new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, and he is getting lots of publicity as he tours the country selling his book and the tired ideas in it. Here’s the opening paragraph from a review of his book by Atlantic reporter Alia Wong:

Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under President Barack Obama, has always been more candid than others who’ve served in that role. He’s often used his platform to talk about what he sees as the persistent socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to quality schools. His new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, further cements that reputation. How Schools Work’s first chapter is titled “Lies, Lies Everywhere.” The first sentence: “Education runs on lies.” If one were to create a word cloud of the book, lies would probably pop out as one of the most frequently used words. Duncan writes that even the countless fantastic schools across the country “haven’t managed to defeat the lies that undermine our system so much as they’ve been able to circumvent them.” These lies, according to Duncan, include a culture of setting low expectations for high schoolers who later discover they’re not prepared for the real world, and poorly designed accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their students’ test-score results.

This paragraph itself is full of canards about public education that only someone who never set foot in a public school could believe. I worked in an urban middle school, a blue collar suburban high school, and a rural high school that served many poor families. The teachers in these schools, even the weakest, had high expectations for their children.

As for the “accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their test-score results”, I presume he must be referring to the grading systems that allow students to pass a course with a “C” or a “D”, grades that typically require a student to get grades that do not require mastery of ALL the information presented. And the norm-referenced tests that were the backbone of the RTTT “accountability systems” Mr. Duncan imposed on schools that were presumably designed to avoid the “fudging” did nothing to help students. They only reinforced the notion that students were poorly prepared because teachers were lazy and incompetent and did so by providing a sheen of precision.

In the interview with Ms. Wong that accompanied this overview of his book Mr. Duncan DID reveal an understanding of the root cause of “failing” schools… and it isn’t the teachers… it’s parents who are disengaged from the lives of their students, parent’s whose disengagement is often the result of working multiple jobs or, in the worst case, drug and alcohol abuse. Here’s Mr. Duncan’s take:

It’s the parents who aren’t present whose kids you have to worry about even more because those parents just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education. Those kids are the ones I actually worry about the most.

But, as written frequently in this blog, actions speak louder than words. IF Mr. Duncan believed this as the head of public education in Chicago and then the nation, why did he not take action to provide support for the children of disengaged parents, the children whose performance pulls down the test scores he values so highly and whose ultimate withdrawal from schools increases the drop out rates he blames on “the system”?

Mr. Duncan’s perspective on gun violence was also on point. But like his views on the problems presented by disengaged parents, it’s a perspective he failed to share when he led the nation’s schools:

I talk a lot about gun violence—it’s what I’m dealing with in Chicago all the time; it unfortunately shaped me as a kid; we saw it in the Sandy Hook massacre, which happened when I was education secretary. There’s no political leader who says they don’t value kids, but the truth is: we value guns more than we value the lives of our children .And that is irrefutable if you look at the rates of gun deaths in the U.S. compared to other nations that make other policy choices.

Mr. Duncan purports to be one who perceives education as a great equalizer and one who attempts to use data to help him see what works and what doesn’t work. I wish that as Secretary of Education emeritus he would take a dispassion look at the true impact of RTTT and acknowledge that it was a doubling down on NCLB, a program he viewed as “horribly constructed.” I wish he would acknowledge that the standardized tests he advocated were not constructed to perform the VAM he mandated and resulted in the discrediting of the teaching profession. I wish that he would trumpet the need for programs to support parents who “…just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education” and speak out against the politicians who value guns more than we value the lives of our children. Finally, I wish he would acknowledge that the programs he advocates, the expansion of choice and charters, reward those parents who are engaged in the lives of their children, sidestep the need for a larger investment in the safety net, and divert needed funds away from public schools.

Tennessee’s Faith in Testing is Based on the Flawed Premise that More Money is Unnecessary

August 2, 2018 Comments off

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday decrying the “colossal failure” of the school district comprised of the “failing schools” taken over by the state, a district that received millions of dollars from Race to the Top to replace “failing” public schools with charters. There’s only one problem, as noted in the Chalkbeat article that was the basis for Ms. Ravitch’s post: low-performing schools operated by Shelby County Schools, where most of the “failing schools” taken over by the state are located, have outpaced progress of those run by the state! 

The agreeable fantasy that a “state takeover” of “failing schools” or the outsourcing of those same schools to deregulated charter schools would lead to their “improvement” underpins virtually all federal and state legislation. It also underpins the reform movement and leads to other agreeable fantasies promoted by reformers. These agreeable fantasies enable politicians to dodge the need for legislation that would either require them to raise more money for public education or divert the money already allocated to less affluent districts. It also enabled them to adopt other ideas based on magical thinking, ideas that don’t require more money but result in “improvement”. Ideas like: firing “bad teachers” would improve “failing schools”; or, “adopting a uniform curriculum” would improve the teaching and learning in “failing schools”; or “eliminating frills” would direct more resources “to the classroom”; or implementing merit pay plans that would reward the “best and brightest teachers” and withhold raises from “weak teachers” thereby “improving failing schools”; or implementing programs that “increase the grit” of students raised in poverty to help them overcome the adversity they face. None of these ideas require more money and all of them directly or indirectly scapegoat the teachers who work tirelessly to improve their “failing” schools.

But the biggest agreeable fantasy is that statewide standardized norm referenced tests are the best means of measuring the “quality of education”… and, as we are witnessing, the state that gave us value added testing has tremendous faith in that fantasy… and. alas, so do most voters across the country despite the accumulating evidence to the contrary.