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Is there hope to resolve the education wars?


There is no escaping the fact that the schools we have today will not be the schools we need tomorrow.

In fact, our schools haven’t been sufficient for their task for decades. That point is arguable, of course, and there are warriors willing to battle for a nostalgic vision of the good old perfect schools that existed more in memory than in reality.

But, even those supporters of the schools we have (or had) must admit that the back and forth arguments about Common Core standards, teacher evaluation, charter schools, alternative teacher preparation programs, the quality of college of education schools, school discipline, racialized testing outcomes, and so on, are not battles about those isolated, compartmentalized issues.

In total they are battles about the real or perceived insufficiency of public schooling.

The sobering truth is that none of the proposals, or the unlikely resolution of arguments about them, will solve much. After decades of top-down debate it now sounds like drunken gibberish that keeps the system destabilized, misfiring at all levels, and constantly working at cross purposes. The best ideas are disputed, sabotaged, and made meaningless during implementation. The worst ideas are often adopted and then heralded as victories. Vast amounts of money and ink and intellectual labor time are devoted to proving the most mundane points in defense of minor prescriptions, illustrating just how stable and stubborn a government monopoly can be.

This is where I feel like the bah-humbug brother. The naysayer. I never had hope for yesterday’s schools and I’ve learned through experience the perils of believing too much in the technocratic vision of  school “reform.” This thing was never good. The “system” for educating children was never about educating all children as much as efficiently processing them into social classes. So, “reforming” the system is a cruel fantasy that sounds somewhat like reforming slavery rather than abolishing it.

This isn’t to say we ought not engage in the details of how the education of children should happen. The fine details of who teaches, where they teach, how they teach, how they are funded, paid, evaluated, and supported are important questions worthy of addressing if the goal is student learning. My caution is one begging for humility in the face of mostly failed attempts to change public education as a system, over many years, through many political battles, none of which seem near completion.

Reducing class size is important, as is having teachers capable of producing a desired effect (student learning), and so is having a fair and honest way for the public to hold the institution to account for the $600 billion investment that Americans make into student development. However, decisive “wins” in any of these battles by themselves will not address the source of eternal dysfunction in “the system.”

The bureaucratized, professionalized, industrialized factory model of education is the problem. We can’t sidestep that in hopes that we can put the proverbial lipstick on the dystopian pig. The model many cling to is a fetish, and an artifact that we cannot co-locate with a modern vision for educating all of America. God help us if we can’t admit that. The traditional education model itself will not prepare today’s students for productive lives in a modern, and ruthless economy.

In a previous post I raised Ivan Ilich as a voice to hear on this issue of the purpose of education and how the design of schooling was wrong from the beginning. His forceful argument that universal compulsory education as delivered through a professionalized bureaucracy raises the possibility of other ways to “educate” people. It’s radical work that could help us define an alternative future. It’s challenging, as any vision should be. And, like many high-minded ideas, most people aren’t ready to go as far as Illich in reconceiving the premise and practices of education.

But Afie Kohn gets partially there from the left when he calls for a departure from standardization, homework, grades, age-bound cohorts, and other traditional establishment premises.

Andy Smarick gets partially there from the right when he questions the high-handed, prescriptive Federal role in local education, and when he suggests that school districts as a delivery model are superannuated.

I’m going there, slowly.

As a conservative the thought of radical redevelopment of the education system troubles me because I like order and structure. Squishy relativism and foggy intellectualizing spook my digestive system like a laxative. Still, as an autodidact, the liberating and humane treatment of the learner found in Illich’s “deschooling” thesis, and in Alfie Kohn’s activism, appeals to my sense of freedom, independence, and justice.

And, Smarick’s pitch for less government prescription appeals to my fear that the State gets things colossally wrong when it becomes bossy in the most intimate spaces of our lives. Nothing could be more intimate than how we develop our children to be their best selves, the beings God intended them to be.

Sure, Illich’s critique of state schooling as a downright oppressive enterprise could be too fringe for many people. So marginal as to be discounted as unrealistic.

Enter Sir Ken Robinson. Millions of people circulated his affable TedTalk that unhinged public schooling. It was a huge viral success online, circulated by teachers, students, parents, and education activists who agreed from across the chasm of political perspective.

Why did we applaud his seemingly fresh perspective even as it theoretically disabled all the structures of public education that many of us hold dear? We circulated this video perhaps without realizing how subversive it actually is.

Unlike the many revisionist conceptions of public education’s history that tell us schooling was conceived as a noble way to prepare Americans for a high-minded life in a democratic society, Sir Robinson stridently points out the classist and industrial chassis that our public education system rides on.

Viewers could take his words as support for their pet issue and mistake his callout of the entire system. But, he wasn’t saying the system is wrong for reasons you might support politically. The system is not wrong because it fails to educate black and brown kids, as many (me included) education activists demand. Not wrong because it ignores gifted kids, as a growing number of education commentators are saying. Not wrong because it must fix the “ills” and Dickens-like conditions of the unwashed poor as Diane Ravitch might say. Not wrong because we are getting teacher preparation wrong (ala Linda Darling-Hammond) or mis-labeling the problem as a “gap” when it is actually a “debt” (ala Gloria Landson-Billings).

Not wrong on those accounts. Just wrong, from the beginning, by design. To use the most appropriate urban vernacular: tore up from the floor up.

That hidden conclusion in his happy talk video may be too frightening and uninspiring to generate civic action. It is a point of fact that is too big for easy answers.

Focused and thoughtful people, and the systems engineers in the dueling education camps, might prefer to collude for practical solutions that modulate the problem into corrigible chunks. That isn’t a new phenomena. History has many examples of the need to temper visionaries and embolden the pragmatic class, and vice-versa. If you believe the thinking and rhetoric of the current school wars has gone stale, you might want visionaries. If you believe the appropriate issues are on the table and the current debate is getting us closer to success, you might support the pragmatists.

My prediction is that some (not all) public education apologists will continue to suggest mild, and expensive enhancements to the existing system, coupled with a massive economic overhaul of the American economy. For them this will improve schools without an inexpedient redesign of the system that governs and operates them. The idea is to double down on funding, reduce accountability, ignore data, eliminate assessment, and extend recess by six hours, and expect that innumerate and illiterate children will be skilled enough to thrive in the free world.

On the other “side,” some (not all) “reformers” will continue to denounce incrementalism in school “reform.” They will proffer technocratic proposals to “fix” the system in increments that sound like leaps, and in the process they will squander plenty of creative territory by creating new schools that aren’t remarkably different in design than old schools. Their ideas will seek to moron-proof teaching, count every minute as a quantifiable unit of skill boosting opportunity, and militarize behavior to the point where individualism is just another word for underperformance. Their expectation is that this will produce thinking beings capable of leading in the real world of commerce.

My view of both camps is their activism will predictably lead to more negative counterpoise, and a lot of running in place that looks like movement.

At the same time, a movement of third-party contributors will unknowingly link together in a messy process to discovering the future of education. Thankfully they will come from the left and right. Voices that seem incongruent will arrive at a common vision for education, an even steven photo finish that does not require either to win or lose, but a vision that accommodates both. Few people would agree that it is possible given the nature of today’s debate, but many secretly desire for it to be true.

There are echoes of it already in these proposals: greater personalization, better use of technology, a move away from place-based brick-and-mortar instruction, cities as classrooms, blended learning, self-organized learning, flipped classrooms, gamified classrooms, teacher-led schools, and community-based education cooperatives that run like worker-owned food cooperatives.

These ideas, and the many others that take inventory of our assets and dream a better world rather than doing more of what hasn’t worked, represent a break from the left-right, corporate-public, management-labor dichotomies that have us stuck in lavish, unwinnable arguments.  They just might help us see through the angry red haze of the political school wars, and toward a green, creative, generous, and merciful future where education is not about political ideology or schooling, but about a nation’s commitment to loving its children.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.

And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.

“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.

Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.

The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.

And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.

And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.


In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.


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