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Where are Today’s True Philanthropists? They AREN’T Investing in Charter Schools!

June 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Today the NYTimes published an op ed piece by David Callahan describing the outsized impact of philanthropists as a result of reductions in discretionary government spending. Titled “As Government Retrenches, Philanthropy Booms”, Mr. Callahan’s article covers some of the issues I’ve raised in earlier posts regarding the impact of philanthropy on public education. His essay includes several references to the role philanthropists have played in the expansion of charter schools, an impact that he acknowledges has been both good and bad. But Mr. Callahan overlooks one reality: philanthropy in the 21st Century no longer matches the definition of philanthropy as it existed in previous years.

Webster defines philanthropy as “…an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes”. Nowadays it appears to be defined as a gift that yields a return on investment.

When philanthropists in the Gilded Age donated money to build libraries and national parks, they did so with the noble intention of making valuable resources available to less advantaged Americans. I am not so certain that the motives of today’s philanthropists are quite so pure. When the Waltons donate to expand “choice” they appear to be doing so to bring their model of cutthroat competition to schools. They want to see schools standardize, eliminate unions, reduce overhead, and reduce costs. In the long run that would lower their tax burden and increase their profits. It also has the potential to increase the return on their investments in for-profit charters. When technology billionaires donate to public schools to encourage the use of Big Data they, too, stand to benefit from their “gift” since the schools will need to perpetually upgrade the systems they purchase with the “gift” they receive.

I don’t think the philanthropists of the past looked to increase their bottom line. They gave with purer purposes. Andrew Carnegie increased his bottom line when he invested in libraries… nor did the Rockefellers benefit from donating Acadia and the Tetons to the National Park system. Both Mr. Carnegie and Mr. Rockefeller created Foundations who helped public education directly and indirectly, but neither of them attempted to guide the direction of the foundations and the mission of the foundations had nothing to do with their enterprises nor did they expect to gain any benefit from their largesse.

At the conclusion of his article, Mr. Callahan links the impact of philanthropists with the current inequality in our country and makes a compelling argument for changing the regulations governing philanthropy:

In an earlier era, when America had less inequality and stronger mass-member organizations, nonprofits advocating on policy issues typically spoke for lots of ordinary people — not a handful of private funders, as is now often the case. One way to rebalance civic life would be to restrict the size of allowable tax-deductible gifts to policy groups, while encouraging gifts by smaller donors. Another step might be to narrow which nonprofits qualify for tax-deductible gifts, with an eye toward reducing giving to influence public policy.

Ultimately, efforts to level the playing field of civic life won’t get very far as long as economic inequality remains so high, putting outsize resources in the hands of a sliver of supercitizens. Critics of today’s income and wealth gaps tend to focus on who gets what. Yet as a deluge of new wealth pours into civil society, which Alexis de Tocqueville once saw as the realm of the Everyman, we should also be asking who gets heard.

The “super citizens” who own and control today’s mass media and who make outsized donations to both political parties will be doing everything possible to persuade the electorate that the status quo is in Everyman’s interest. Those of us who want to let our voices be heard will need to resort to the comment sections of news media and our blogs.

Choice In Detroit: Spending Less and Getting Same Results = “Better Productivity”

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s links yesterday included one to a Detroit Free Press article written by Nancy Kaffer titled “The Broken Promises of School Choice”. In the article, Ms. Kaffer describes the problems charter schools encounter in that city, problems that mirror those faced by public schools, and problems that stem from the same source: underfunding. In her article, Ms. Kaffer describes the scene in a charter school classroom  comprised of 37 first-graders who were “doubled up” due to the lack of substitutes, something that happens, “…three or four times a month” according to the teacher interviewed for this article:

At storytime, (the teacher) had to lean against the wall, warning the kids they wouldn’t all be able to see the pictures. Kids don’t get time in the school’s computer lab, necessary to learn how to use the machines they’ll take standardized tests on — the high-stakes assessments that determine whether their school will remain open — and the math workbooks teachers were required to use in a school year that started in September, didn’t arrive until March.

As Ms. Kaffer notes, these conditions would presumably disappear once the magic of the marketplace was put into effect. But in Detroit, even charter schools are drastically underfunded:

The state delivers a per-pupil allowance to each school district; when students leave for a charter, the traditional public school loses those funds. Because student departures are spread out across the district — it’s not like an entire third-grade class decamps — those enrollment losses don’t allow the district to make big cuts that would lead to operational savings. Instead, the money dwindles away in dribs and drabs, forcing traditional public school districts to do more with less.

The city’s charter schools educate as many children as its traditional public school district, with nearly identical results — another departure from the rhetoric of charter advocates. Michigan taxpayers hand over $1 billion a year to charter school operators on the premise they’d deliver superior results.

But wait! Before we declare this initiative as a failure, we should look at the operation of schools through the eyes of business. In the business world getting similar results for less money equates to higher productivity and greater profits! Therefore, if we want schools to “operate like a business” we should not be characterizing these newly created for-profit enterprises as “Failures”. We should be hailing them as “Successful” for their improved productivity! For those voters who believe that government is the problem and that “starving the beast” will reduce their taxes without compromising “quality”, Detroit’s charter are not a problem at all. Particularly if those voters reside in the leafy suburbs outside of the city.

The Roots of Reform Revealed: Organized Coalitions of Major Corporations Launched by Lewis Powell in 1971

June 18, 2017 Leave a comment

In “Who is Behind the Assault on Public Schools”, a compelling article from April’s Independent Socialist Magazine, the Monthly Review, Howard Ryan offer a thoroughly researched history and analysis of the so-called “School Reform” movement. Mr. Ryan opens his article with a solid, concise, and comprehensive description of corporate school reform:

The school reform movement presents itself as a collaboration among grassroots groups, business leaders, and private donors, united in an effort to improve education, foster a better economy, and help poor children escape poverty. Their goal is to “prepare America’s children for success in college and careers” (Barack Obama), “give low-income and minority students a world-class education” (Bill Gates), and help Americans “maintain our standard of living” (Eli Broad).1

For these reformers, high-stakes testing and teacher “accountability” are the defining metrics of success.

He then offers an analysis of those who oppose corporate reform, dividing the “progressive opponents” into three camps: those who view it as driven by profit; those who view it as an outgrowth of neoliberalism; and those who want to “…protect and advance white supremacy.” Readers of this blog are well familiar with the first two criticisms. For the time being, I am not persuaded that racism is a driving force behind the “reform” movement, but I do believe resegregation and the calcification of economic classes as a by-product of the “reform” movement. And while I am willing to give the philanthropists the benefit of the doubt in ascribing motives for their support for “reform”, I do believe that their desire to impose some kind of profit-seeking paradigm onto public education is deeply misguided.

The best section of Mr. Ryan’s essay is the one that puts the whole reform movement into historic perspective. He writes:

In tracing the origins of school reform, historians often cite the 1983 report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, commissioned by the Reagan administration. The report attributed the United States’ faltering global economic competitiveness to mediocre teachers and schools, and recommended that schools and colleges “adopt more rigorous and measurable standards.” I suggest instead that the school reform movement grew out of events a decade earlier, as part of a broader reassertion of corporate power initiated by major corporations in the United States and that would later spread globally. What one writer calls the “revolt of the bosses” came in response to two developments: first, falling rates of profit, as Japan and West Germany came to challenge U.S. dominance in global markets from the mid-1960s on, and second, the threat of democratic and anti-capitalist movements springing up around the world in the sixties and into the early seventies.

The bosses’ revolt was outlined in an August 1971 memo sent by corporate lawyer Lewis Powell to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell, who would soon be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, warned that the attack on the “American free enterprise system” is “gaining momentum and converts.” He singled out leftist college professors and especially consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who had become “a legend in his own time and an idol of millions” and, in the words of Fortune magazine, “aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power.” Powell’s remedy was clear and urgent: “Independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient. Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort.

I’ve written posts on Mr. Powell’s 1971 memo, which was originally brought to my attention through the Naked Capitalism blog by Yves Smith and has since been reinforced periodically in several other blogs. And as recently as a week ago I wrote a post on the “long game” that conservatives have played and are playing at the expense of public schools, which they have artfully re-branded as “government schools”, a term that reinforces the notion that “government is the problem”. The more times I read about this initial “Powell Memorandum” and the coordinated effort that occurred as a result of it, the more convinced I become that the for-profit corporate oligarchs have defined the framework for debate about public education. And they have done so by persuading the public that the effectiveness of public education and can be measured by a grossly simplified means of measurement: the standardized test administered to age-based cohorts of students on a systematic fashion. In the minds of reformers from 1971 onward, test scores are the primary metric for defining quality… and students and teachers have been shortchanged as a result.

Mr. Ryan offers some insightful recommendations for progressive opponents to school reform in his concluding paragraphs:

In my analysis, school reform is led by organized coalitions of major corporations, who seek a curriculum suited to their own economic and political hegemony. These hegemonists work in close alliance with edubusiness, along with a cohort of philanthropic market missionaries. What is the value of such an interpretation for the educational justice movement?

I believe that this analysis improves on previous interpretations by accounting for the leading forces of reform who are not out merely to “get rich” off schools, but have other objectives. Second, this reading may encourage us to think more strategically about the classroom as a site for challenging corporate hegemony. The demands for an education that is democratic, critical, multicultural, and multilingual belong at the center of a broad public education movement. Such curricular priorities become even more trenchant today as Trump and DeVos take steps to suppress civil rights and to promote conservative-Christian teaching in our schools. Finally, if the takeover of education is a class-based corporate project, integrally linked to the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism, then such an approach underscores the sheer scope of the task facing an educational justice movement. If it is to succeed at all, education organizing can and must connect the fight to defend public schools with broader agendas for social justice.

Mr. Ryan doesn’t say so explicitly… but his underlying message is clear: this is an uphill fight against people with limitless capital. It is not for the faint of heart… but it is on the side of angels.

Richard Reeves Exposes Reality Progressives Need to Face: The Top 20% Are Resistant to Change

June 12, 2017 Leave a comment

Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich“, Richard Reeves op ed column in yesterday’s NYTimes, exposes a dirty secret about America: because our system is rigged in favor of the top 20% our “class system” is more rigid than any developed country… and— here’s the bad part— because the top 20% are in denial about their well-being nothing is going to change. His column offers several examples of how the system is rigged in favor of the upper middle class, but the most compelling one is housing. Reeves writes:

Exclusionary zoning practices allow the upper middle class to live in enclaves. Gated communities, in effect, even if the gates are not visible. Since schools typically draw from their surrounding area, the physical separation of upper-middle-class neighborhoods is replicated in the classroom. Good schools make the area more desirable, further inflating the value of our houses. The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes. For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts. The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative and Labour governments by 2000).

And another solution to the housing disparity, the construction of “affordable housing” has also been stymied by those who live in communities surrounded by invisible gates. As Livia Gershon wrote in a recent JStor Daily article:

In much of the country, public housing is disappearing as governments fail to maintain the buildings or actively demolish them. That’s a disaster for many low-income people, who have nowhere else to go. But it’s hard to find much public support for maintaining the housing—let alone building more.

Offering an overview of the history of public housing in NYC from a 1995 journal article by Peter Marcuse, Ms. Gershon notes that public housing began as a jobs program in the Depression, evolved into subsidized housing for white returning veterans, before it changed into a means of housing those who lived in slums in the 1950s. At that point, Marcuse concluded, “For the first time, public housing began to be seen as an ‘underclass’ program.” Ms. Gershon took that a step further in her concluding paragraphs:

In the decades that followed, production of public housing in New York City and across the country, eventually ground to a halt. Tarred as a benefit for poor black and brown people, the buildings lost support and went underfunded and poorly maintained. In a vicious cycle, that encouraged the public to dismiss public housing as a program that wasn’t worth saving.

When Ms. Gershon’s analysis of affordable housing is combined with Reeves’ article on the advantages our government offers to affluent homeowners, the conclusion about our country’s policies regarding housing are even more shameful. Not only is the system rigged in favor of those who can afford expensive housing, it denies opportunities to “...poor black and brown people” who aspire to having their children attend the well-funded and good public schools available to their upper middle class cohorts. The “…zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity (that) reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle” are mirrored by a “…zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity (that) reinforce one another in a vicious cycle.” 

The Key to Success in Remedial Math ISN’T Teaching… It’s Counseling

June 11, 2017 Leave a comment

I just read David Kirp’s article in today’s NYTimes on the “Curse of Remedial Math”, the course that tends to be the biggest roadblock to success in NYC’s Community Colleges. Mr. Kirp offers data on the frustrating drop out rates in community colleges, which he and many education policy writers view as the key means of economic advancement for millions of high school graduates. He succinctly describes the existing flaws in math instruction in this paragraph:

Typically, those students fell behind in elementary school, and as new concepts were piled on every year, they never caught up. The “Strasbourg goose” school of teaching, in which students’ heads are stuffed with formulas that bear no relation to the real world, left them convinced of their own incompetence. Old-school remedial education in college — skill and drill, lecture-style classes, taken at the same time as college-level courses — offered more of the same.

Mr. Kirp then describes the way classes are conducted in the CUNY program he is profiling, with the teacher citing two major factors: an intensity (25 hours per semester) and a focus on thinking instead of memorization. But the real reason the CUNY program succeed (and the reason K-12 instruction fails) is described in two later paragraphs:

Counseling is vital to the success of the program, because it gives students someone to talk with about their lives. “They aren’t comfortable telling their teachers about the court date, the pending eviction, the abusive foster parent,” Jessica Mingus, the director of CUNY Start at Hostos Community College, said.

During orientation, students are asked to list the ups and downs in their lives. “Sex experience with a family member,” “Guns fired all the time,” one student wrote matter-of-factly. All that took place while she was still in elementary school. In middle school, she added, she had a miscarriage, tried to join a gang and wound up in jail. Abandonment, homelessness, fickle boyfriends and thoughts of suicide were among the “downs” other students mentioned.

In re-reading the second of these two paragraphs I was struck by the fact that the “downs” in the lives of the students DIDN’T occur recently. They were all issues these students faced from the time they entered school., issues that few of their counterparts in relatively affluent suburban schools EVER faced, and issues that they faced without the support of a caring adult.

Mr. Kirp and other reformers can talk all they want about improving instruction… but the key to making the lives of children raised in poverty better is to make certain all students have “…someone to talk with about their lives”… because the quality of instruction matters very little when children are exposed to the kinds of stresses the students at CUNY describe.

NYTimes Editors Get the Message on Infrastructure… When Will They Get the News on Public Schools

June 10, 2017 Leave a comment

I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read today’s NYTimes editorial on President Trump’s misbegotten rationale for privatization of infrastructure projects… and then found myself shaking my head in dismay as I realized he was basically using the pro-privatization logic being used to advocate “reform” in public education. As the editors noted, Mr. Trump was advocating the adoption of “reform measures” that were already in place, de-regulation, and “government red tape” as the primary reasons that infrastructure projects had not gotten off the ground. The wrote:

He repeated worn-out right-wing complaints about an overweening federal government that had built a “thicket of rules, regulations and red tape” and “blocked many important projects.”

But the Times editors saw through this canard:

Mr. Trump complained that public works projects were subjected to a prolonged permitting process in which officials must produce detailed environmental impact statements that can be hundreds or thousands of pages long. What he did not say was that fewer than 1 percent of federal projects require such exhaustive evaluations, with the rest needing no evaluation or a much less demanding environmental assessment…

It’s true that the government can take years to say yes or no to large or controversial projects, using its authority under the National Environmental Policy Act, a Nixon-era law requiring government agencies to consult with one another (and, importantly, the public) to determine how to proceed with the least environmental damage. These reviews have generally produced positive outcomes for the environment without damaging the economy.

The Times editors also saw through two other examples of either ignorance or disinformation:

The president called for an online dashboard, where people could track the progress of projects. Such a website already exists.

He said government agencies that drag their feet should be fined, which is possible under a 2012 transportation law signed by President Barack Obama.

The Times editors also identified the real issue:

What ails the country’s infrastructure is clear enough: the lack of serious investment. Mr. Trump promised during his campaign to increase investment by $1 trillion. So far, we have seen none of the money — and in its place, besides a gauzy plan that relies on tax credits for private investors, we have the straw man of environmental regulation.

From my perspective, the same analysis applies to public education. Public schools are not lacking in innovation because of federal regulations or, for that matter, union contracts. Most federal regulations are imposed to ensure an equitable opportunity for students of all races and abilities and most state regulations are designed to ensure that classes are led by qualified teachers. If they are deemed to be onerous, it is only because they require schools to be sensitive to the needs of handicapped and minority students even if state and local governments are not.

And while the Times editors didn’t note it in their list of “regulations”, I’m certain one of the major regulatory concerns of the “Transportation Industry” is the requirement that federal contractors pay their workers prevailing wages. That REALLY drives up the costs and diminishes profits! And heaven forbid that the nascent for-profit school industry be required to unionize! That would only add to their costs by requiring schools to pay teachers a wage that allows them to dedicate their full attention to the children in their class! Such regulations might limit the profits of this venture!

If the Times editors examined the public school issues through the same lens as they are viewing the infrastructure issues they would undoubtedly come to the same conclusion: What ails the country’s public education infrastructure is clear: the lack of serious investment.

de Blasio’s Desegregation Plan: Disappointing but Do-able

June 7, 2017 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize, I am dismayed at the re-segregation of public schools across the country, including those in NYC for several reasons:

  • It reflects the racism inherent in housing choices many parents make, choices that result in neighborhood schools whose composition reflects the racial demographics of neighborhoods and school districts.
  • It reflects the economic divisions that persist, divisions that are exacerbated by policies set by town and city governments and by lending institutions.
  • It prevents public education from accomplishing its two of its inter-related aspirational goals:to afford each and every child in our country the same opportunity for success; and to ensure that our country is a melting pot where every child learns tolerance and respect for children of all backgrounds and races.

For the past several years, in part because of the choice program instituted under Mayor Bloomberg designed to retain affluent and white students in the NYC schools, the schools in NYC have become increasingly segregated. When he ran for office, now Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to reverse that trend and many in the city hoped to see dramatic policy changes that would compel more integration.

The mayor released his desegregation plan this week, and, as Kate Taylor reported in today’s NYTimes, for those looking for a dramatic change in direction, the plan is a disappointment.

For months, New York City had promised to deliver what Mayor Bill de Blasio called a “bigger vision” for integrating the city’s racially divided public schools. Activists pressed their ideas. Students rallied on the steps of City Hall to demand a voice.

But when the plan landed on Tuesday, it was with a whimper. The mayor did not appear in public to talk about it. Neither did the schools chancellor. Instead, the city’s Education Department emailed out a news release, which did not even use the word “segregation.”

The release said the department was “committed to supporting learning environments that reflect the diversity of New York City” and laid out a dozen policies — many of them small-bore, some of them already in place — designed to increase diversity, which was defined as encompassing not only racial background but also traits like disability status and gender expression.

The plan sidesteps the most contentious issues associated with the trend toward resegregation, which deal with residential housing patterns that result in highly segregated elementary schools and the so-called “screened schools” that base admissions in large measure on test scores, a factor that increases the probability of racial and economic segregation in secondary schools.

Because the plan is modest at best, it received a tepid response from all quarters. Matt Gonzales, director of the School Diversity Project at New York Appleseed, an advocacy organization, while “pleased by the diversity goals the department set out, as well as the commitment to talking with local communities“, found the specific policy proposals “concerning and disappointing.” Ms. Taylor writes:

(Gonzales) noted that the city was not getting rid of screened schools that require certain test scores or a high grade point average. “It seems like the D.O.E. is kind of doubling down on maintenance of screened schools, which are going to ultimately create stratified education environments…” 

Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a middle and high school in Brooklyn, who was characterized as “…a sharp critic of the Education Department on segregation“, reacted by noting that

…integration would require more aggressive policies and could not rely on using choice as a lever. But, she said, “I think they’re worried that if they don’t use the public schools to create enclaves for middle-class families, that those families will pull out of public education.

Superintendent Carmen Farina thought that “steps like putting middle and high school applications online and allowing private prekindergarten providers that contract with the city to set aside seats for low-income students would help” but acknowledged that “There’s a lot more work ahead.” And the mayor’s reaction:

The mayor did not comment on the plan on Tuesday. At an education event last month, he had seemed to lower expectations for it, saying, “We’re not going to put forward a plan that says we’re going to instantly wipe away 400 years of American history.”

Given the scope of the Mayor’s plan, 400 years might be needed to reverse the re-segregation in the city. His plan is do-able and will enable him to say he is doing something to address the issue of segregation, but it seems that he could have followed his heart instead of his political pragmatism. My sense is that the mayor probably feels that bold action at this point would alienate a base of voters who vocally support his perspective on race but might protest the consequences of abandoning the status quo. Many parents who support integration in the abstract would bridle at the thought that their child who scored highly on standardized tests would be denied entry at a screened school in favor of a minority or poor student who is “undeservingly” placed in that school, just as many parents who move into recently gentrified neighborhoods protested when boundary lines at the elementary level were redrawn in a way that increased the racial and economic integration. Until all parents in the city— white and minority, rich and poor— believe their children will be able to “succeed” in an “unscreened” secondary school and all parents have confidence that their “neighborhood” elementary school can offer the same level of support for children and teachers as the “neighborhood school” a few blocks away serving affluent parents, segregation will persist. To achieve that goal, the Mayor will need to pour substantially more resources into the schools serving children in poverty so that those schools are more appealing to middle class families. Such an investment might avoid the current gentrification trends that lead to the “middle class enclaves” cited by Ms. Bloomberg and that might help middle class parents realize that their children can get a good education in a school serving poor and minority children.

A substantial investment in schools serving children raised in poverty would do a lot more for those children than “…putting middle and high school applications online and allowing private prekindergarten providers that contract with the city to set aside seats for low-income students“.