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It’s not too late to engineer great public schools



There is no buzzier buzzword in education reform.

The concept – that taxpayers make a massive investment in education and get working schools, as evidenced by strong student outcomes, in return – is in sharp focus right now. Congress and special interest groups are currently waiving an elephantine policy hatchet and threatening to surgically remove the teeth from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Their biggest target are provisions requiring data gathering that makes education accountable to the public.

There’s a “right now” feeling to these battles, but they are old as baseball. The complications of education specialization, the increased role of schools in communities, and the uncontainable expansion of educational bureaucracy have – rightfully – increased public scrutiny and expectations. Add to those pressures several milestones that also increased tensions, like the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 70s, the jarring findings of A Nation At Risk in the 1980s, and globalization in the 1990s, and post-Bush II era recessionary malaise which generates cynicism about government’s trustworthiness with money.

The embedded question in all this activity and these tensions asks how we make schooling effective and efficient rather than a quickening treadmill with nothing to show for itself but escalating costs.

An Option

In 1971 Leon M. Lessinger, a Georgia State University professor of education, proposed engineering methodology as a tool to improve outcomes in public education. He started with a valid, but arguably disputable, assumption.

Knowledge exists of better ways to accomplish measurable gains in learning for disadvantaged children. Half a decade and billions of federal dollars in fragment, almost random research and development in elementary and secondary education have produced a variety of insights, techniques, materials and validated practices in the intellectual, social and vocational ares of education.

The problem was (and is) fragmentation. Good practice in education was not systemic, but sporadic. That’s still our reality today. For Lessinger fixing that problem was a task appropriately assigned to engineering.

His reasoning: “engineering is an accountable profession” and applying it’s discipline to schools could lead to the “advent of accountability for results in education.”

He said “there is about engineering at its best, a delightful lack of guile.”

The word “guile” is instructive to me because education thinking feels lost in the political questions, stuck in a bewildering array of intoxicating non sequiturs. We all say we want the goal of educational equity, but competing policy agendas leave that claim in dispute. Too often the focus is on who gets paid, how they advance in or out of the system, what rights they have, how we can conceptualize a job as “property” and employment as entitlement, and other artless questions about crude workplace mechanics, rather than how a disjointed system of education can be fashioned with a modular construction to produce a desired effect, the most desirable effect being educated, capable, responsible, moral, and literate people.

Many in the education space are missing the bus. Only our most sober technologist are acting on the fact that building better schools is apolitical, irreligious, and studiously logical.

Which is why bumping into Lessinger’s analysis has been centering for me. He says engineering is a “can do” endeavor, one that dispenses with the “dead weight of precedent or unexamined beliefs” and pivots to a discrete set of questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What are the specifications for alternative “best” solutions?
  3. What technology is available to solve such a class of problems?
  4. What resources can be committed?
  5. What are the time constraints and
  6. When can the program start?

Those questions – which, by the way, are the questions asked and answered by the paradigm shifting schools that “beat the odds” – are more likely to return our public education investment with dividends than the political questions we labor over in tortuous national shout downs.

Lessinger says engineering produces schools that put the right frame on the problem and helps systems leaders understand their roles and responsibility…

Educational engineering starts with the assumption that all children can succeed, that with an adequate technology of instruction interested and enlightened adults can help them toward competence and a certified sense of accomplishment. The end product of educational engineering is not a program or a machine or a report, but rather a capability  – as, for example, a child’s ability to read, and the gleam in his eye.

and it produces schools that keeps the system transparent and focused on results.

When a program in the schools is well engineered, it will meet several tests: it will require educational planners to specify, in measurable terms, what they are trying to accomplish. It will provide for an independent audit of results. It will allow taxpayers and their representatives to judge the educational payoff of a given appropriation.

The Proposal

Lessinger’s global concept is benign. If we are going to have a thing called an education “system” it should be uncontroversial to say it must be engineered well.

But, the details of his proposal leave more room for debate.

He says local education authorities should set aside funds from its operating budget to support continuous innovation. They should hire a third-party manager to be a “catalyst” for new programs and to manage everyone involved in the “process of change”; form “knowledge industry collectives to work together on meeting the instructional needs of students (as articulated by the school board); and create performance contracts with independent auditors who provide reports about the educational engineering process to the public.

I’m parsing here. Read his paper below for your own takeaway.

For me, his proposal sounds similar to what some high-performing schools and striving school districts are doing today. But the cardinal problem, that of systemic fragmentation, is untouched. We are roaming, far afield, lost in politics only capable of moving policies in minor, meaningless directions.

My assumption is our leaders are not qualified designers in education. If true, that is not an insignificant mismatch between problem and problem-solver. We need engineers that understand dynamic systems, but, instead, we seem to make do with elected and unelected surgeons who can only tinker at the margins of real change.

Lessinger was right decades ago to believe we have all we need to engineer our way of misfiring schools for America’s low income youth. But we have no evidence to believe the political class will be liberated from the emotive, self-interested motivations of countless political factions, and to be reacquainted with the science of systems and learning.

Educational Engineering by Chris Stewart

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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