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A Fly in the Ointment for Choice Advocates Who Want to Promote Marketplace Panacea for Inequitable Public Schools

November 17, 2019 Leave a comment

For more than a decade the mainstream press and politicians have adopted the stance that if schools competed for students the same way as grocery store compete for customers the inequities that have plagued schools for decades would disappear completely. There is one city in America where this notion has been put the test… and that is New York City where over a decade ago Mayor Bloomberg launched a program to offer choice to all secondary schools in the city. Why White Parents Were at the Front of the Line for the School Tour, a recent NYTimes article by Liza Shapiro, describes one phenomenon that illustrates why the free-market-choice paradigm is no solution for the inequities among schools in the city. Having a grandson who just went through the grind of applying for high school, I observed that he had some decided benefits compared to some of this classmates.

First and foremost, my grandson had two fully engaged parents who were capable of grasping the byzantine application process, willing and able to do the research necessary to identify the schools that were the best match for him, and worked for employers whose work schedules made it possible for one or both of them to accompany him on the school tours that are a critical factor in determining whether or not he might get into the school of his choice.

Secondly, he is the kind of student who is not intimidated by standardized tests. I know from my experience as a building level administrator that many highly capable students do not perform well on standardized tests and, consequently, their scores do not accurately capture their capabilities in the classroom. In New York City the primary means of screening students for gifted and talented programs and “competitive” high schools is a single standardized test. According to the test, he wasn’t quite gifted and talented when he entered elementary school but his scores were sufficiently high to enable him to enter one of the “competitive” schools. Readers of this blog know that I do not believe that the use of a single test to make these determinations is highly objectionable and without merit… but advocates view them as an objective means of determining qualifications.

Third, he lived at the same address throughout his school career. In an article that appeared in October 2018, Elizabeth Shapiro reported that 1 in 10 students in New York City lived in temporary housing during the previous school year. The article noted that in 144 of the schools in the city, 1/3 or more of the students are homeless! My grandson was never homeless and his parents never moved during his years in public school.

Finally, as the information above implies, my grandson had no Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) growing up. According to research by Childtrends, at the national level 45% of his classmates have experienced at least one such experience and 10% of his classmates have experienced three or more. Child trends defines “Adverse Childhood Experiences” as: psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as exposure in the home to substance abuse, mental illness and suicide, incarceration, violence, physical and emotional neglect, parental separation and divorce, exposure to violence outside of the home, living in unsafe neighborhoods, homelessness, bullying, discrimination based on race or ethnicity, and experience of income insecurity. A child who has experienced ACES did not choose to have those experiences and the adversity he or she faced as a consequence of those ACES is not going to be offset by being able to choose a school to attend.

In short, had my grandson been raised in a different environment, one where he had an absent or disengaged parents, one where he was homeless or moved from year-to-year to different neighborhoods, or one where he had one or more ACEs, it is unlikely that his parents would not have been in line at the Beacon school. And if he was the kind of student who froze when he took a timed standardized test his parents might not have bothered to stand in line realizing his chances of getting into the school were slim. In short, the “choice solution” is no solution at all.

 

The Upshot Reaches an Obvious But Important Conclusion About Advantaged vs. Disadvantaged Children

October 29, 2019 Comments off

The Upshot, an online publication of the NYTimes, features articles that use data analysis to draw conclusions about a wide range of topics. Earlier this week, it featured an article by Emily Oster describing the evidence on child-rearing practices that reaches an obvious but important conclusion about children raised in advantanged homes vs. this raised in dis-adavantaged homes: there is a huge disconnect between the kinds of choices advantaged parents face as compared to those dis-advantaged parents face. While affluent parents debate the merits of nutrition or various pre-school programs dis-advatanged parents are choosing between paying the heating bill versus paying for school lunch. These two paragraphs near the end of Ms. Oster’s article provide a good synopsis of this difference:

This disconnect between the debates parents have and the data on child outcomes has societal implications. Policies in the United States that focus on helping less well-off families and children have a much greater impact. Many families live with limited access to health coverage and are forced to make choices between, say, food and medicine. Children with lunch debt face “lunch shaming” in many districts — and some are denied the option of hot meals. There is good evidence that high-quality pre-K programs like Head Start can improve school readiness.

And yet many of our parenting discussions are driven by, effectively, elite concerns. What is the best organic formula? Food mills versus “baby-led weaning.” Breast-feeding for one year, or two? And, of course, preschool philosophy. These concerns occupy thoughts and Facebook discussions, but they also occupy the news media, at least some of the time.

But, as I am confident Ms. Oster knows, placing a “focus on helping less well-off families” will require those advantaged families to dig a little deeper in their pockets to pay higher taxes or, heaven forbid, asking shareholders to forego a small percentage of profits that they “earn” when the corporations they invest in save on taxes.

Because no one wants to run a campaign that suggests taxes will increase for those who are advantaged, glib “solutions” like school choice come into play. The idea behind “school choice” is that parents would be free to choose whatever school best meets the needs of their child in the same way that they can choose organic formula or breast-feeding or the preschool with the philosophy that matches theirs. The reality is that disadvantaged parents are so bogged down in making choices between food and medicine that they do not have the luxury to examine alternatives the same way as their more affluent colleagues. But the idea of “choices” is an easy and inexpensive salve to a complicated and costly reality.

Until we begin to face the fact that not every parent has the same range of choices and that some choices are limited due to circumstances well beyond the control of the disadvantaged parents themselves we will continue to reinforce the economic system we have an continue to widen the economic divisions in our country.

A few weeks ago, Bernie Sanders posed this question to a crowd of 26,000 who came to a rally for his candidacy:

Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?”

If we do not answer yes to that question, we are not our brother’s keeper… we are buying into the Social Darwinism that business is based on… we are denying the opportunity for advancement to huge swaths of our country.

Red States Didn’t Cut As Many Services as Feared… but the Bipartisan Desire for Charter Schools Has Transformed the Debate on Public Schools

August 19, 2019 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes features an op ed article by Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, that suggests that the GOP has not made as many adverse inroads into public services as Democrats and progressives feared. Mr. Grossman provides compelling data on the limited ability of conservatives to impose their full  agenda at the state level, in large measure because they have to provide balanced budgets. But he misses one big point: the bi-partisan support for charter schools has transformed the debate on public education. After recounting the challenges State GOP legislators faced in trying to cut popular programs, Mr. Grossman offers this summary of the successes the GOP experienced:

Surprisingly, the biggest Republican state success stories came in partnership with Democrats. After decades of tough-on-crime policies, conservative groups joined with liberal foundations to reform criminal justice in several states. Taking advantage of federal action by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and (especially) Barack Obama, conservative legislators helped greatly expand charter schools. Early childhood education and alternative energy promotion also expanded nationwide, largely on a bipartisan basis.

Mr. Grossman overlooked a very significant shift that appears to have taken place as a result of the Democrats adopting the neoliberal idea that public schools should be operated independently of local school boards.

The bi-patrisan support for charter schools means the debate between those seeking governance of public education by locally ELECTED officials as opposed to governance by private UNELECTED boards is over. The debate is now about whether parents’ decisions about where their child attends school should be made as citizens seeking options for government funded services (i.e. charter “schools-of-choice” vs. traditional schools “assigned by the government”) or made as consumers able to choose from a wide array of products (i.e. vouchers). In short, the debate is no longer between attending the “government school” that is funded with state and/or local taxes or choosing from an array of charters approved by the local and/or State Board. The debate is now between choice and vouchers… allowing parents to take their “school tax allocation” and applying to whatever school they wish to attend— on line, nearby, or distant. It appears that there is bi-partisan support for the abandonment of the governance model that has been in place for decades whereby local communities fund schools overseen by elected school boards that their local resident children must attend. Mr. Grossman may not see this as consequential. As a retired public school administrator I do.

Self-Directed Learning: A Place Where Libertarianism and Progressivism Intersect

August 2, 2019 Comments off

A series of articles in the libertarian Cato Institute’s July edition of Cato Unbound offers four essays that describe a point where libertarianism and progressivism intersect: the need to move away from our lock-step factory model of education in the direction of self-directed learning. The opening paragraphs introducing the essays describes the basic libertarian argument for questioning the status quo and re-thinking the voucher plans espoused by their iconic economist Milton Friedman:

Libertarians tend to support school choice. But for whom? In the voucher model, parents may choose among various private schooling options for their children and designate their vouchers to the schools they’ve selected.

But what if school itself is a matter of choice? And what does it look like when students and parents choose unstructured learning instead?Is this unconventional choice an option that libertarians should prefer? Perhaps: much about the conventional experience of primary and secondary schooling is the product of bureaucratization and standardization—and much of that comes directly from state involvement in education.

So what is the relationship between libertarian politics and unstructured schooling? How seriously should libertarians take the idea of scrapping school as we know it, and replacing it with child-directed learning?

As one who read and admired the thinking of A.S. Neill, John Holt, and Ivan Illich, there is an appeal to seeing public education as it exists today wither and disappear. Since the passage of NCLB, education policy has been dictated by the desire of politicians and parents to ensure that children graduating from high school meet “high standards”. But setting such standards without increasing funding or changing the age-based grade-level cohort scheme for schooling has proven to be an impossibility. The result is “failing schools” based on standardized test scores and increasingly dis-engaged students as today’s students find the lessons linked to test scores dispiriting and pointless in a world where they can get answers to questions that concern them directly with a Google Search or the use of an app. In the next few days I plan to explore the ideas presented in these Cato Unbound essays and offer some ideas on how we might change to current paradigm for schooling in a way that helps all children have an opportunity to learn more by directing their own learning.

“Learn Everywhere”, Chris Sununu and Frank Edelblut’s Backdoor Privatization Scheme, Unlikely to be Implemented

July 27, 2019 Comments off

NH Governor Chris Sununu and NH Secretary of Education Frank Edelblut, pro-privatization advocates, concocted a deschooling idea called “Learn Everywhere” that the current State Board of Education adopted over protests from every public education organization. The concept behind “Learn Everywhere” was that the State Board of Education would be able to grant high school credits to students who participated in learning opportunities outside of their public school. This is a wonderful concept… but there was no need for the State Board to adopt such a concept because one was already in place! Several years ago the State Board authorized local boards to do the same thing when they created “Extended Learning Opportunities”. But despite the existence of this opportunity, the State Board decided to get into the credit-granting business itself, an action that would clearly undercut the authority of local boards, and an action that was universally seen as a power grab. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the Manchester Union Leader that appeared when the “Learn Everywhere” proposal was on the verge of adoption:

In a letter to the Board of Education released on Tuesday, the top education groups were united in their criticism of Edelblut’s proposal.

“We believe that as proposed, the ‘Learn Everywhere’ rules trample local control, are highly skewed toward wealthy families, grant graduation credits from non-accredited, non-credential sources, and provide little oversight and limited protections to students with disabilities and their families,” the letter states….

The League of Women Voters echoed that theme in their statement, pointing out that “New Hampshire’s public schools already award credit for work done outside the traditional high school program, including Extended Learning Opportunities coordinated by the local high schools.”

“We urge the State Board of Education to support learning opportunities such as these rather than the ill-defined Learn Everywhere proposal.”

The “Learn Everywhere” proposal passed by a slim majority on the State Board, with Sununu appointees supporting the proposal and holdover board members opposing it.

But passage of a regulation by an agency does not have the force of law. Before an agency’s rule can have the force of law it must be reviewed and accepted by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, or JLCAR…. and, as Bill Duncan, State Board member and opponent to the “Learn Everywhere” proposal, wrote in an op ed article in the July 24 Concord Monitor, JCLAR opposes the rule as it is written. Why?

Central to the committee’s concerns is the provision that New Hampshire high schools “shall” accept graduation credits created by private groups accredited by the State Board of Education (SBOE).

Normally, when JLCAR sends a proposed rule back with a preliminary objection, the agency makes the required changes and resubmits the rule to JLCAR for a virtually assured final approval. That does not seem likely in this case.

While merely changing the requirement that schools “shall” accept Learn Everywhere credits to “may” would be the obvious remedy to the key JLCAR objection, SBOE will probably not do that. The whole goal of the Learn Everywhere program is to replace public school courses with privately created graduation credits overseen by the education department.The word “shall” is the heart of the project. So this may become a real battle, one in which both sides will feel the stakes are high.

It is ironic that the GOP, a party that espouses local control over everything, wants to take local control away when it comes to awarding high school credits. But the endgame of all of this is the replacement of public schools with for profit enterprises and/or religiously affiliated schools that are not staffed with certified teachers. That was Frank Edelblut’s vision when he ran for Governor and almost defeated Chris Sununu and has been his mission ever since he took control of the State Department of education.

Mr. Duncan’s op ed article asserts that the JCLAR ruling is likely to stop the complete implementation of “Learn Everywhere”… but it also underscores the importance of having a progressive-minded Governor and legislature in 2020 and thereafter… for if the GOP controlled JCLAR the pro-privatization movement would be gaining steam now. Every election is important… and thankfully the 2018 election restored a degree of moderation to the NH legislature. Here’s hoping it remains that way for the foreseeable future.

Charter Schools Acknowledge Flaws, Flaws that Prove “No Excuses” Approach to Discipline Fails

July 6, 2019 Comments off

After reading Eliza Shapiro’s article this morning in the NYTimes I came away with the sense that MAYBE the tide is turning against charter schools in NYC and, if so, it could be a harbinger of a shift everywhere. The article’s title, “Why Some of the Country’s Best Urban Schools Face a Reckoning”, is misleading at best. It implies that the charter schools who are facing “a reckoning” are “some of the country’s best urban schools”, which perpetuates the NYTImes narrative that charter schools are better than traditional public schools. The article, though, pulls no punches because the data on charter schools indicted that while many of the charters flagged in the article have trumpeted their successes they have papered over their failures. The first two paragraphs set the stage:

When the charter school movement first burst on to the scene, its founders pledged to transform big urban school districts by offering low-income and minority families something they believed was missing: safe, orderly schools with rigorous academics.

But now, several decades later, as the movement has expanded, questions about whether its leaders were fulfilling their original promise to educate vulnerable children better than neighborhood public schools have mounted.

From there, Ms. Shapiro describes how zero tolerance discipline policies ended up emphasizing conduct at the expense of academics, demonstrates that many of the criticisms leveled against the charter schools were warranted, and indicates that both the Governor of NY and the legislature have resisted any further expansion of charters in NYC because of the deficiencies in the programs. Ms. Shapiro describes the new political reality in this paragraph:

Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who has been a crucial supporter of charters, declared that the State Legislature would not lift a cap on the number of new charters issued citywide. By halting charter growth indefinitely, Albany lawmakers have begun to erode the schools’ foothold in the country’s biggest school system.

Will the charter’s loosening foothold in Albany and NYC have an impact on their expansion elsewhere? My belief is that it will except in those parts of the country where charters are unapologetically used to segregate children based on race, religion, and wealth…. and as long as Betsy DeVos has her hand on the tiller and neoliberalism reigns in the Democratic party the resegregation and monetization of public schools will continue and charters will be the vehicle for that trend.

DeVos Adopts Caveat Emptor Approach to Student Debt… Profiteers Smile!

June 29, 2019 Comments off

In an unsurprising “Dog Bites Man” development, Betsy DeVos repealed the Obama era guidelines designed to punish for-profit schools for misleading consumers and replaced them with a set of guidelines designed to provide consumers with more information…. and letting the profiteers off the hook entirely.

NYTimes reporter Erica Green describes it thusly in her article on the topic:

The so-called gainful employment rule was issued by the Obama administration in 2014, right before huge for-profit chains collapsed, leaving students stranded with debt and worthless degrees. Under the new standards, career and certificate programs, many of which operate in the for-profit sector, would have to prove their graduates could find gainful employment to maintain access to federal financial aid. It also would have required schools to disclose in advertisements a comparison of the student debt load of their graduates and their career earnings…

Education Department officials have argued that transparency, not regulation, is the best way to hold all schools — public nonprofits, community colleges and for-profits — accountable for their results. Instead of any accountability measures, it promised to expand an existing database, called the College Scorecard, to provide information on student debt and earnings prospects. The database, which provides information, including loan debt information, for 2,100 certificate granting programs, was unveiled last month.

In short, the USDOE shifted the burden of proof and responsibility from profiteers to consumers… a move that likely foreshadows how the marketplace might work should Ms. DeVos and her libertarian minded charter school advocates have their way with vouchers. The consequence of this shift is described by Ms. Green:

But in rescinding the rule, the department is eradicating the most fearsome accountability measure — the loss of federal aid — for schools that promise to furnish students with specific career skills but fail to prepare them for the job market, leaving taxpayers on the hook to pay back their loans…

Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an architect of the rule when he was in the Obama administration, called the repeal “disturbing and shortsighted.”

They are opening the door to operators whose singular focus on gobbling up federal grants and loans for their investors will steer the business toward manipulative recruiting and poor quality training,” he said.

Meanwhile, the relief for thousands of indebted former students of those schools “…whose singular focus on gobbling up federal grants and loans for their investors” is in limbo as the USDOE delays decisions on how to handle the money they owe to the government:

…Ms. DeVos has moved to overhaul that “borrower-defense” rule as well, hoping to give some students only partial relief. That process has been tied up in court proceedings, leaving more than 150,000 student claims in limbo.

“Borrower Defense” is replaced by “Caveat Emptor” and the businessmen “…whose singular focus on gobbling up federal grants and loans for their investors” are relieved and elated… and the edu-preneurs are getting their ads for charter schools geared up for the day when vouchers expand.

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