State Senator To Propose Rewriting PA Charter School Law To Hold the Industry Accountable

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Pennsylvania’s charter school law is a national disgrace.

 

It allows charters to defraud the public and provide a substandard education to our children.

 

Charter school managers pay themselves with taxpayer money for leases on properties they already own. They funnel money through shell companies into their own pockets. Academic achievement at many charters is far below par.

 

And it’s all legal.

 

That’s why state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has long called it the “worst charter school law” in the country. But his call for sweeping reforms from the legislature has fallen on mostly deaf ears.

 

Until now.

 

State Sen. Jim Brewster (D-45) is in the early stages of proposing legislation that would ensure charter schools are held as accountable as other public schools.

 

 

Specifically it would require these types of schools, which are ostensibly public but privately managed, to be transparent, fiscally solvent and responsible to taxpayers.

 

“It has become abundantly clear that systemic changes are needed in how brick and mortar and cyber charters operate in Pennsylvania,” Brewster says.  “There is a growing frustration that charters are unaccountable.”

 

The bill doesn’t have a Senate number yet, nor has its specific language been made available. However, the State Senator from McKeesport announced plans to formally propose it in Harrisburg within the next several weeks.

 

 

Brewster’s bill would:

  • Require local school boards to sign off on any new charter construction project costing more than $1 million. The project would have to be backed by a financing arrangement with a local industrial development authority or other government entity. This way charters would have to prove that new construction projects are fiscally sound and won’t be abandoned after wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.

 

  • Compel charter schools to prove they have the funds to keep running for the entire school year. They would have to post a bond, other type of surety, or agree to a payment escrow arrangement. This would ensure charters don’t close suddenly leaving students and parents in the lurch.

 

 

  • Limit the scope of the state Charter School Appeal Board to solely determining whether the local school board acted appropriately in reviewing charter school applications. The state should not be approving new charter schools. That power should remain at the local district level, though the state can determine if local school boards are acting within the bounds of the law.

 

  • Require officials from the state Department of Education (PDE) to visit the proposed site of a charter school to ascertain the condition of its physical building. Their report will then be made a part of the charter application. This way charters can’t get away with paying themselves for properties they already own and they won’t be able to open with substandard buildings.

 

 

  • Mandate that a charter school applicant obtain approval from multiple school districts if the charter school draws more than 25 students from a specific district. Every district impacted by the opening of a new charter should have a say whether it can open.

 

  • Upgrade accountability by requiring a quarterly report on the operations of the charter school to the local school board – with the report delivered in person by a charter school official. While traditional public schools report on operations monthly, reporting four times annually would greatly increase charter school transparency. At present charters don’t have to provide such reports sometimes for years after opening. Moreover, having a flesh and blood representative of the charter school at these meetings would allow for the public to ask questions about how their money is being spent.

 

 

  • Make a structured financial impact statement part of the charter school application. This would include an estimation of enrollment multiplied by tuition payments. The impact statement may serve as the justification for denial of a charter application. This would be huge. Traditional public schools can be sucked dry of funding from fly-by-night charters without their record of proven success. Necessitating an impact statement of this kind would truly make the local district and the charter school educational partners and not competing foes.

 

  • Increase the percentage of certified teachers at charters from 75 percent to 90 percent of faculty, though current faculty would be grandfathered in. Except under extreme circumstances, all teachers at traditional public schools are certified. Making charters raise the bar close to that of traditional public schools is an improvement – though Brewster has in the past proposed legislation to require 100 percent of charter teachers to be certified. It’s unclear why he’s settled on 90 percent here.

 

  • Prohibit charter board members from receiving payments for school lease arrangements.  This issue was highlighted in August in the auditor general’s report where he found $2.5 million tax dollars being defrauded in this way. Charter operators have complained that nothing they did was illegal. This measure would ensure that in the future such moves would be explicit violations of the law.

 

 

  • Impose a moratorium on the approval of new cyber-charter schools since their academic performance has been so consistently below that of traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters. In fact, A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction and 72 days less of reading than traditional public schools. (By the way, there are only 180 days in an average school year.)

 

Brewster said these reforms offer a place to begin real robust regulation of the charter industry. However, he is open to adding others.

 

“The auditor general has made a number of worthwhile recommendations and I’ve combined some of these ideas with other features to produce what I believe is an excellent starting point for comprehensive reform,” he says.

 

“We need to dig deep and look critically at the charter law to make sweeping changes. In this year alone, the auditor general has pointed out that the reimbursement process is flawed, that there were too many reimbursement appeals and that the cyber charter law reeked with ethical issues, poor oversight and a lack of transparency.

 

“It is clear that the charter law is not helping schools, charters themselves or the taxpayers.”

 

There are more than 150 charter schools statewide enrolling more than 128,000 students, according to state data. Nearly half of these schools are in the Philadelphia area.

Two years ago, DePasquale released a set of specific recommendations to improve the charter law, which Brewster drew upon when writing his proposed legislation. DePasquale’s suggestions called for an independent board to oversee charter school processes and functions — including lease reimbursements and student enrollment. He also suggested public hearings involving charter changes, limits on fund balances and guidelines on calculating teacher certification benchmarks.

 

Brewster said he is not unduly singling out the charter school industry. He says he is confident making these changes will help charter schools by ensuring only high quality institutions are allowed in the Commonwealth.

 

The Democrat Representing the 45th legislative District says he realizes that October is late in the year to be proposing such sweeping changes. He is doing so now to raise awareness of the issue, though he doesn’t expect it to come to a vote until the next legislative session at the earliest.

 

He hopes to bring up many of these issues tomorrow (Oct. 13) at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing at the Monroeville Municipal Building in Monroeville in his district.

 

The legislature tried to pass a charter school reform bill (House Bill 530 ) this summer but it had been rewritten into more giveaways to the industry than regulations. For instance, it would have allowed charters to open almost anywhere in the state without approval from local school districts. As such, it lost support.

 

Government watchers cautioned that this charter Trojan Horse bill might rear its ugly head again in Harrisburg. Here’s hoping that Brewster’s bill has more success and isn’t likewise bastardized into a piece of legislation that gives away the store.

 

If there’s one thing most people agree about in the Keystone state, it’s that we need charter school reform. Brewster’s Bill may be the answer to our prayers.

Fight Corporate Education Reform and Meme It!

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Sometimes words alone aren’t enough.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re arguing with someone and just not able to get your point across. You know if you could just show them the picture in your brain, they’d understand what you meant with the force of a bullet. But lacking psychic abilities, you’re reduced to the efforts of your poor twisted, tangled tongue.

That’s where memes make all the difference.

A meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Though originally coined as a term to describe genes, the expression has expanded to encompass anything that can carry ideas from one mind to another with a mimicked theme.

I know that sounds daunting, but you’ve probably seen hundreds or thousands of memes already. At least half of the images on Facebook and Twitter are memes – Grumpy Cat, Condescending Wonka, One Does Not Simply, Conspiracy Keanu and enough facepalms to break your jaw.

As a meme-maker, myself, I’ve been surprised that some of my efforts have taken on lives of their own. By no means am I a master at the art, but a few of my 50 plus memes have been surfing the Internet on their own for a year or more. I’ll go on a nationwide education organization’s Facebook page and see my little meme staring back at me. “Hi, Daddy!”

I leave you with an experiment. Here is a collection of some of my favorite creations. I’ve limited myself here to memes on the subject of education. I’ve also organized them to some degree based on subtopics.

Please feel free to browse. If you see a meme that you like – that helps make your point about the errors of corporate education reform – you have my blessing to take it. Post it on your Facebook page, in a tweet, on Tumbler, whatever you please. Send my little message off again into the great sea of interconnected webs and communication nets. Maybe one day it’ll return to me.

Happy shopping!

 

STANDARDIZED TESTING
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COMMON CORE
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TENURE

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VALUE-ADDED MEASURES (VAM)

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CORPORATE EDUCATION REFORM

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ACCOUNTABILITY

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PENNSYLVANIA ISSUES
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MISCELLANEOUS

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The Best Evidence Against Common Core

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There were hands in the air. Lots of them.

It wasn’t just the same one or two I was used to seeing, either. It was almost all of them.

My classroom of 8th grade Language Arts students had something to say, and they could barely contain it.

We sat together in a circle, the desks piled in the center and forgotten. We peered across that distance at each other’s faces and waited for someone to be called on.

It wasn’t me who did it.

The student who had just spoken picked a girl across the room from him. A smile cracked her face wide open as she began to speak.

This wasn’t the norm in my room. At least not yet.

We had only been together a few weeks. In that short time, this group of children from impoverished families – many of whom had criminal records, behavior contracts and folders full of write up slips in the office – had really been putting me through my paces.

If you left them in a room alone, there would probably be a fist fight in 5 minutes. If you peeked at their IEPS, you’d see a host of pharmaceuticals needed just to get them through the day. And if you only looked at their standardized test scores, you’d assume they’d need help to tie their own shoes.

But here they were sitting comfortably, discussing societal racism, gender roles, and how we treat the disabled.

If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d think it was a class of college freshmen.

That’s what a Socratic Seminar does to a class full of troubled teens.

For the uninitiated, Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic Seminars as follows:

The Socratic Seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)1

Socratic Seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

In short, it’s the kind of thing teachers used to do all the time before No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Race to the Top replaced it with something more rigorous – test prep.

The text we were discussing was “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera. The story centers around Squeaky, an African American girl tasked with looking after her mentally challenged brother, Raymond. At first this is just a chore assigned by her parents. Her real goal is to defeat all comers in various track and field events. However, by the end of the story, she discovers that helping others is its own reward.

But hush. Destiny is speaking.

“Squeaky is kind of a Tomboy,” she read from the question sheet I provided. “Should girls do girly things like being ‘flowers or fairies or strawberries’ or should they be allowed to do more masculine things like play sports? Why or why not?”

“Girls should be allowed to do whatever they want,” she answered. “If they want to play sports or do things that we usually think of as boy things, no one should stop them.”

“In fact,” she went on, “boys should be able to do girl things if they want, too. It’s just like in the story when Squeaky says girls can’t be real friends with other girls because they’re too busy being something other people expect them to be. If people were allowed to be themselves, there’d be less fights.”

Destiny was a girl who only last week sullenly sat with her head down refusing to answer any of my classroom questions with a suck of the teeth. Now she sounded like Gloria Steinem.

And she wasn’t alone. She chose Pablo to continue answering the question about gender roles. He brought up how people in our school treat gay kids.

Pablo said it made him sad that other boys were afraid to be seen hanging around with some kids because they thought their friends would call them gay. “Two girls can hug and hold hands and no one says anything, but if boys did that – they’re gay.”

This from a child who is often absent from school and still had the remains of a black eye that the guidance councilor would only explain by saying the school was aware of it.

Serina took the floor next and had to actually calm herself down before speaking. She told us about her brother, who is gay, and how it makes her cry when people make fun of him. In fact, there may have been a tear or two she calmly rubbed out of her eye with her palm.

At this point – had he been there – David Coleman would put a halt to our discussion.

The co-author of the Common Core famously said, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.

So shut up, kids. No one cares what you have to say.

Drawing from his deep zero years of training in the field of education, Coleman said:

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

This attitude is reflected in the standards Coleman helped write and Bill Gates coerced state and federal governments to force on our public schools.

It’s embodied in an emphasis on close reading – going over a text multiple times to squeeze every drop of intention from the author. It’s a fine way of understanding what the author may have meant. It’s not a fine way of teaching or even understanding the full scope of a literary text.

To be honest, this isn’t exactly cutting edge stuff. It comes from the New Criticism of literary theory of the 1940s. Most schools of education replaced this outdated orthodoxy with Reader-Response theory thirty or forty years ago. Reader-Response sees the author as merely one of many factors making meaning in a text. Of equal importance is the world in which the author lived and the particular point of view of the reader.

Think about it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a very different book written during the Civil Rights Movement than had it been written in the 1990s. It’s important to know that many of the characters are based on real people in the author’s life. It’s important to know about the violence and civil unrest that came to a head at the time of the book’s publication. Moreover, an inner city African American boy has a different experience reading it than a privileged white suburbanite.

Reader-Response criticism opens up the act of reading and allows for classroom activities like the Socratic Seminar. But Coleman wouldn’t know anything about that. He was an English Literature major, and when given the chance to write education standards, he paid no attention to what was most pedagogically significant. He simply favored his pet literary theory over those of more modern thinkers.

But if Coleman and the architects of Common Core could be in my classroom, they might see the error of their ways.

Allowing students ownership of the text – allowing them to take their proper place as part of a complex relationship between the text, author and the world – is so much more engaging an experience than just being an authorial archeologist.

When we insist on strict adherence to the author’s message – and only that – we create a false objectivity. Language Arts is a subject that is at most times open to interpretation. But Coleman makes it a guessing game to get the “right answer.”

Literature is not math. We shouldn’t try to turn it into something it isn’t.

This is why at the beginning of the year, my students take my innocent questions about the meaning of a text as an affront. They see me as just another adult trying to trick them. They assume I’m trying to get them to guess what I’m thinking – about what the author was thinking. There has to be only one true answer, they suppose, and if they haven’t been good at guessing it in the past, why try now?

It takes a while, but through lessons like the Socratic Seminar, I try to broaden their horizons, to show them that they have a vital place in this dynamic. Without a reader, a text is nothing but words on paper. Without a larger societal context, those words lack their full meaning.

Moreover, not all texts are created equal. By this I don’t mean that some aren’t rigorous enough. I mean that literary texts are richer and deeper if they come from a multitude of cultural points of view.

We used to know this. Schools used to encourage students to read works by the full spectrum of Americans – African Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, etc. Now we shove all that under the carpet in favor of “rigorous” works by the same safe vanilla European Caucasian males.

Common Core doesn’t stop schools from using multicultural texts, but it doesn’t value them, either. There is no standard about the importance of reading diverse authors. In fact, the only diversity I see valued is that students should view diverse kinds of media!

Great! Read an essay, watch a video, play a song. But what about being exposed to diverse cultures and points of view?

Oh! I almost forgot. Coleman says no one gives a shit about that stuff.

My students do. When they read a work by an African American woman like Toni Cade Bambera, they can see themselves in her work. I’ve taught an awful lot of Squeakies in my years as a teacher. (I’ve even taught a few David Colemans.)

When you can open a book and see yourself looking back, what a motivation to read! But how unfair that we only value providing this experience for the white kids!

If we had truly high standards, we’d recognize this. We wouldn’t ignore the value of multiculturalism. We wouldn’t dumb down Language Arts to a simplistic and anachronistic formula designed to fail and humiliate.

Coleman and the Common Core designers would know that if they had ever led a classroom of students. But hardly any of them are educators. They’re bureaucrats, politicians and millionaire philanthropists.

They’re missing the true picture.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is denied them.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is in the classroom.


NOTES:

1 – Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.

-For more information about Socratic Seminars, professional development and even ideas about how to extoll their Common Core benefits (lesson plans, people!) please visit Socratic Seminars International.

This article was also published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Reformers Standardize – Teachers Individualize

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If you turn on the TV these days, you’re bound to come across a news program talking about education reform. You’ll see at least five talking heads – not one of whom is an actual school teacher.

 

And no one thinks there’s anything wrong with that.

 

You’ll find actors, sports stars, politicians, hedge fund managers, vulture capitalists, economists… anyone but a living, breathing educator. If you’re lucky, you might find someone like Michelle Rhee who taught for about three years before becoming a professional education reformer and then was embroiled in various cheating scandals.

 

Would we find this acceptable if it were in other fields? I wonder if a panel on medical reform held without a single doctor would have the same gravitas. Maybe a discussion on safe ways to fly an airplane without any airplane pilots would be well received. ‘Laws Without Lawyers’ would sure be an informative talk! Heck! We even hire ex-athletes and coaches to go on ESPN and talk about the games they, themselves, played and/or coached!

 

Only in the field of education do we find The Professional completely superfluous. Much has been made of the public’s disregard for teachers: the idea that since you’ve graduated high school, you know what it means to be a teacher. You don’t.

 

You don’t get a teaching certification digging around in a Crackerjack box. People earn genuine college degrees in this – many of them get masters and doctorates. Those degrees even require you to go out and do some actual teaching! Let me assure you, none of it entails reminiscing about your old high school days and all the teachers who were mean to you.

 

So why does the public love reformers but hate teachers so much? I think it’s because we let them define the debate and frame the narrative.

 

“He who frames the question wins the debate,” goes the old saying. Though erroneously attributed to Randall Terry (There is no evidence he was the first to use it), it’s true.

 

We’ve let the Michelle Rhee’s of the world do exactly this. To see how, ask yourself the following question: What do we call THEM?

 

The answer: Education reformers. Some of us try to put a disparaging “Corporate” at the front, but by then the damage is done.

 

They’re the “reformers,” and what do we call those who oppose them? We don’t even really have a name. Nothing except “TEACHERS!” said with a sneer! Or maybe they’ll try to stick in “UNIONS!” with that same sarcasm! Even if you don’t belong to a union, even if you aren’t a teacher, they’ll try to tie you to those pejorative terms: “You’re in the pay of the teacher’s unions!” Heaven help us!

 

In the court of public opinion, the facts don’t matter. This is where we’ve lost. It doesn’t matter that the state and federal government has been trying out the pet projects of these “reformers” for at least a dozen years and none of their promises have come true. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, high-stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers – it’s all the same snake oil they keep selling the public again-and-again…  AND PEOPLE KEEP BUYING IT!

 

But what choice do they have? These are the “reformers.” If I’m against them, what am I? An obstructionist? Am I in favor of the status quo? Do I just want to keep things the way they are?

 

Of course not! But we’re stuck without a name to call ourselves and, to be honest, a more accurate (but polite) term to call them.

 

Let me offer a solution.

 

We’ve seen that the reformers really aren’t reformers at all. They’re “STANDARDIZERS.” Isn’t that, after all, the goal of all their botched and bungled education efforts?

 

Our national and state education policies push for students and teachers to be evaluated on standardized tests. Teachers must use common standards from which to design their lessons. Many times, teachers are required to read their lessons right from a standardized script. It’s all about making students and teachers march in line to the ca-ching of the cash register as public money flows into privateers’ pockets. (Who do you think pays for all those tests and test prep? You do, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer!)

 

Even the debate on teacher tenure is about standardization. The shadowy AstroTurf organizations financing these attacks want teachers to shut up and get in line. No more due process so they can fire whoever they want, whenever they want. No more talking out against these failed reforms. No more push back. Just read from the script, do your test prep, proctor your standardized tests and when you’ve either quit or your salary is too expensive, it’s time for you to go into another field.

 

STANDARDIZERS want our public schools to look like the educational equivalent of Walmart or McDonalds. On any given day, walk into an 8th grade class in a school in Brooklyn and walk into one in Kansas City or Los Angeles or anywhere in the country and you’ll see the same lesson being taught the same way by your easily replaceable and inexperienced teacher.

 

Many of us oppose this goal. We think this isn’t the best way to educate our children. But what do you call us? What term best characterizes our educational outlook and goals not just by contrast to what STANDARDIZERS do but also positively describes what we think a good educational system should look like?

 

I’d suggest “INDIVIDUALIZERS.” After all, that’s what good teachers do. We individualize children’s education.

 

We construct our lessons so that they address the various learning styles of our students. We let students make choices and hold them responsible for those choices. We talk to parents and psychologists and make decisions based on our students needs. We thoroughly read our students IEPs and abide by them (instead of just ignoring them like the STANDARDIZERS do). We meet kids where they are and help them progress from there. We don’t start at some arbitrary standard. We don’t tell them facts are all that matter. We cherish their opinions and help them make stronger arguments based on facts.

 

This includes school funding. STANDARDIZERS say they want every school to get equal funding! That sounds great – equality – but what we need is equity. Poorer schools require more funding than those that serve a wealthier population. Impoverished students need extra tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other wraparound services for the things that – for whatever reason – don’t get provided at home. And there are an awful lot of kids in need. A majority of all public school students in one third of America’s states now come from low-income families. Poor kids just cost more to educate.

 

The rest of the industrialized world knows this and funds schools accordingly. We’re one of the few countries that willfully refuses to do it. It’s like the racist who claims he “can’t see color.” STANDARDIZERS won’t see poverty. They also won’t see that many of these impoverished children are minorities, either.

 

A sure way to tell if you’re talking to a STANDARDIZER is if he says that we need to stop wasting money on schools that don’t work and start investing in ones that do. It just means he thinks rich kids deserve more money than poor kids. You don’t think STANDARDIZERS want all this mechanized horror for their own kids, do you?

 

Despite what they say, STANDARDIZERS know standardization isn’t what’s really best for children. You can tell by where they send their own kids – private and parochial schools that don’t have to abide by their own standardized policies! (Wow! Isn’t that a shock!?)

 

This robotic utopia isn’t for their own children. If you walk into a rich school – probably a charter, parochial or private school – you won’t see standardization. If they want public schools to be Mickey Dees, they want their kids schools to be a celebrity chef’s burger bistro selling made-to-order patties of Kobe beef topped with Foie Gras! And there’s nothing wrong with that, BUT it’s awfully telling that what they want for their own children is too good for yours and mine.

 

So to review, Corporate Education Reform is all about standardization. Those who oppose it are in favor of individualization.

 

Or to put it in a soundbite: Reformers Standardize – Teachers Individualize.

 

I think if we start talking about it like this, we may see a change. Every time a STANDARDIZER tries to frame it their way, correct them. Don’t let anyone characterize the status quo as “reform” without correcting them that it’s actually about standardization. We need individualization.

 

It will take time, and we need to continue making the arguments we’re already making about why this is true. But eventually things might change.

 

One day in the not-so-distant future, you might turn on a TV news program about education reform and hear from – GASP! – a teacher!

 

 

NOTE: Many Individualizers self-identify with activist groups to oppose the work of standardization. For example, some call themselves BATS or Badass Teachers since they belong to the Badass Teachers Association. (I know I do!) And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I think we need a close synonym, a broader blanket term for the entire aggregate of people who oppose standardization. Not everyone will want to be called a Badass Teacher. But we can all be Individualizers. And, moreover, the use of that term in contrast to “standardizer” helps us frame the narrative in a more truthful way than that currently being popularized.

The Real American Education Crisis

Arne Duncan

“There’s a crisis in education…”

“Our schools are in crisis…”

“Schools are failing…”

“We’re failing our kids…”

You hear some variation of the above almost every time the subject turns to American education – especially the public schools. It’s usually the first thing out of a corporate education reformer’s mouth before he/she unveils the disruptive, top-down, data-driven solution that will save us all. Davis Guggenheim made a famous corporate reform propaganda film claiming we were all “Waiting for Superman” to come save education. Well, if we’re waiting for superman, the above phrase and its variations are his theme music.

However, when we hear these words, the gut level reaction is to deny them. “What? Our schools are failing? Of course not!”

And then we look like deluded pollyannas trying to hide our heads in the sand from an obvious problem. Our schools are failing. It MUST be true. I heard Wolf Blitzer say it on CNN. The US Secretary of Education says it. The President even says it!

So I’d like to make a suggestion the next time you hear someone say this ubiquitous phrase. Agree with him.

Say, “Yes. Our schools are failing. Our state and federal education policy has failed them.”
Say, “We’ve spent billions of dollars on No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and none of it has helped kids learn any better!”

Say, “We’ve been trying high-stakes standardized testing, test prep and teacher accountability programs for at least the last dozen years with the sole goal of bringing up student test scores. It hasn’t worked.”

Give them the old saw that “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Tell them this is exactly what we’re doing in our school system. Common Core, value-added measures, school vouchers, charter schools – it’s all the same failed educational scheme that just doesn’t work.

They may want proof. Turn their attention to International PISA scores. (They’ll love that! Data! Drooool!)

We know that students from wealthy districts earn some of the best test scores in the world. It’s the kids entrenched in poverty that don’t do so well. AND (This will probably be news to your corporate education reformer interlocutor) a majority of all public school students in one third of America’s states now come from low-income families.

Social science research over the last several decades has shown that two thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors — and among the most powerful of those is economic status. That’s not exactly shocking: Kids exposed to destitution and all that comes with it have enough trouble just surviving, much less succeeding in school.

Then you can turn to real reform tactics – things that might actually help kids learn!
Things like increasing public money to fund extra tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other wraparound services at low-income schools.

Talk about equity (They’ll love that! They try to sell their snake oil as a cure for our Civil Rights abuses. Hit them with a real one!) Tell them high-poverty schools must finally receive the same amount of funding as schools in wealthy neighborhoods. Tell them we actually should do like the rest of those high achieving PISA nations and give high-poverty districts MORE funds than rich districts because combating poverty is expensive.

Tell them we need to help impoverished students’ parents – we need to expand the social safety net, raise the minimum wage, provide funding for daycare, single-payer healthcare, introduce a real jobs bill to get people back to work.

And if they shy away from poverty (Because they will! They don’t really want to solve society’s ills!) tell them how we need to change the antiquated school system, itself.

Yes, antiquated. Our public schools are still organized as if they were preparing kids to work in a factory. The industrial revolution has been over for some time now. Those mill jobs mostly have been shipped overseas and they aren’t coming back. Our schools need to educate kids for the jobs of the future – science and technology jobs, for instance.

How do you do that? You do exactly the opposite of what the corporate education reformers propose. When they say “standardize,” we should say “individualize.” It’s a head scratcher in the teaching profession these days that educators are told to individualize their lessons but standardize their tests.

We can change the paradigm by allowing students to have more of a say in their own educations as they get older. For instance, instead of arbitrarily forcing teachers to make their students read a certain percentage of nonfiction texts (i.e. Common Core), let the students pick a certain percentage of the texts they read based on… gulp… personal interest.

Let children follow their hearts. Teach them to be media savvy and computer literate, but don’t give them any answers. Help them find the answers.

That’s what a 21st Century education should look like, not children sitting all in a row filling in bubbles on a standardized test.

I offer this bit of advice not because I think we’ll convince the reformers. Let’s face it. They’re in the pockets of the rich and powerful who are making billions off of the poison these shills are selling. However, if we challenge this basic assumption, if we change the narrative, we may begin to convince the voting pubic.

To be fair, I think this has already begun. The tolerance for these top-down reform methods has started to wane. If we can shut down their schemes before they’ve even begun, we may have a chance of increasing erosion to their policies acceptance.

And then the crisis in education may actually find a solution.

Raiders of Your Lost Pension

Ever wonder why corporate education reformers praise Teach For America temps so much and want to find more ways to fire veteran teachers? Here’s one potential answer in their own words:

 

“…it is theoretically possible for rapid staff turnover or aggressive organizing efforts by a cohort of Teach For America entrants to give newer employees the upper hand…”

 

In other words, a newer (read: ignorant) employee is a malleable one. So say the authors of a conservative think-tank paper on how to better raid teachers pensions. New employees don’t know better than to let their pensions be raided.

The 2009 paper is called “But the Pension Fund Was Just Sitting There…”: The Politics of Teacher Retirement Plans by Frederick M. Hess and Juliet P. Squire. It was published by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and is freely available on the Internet. AEI is a private, conservative, not-for-profit think-tank dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics and social welfare. AEI scholars are considered to be some of the leading architects of the second Bush administration’s public policy and include Lynne Cheney, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and Newt Gingrich.

The paper suggests we should reduce pension benefits for teachers and public employees so as to be “fiscally responsible.” I don’t mean to suggest that all corporate education reform efforts are motivated by an urge to reduce teachers pension benefits. I merely suggest that this paper shows how many of the disruptive attacks on our public schools of late follow the pattern outlined here. One could easily see an effort aimed at privatization, for instance, following a similar turn.

Take note of the best political environment from which to attempt such an approach and compare it to what we’re seeing today:

 

“…embrace a “starve-the-beast” strategy. Since there are temptations for legislators to spend and unions to demand any available dollars, there is a perverse discipline implicit in funding shortfalls that dampens the urge to ratchet up benefits. In other words, the fiscally responsible course of maintaining healthy reserves can be regarded as an invitation to political irresponsibility.”

 

In other words, if you provide less funding to public schools, legislators will be more prone to cut things like teacher pension benefits. Moreover:

 

“When those moments emerge, reform-minded legislators and advocates have the opportunity to harness public opinion and frame benefit increases as irresponsible, craven, and kowtowing to “special interests.” Of course, the effort to manufacture such a moment can fall flat... which is why reformers must use fiscal crises as opportunities for promoting measures to modernize benefits and deliver responsible fiscal stewardship…” (Emphasis Added)

 

Notice the fiscal crisis doesn’t even need to be real. The authors suggest manufacturing such a crisis is perfectly allowable. It’s only cautioned against because the public might not be fooled. But if you can divert funding away from schools say with big business tax breaks or make it look like schools really have less funds than they really have, that’s still okay. How many times at the state and federal level have we seen this happen!?

Another way to grease the theft from teachers pensions is to divide-and-conquer. Specifically, the authors call for bribing veteran teachers at the expensive of new hires:

 

“…there is a persistent need to buy off, or in more decorous language, to “grandfather,” current teachers and retirees when promoting change. This is due not only to legal limitations but because unions will fight bitterly to protect the benefits of current members while, whatever they say, less passionately protecting those of future members.”

 

The authors think new employees can be better convinced of the benefits of reduced pensions benefits because:

 

“…newer teachers are by and large younger and generationally much more familiar with a highly mobile job market than are teachers who entered the workforce two decades ago. Existing pension systems are a legacy of the industrial era, a time when employees routinely stayed with one employer for decades or their entire career—and where benefits premised on long service were the norm. Today, decades in the service of a single employer is no longer the expectation for talented college graduates.”

 

So new employees have lower expectations. When hired by a school district, they don’t expect to be in the classroom very long before transitioning to their next job somewhere else. This certainly sounds like Teach For America temps, but it doesn’t sound like any public school teachers I’ve ever known. Moreover, it’s hard to see why this would be desirable from an administrator’s point of view. Wouldn’t you want knowledgeable, dedicated staff who devote their careers to the students in their charge? I guess that just costs too much. It wouldn’t be “fiscally responsible.”

However, the most pernicious element of the divide-and-conquer strategy may be that it’s just subterfuge. The authors clearly admit that at the end of the day they don’t care about veteran employees, new hires, administrators or even the public. They only want to provide plausible deniability:

 

“Finally, modifying pension systems requires addressing concerns of veterans who will feel cheated out of what they’ve been promised, organizing and selling advantages to younger educators and to recruiters, and designing systems that are clearly more responsive to public concerns and to the challenges of staffing schools—so as to provide plausible cover to reform advocates.” (Emphasis added)

 

Notice that none of this has anything to do with making schools better, providing better outcomes for students, parents or the community. The only concern here is to push forward a corporate education reform agenda – in this case reducing teachers pension benefits. There is no discussion of how this might impact student learning, only in how it would affect the bottom line.

To summarize, this paper advocates the following corporate education reform strategies:

 

1) Firing veteran employees and/or replacing them with TFA recruits helps the corporate reform agenda because it replaces the staff with more ignorant, malleable employees that can be more easily persuaded to accept changes in the status quo.

2) School funding shortfalls are excellent opportunities to enact changes that would not be considered when things are going smoothly.

3) There’s nothing wrong with creating a funding crisis if you can get away with it.

4) New employees don’t expect to be treated as well as veteran employees and thus can be more easily manipulated.

5) At the end of the day, this is all cover for pushing through the corporate education reform agenda.

 

So there you have it in the words of the corporate education reformers. If you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall, this was your chance. You can read the whole paper here.

Sadly, there is plenty more available on-line. It just takes a strong stomach to get through all of it. But it only takes a moment with a newspaper to see it being conducted right under our noses.