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The award for the world’s best school reformer goes to…

Last year I excused myself from a ballroom full of confident well dressed people as awards were handed out to school reformers as if it were the Grammy’s. It was all in good fun, but still felt bigheaded and smug.

I asked a friend if she thought abolitionists ever held lavish events to praise themselves for freeing God’s children from the obscene inhumanities of enslavement (before the people were actually freed)?

Totally gross.

I had forgotten about all that until reading a thoughtful blog post by Neerav Kingsland a few weeks ago. His words returned me to that ballroom, those reformers, and their awards.

Reflecting on the accomplishments of school reform since 1990 Kingsland admits it wasn’t all award worthy. Among the notable shortcomings he says reform leaders didn’t prioritize serving all children, building a movement with “large constituent bases,” fostering student individualization in discipline or instruction, or fully respecting educational entrepreneurship.

I encourage you to read his post because it is a rare moment of humble reflection from an ardent movement voice. His timing is deft too because reform is fraying over teacher evaluation, charter school backfilling, and racial justice issues. It feels like a time to stop, admit, learn, and improve – together.

After more than 25 years of the reform project (including 10 years of remaking an urban school system into the image of the reform gods) the project managers and their backers are having a moment of doubt. It may be a sign that reform is maturing. Sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. Either way, it’s a good time to be straight up about our work.

The sobering truth about school reform

Remember, our goal is to light the minds of marginalized children and arm them with skills for a good life. We live in a knowledge economy, which means knowledgeable people rule. Given the array of confounding obstacles (political, economic, social, and historic) to our goal nothing will hurt us more than premature accolades, intellectual inbreeding, facile fraternity, and smarmy congratulations in insular power circles.

We are fond of saying “we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.” It gives us license to celebrate every bright spot healthily with a small disclaimer about the failures we cover with denial.

The truth is, reform warrants no celebration until it has freed America’s children from systemic educational malpractice and academic oppression. On that score we have more than “a long way to go.”

Consider the most deeply loved ornaments of the reform playbook, and assess them honestly.

If charter schools are our beloved renovation of public schooling, then it must be humbling to note they’ve grown to serve only 5% of American students after 25 years of trying.

If we believe that Teach For America brings a critical form of occupational dialysis to the fossilizing “profession” of teaching, then the fact that TFA teachers account for less that 1% of American teachers must be frustrating.

If accountability policies are as important as we profess then the massive pushback against those policies, and the institutional gamesmanship that beats them in most places, must be a buzzkill.

If we see school choice as liberating for poor families then the fact that most of America is still without it must sting. To make matters worse, in the places where school choice rules the day many of us still would never send our own kids to the “choices” that are available.

Sobering.

The other truth about school reform

Don’t let me be the grim reaper of reform here. We need reform and something more drastic and urgent. Schools must improve, now. Teaching and instruction must modernize for the students and world we have today. Families who are redlined into inequitable systems that offer opportunity by zip codes need life-saving options.

We know traditional public schools stopped being relevant years ago, yet they live on like an institutional version of Weekend At Bernie’s only sitting upright because of guaranteed government revenue.

Clearly, this system must be abolished so we can free millions of children from the bondage of illiteracy, innumeracy, and cultural deprivation.

But – and this is one damn big “but” – we need the right project leaders to get us there.

Kingsland’s blog post seems hopeful about the next generation of education leaders.

He says:

a new generation of reform has formed and this generation believes it can be the next evolution of public schooling in America. This generation believes it can serve every student; it understands that it will need to be build a broad base of support in order to do so; it knows that it will have to invent new models of schooling to prepare students for higher education and career; and it believes that educator led non-profits, rather than government, will deliver these educational opportunities.

I would like this to be true, but I’m not so sure.

If these new educational leaders that Kingsland speaks of are empowered people from marginalized communities who are supported by indigenous members of those communities, then I’m fully on board. But, is their evidence that this vision is where we are heading?

Looking at education reform discussion panels, executive director seats, and reform network leaders running whole ecosystems in targeted cities, this “movement” – ironic as it seems – has race issues itself. It has a power problem. Like the schools it aims to fix, it needs reforming too.

If we continue to see a never-ending wellspring of white Ivy League millennials funded to oversee a colonial system of tokenized people of color the new generation won’t be an improvement on the old. We need mission-driven truth tellers who are in it for the end of oppression, not self-congratulating careerists who could very easily become the new, younger, whiter hegemony peddling educational oppression 2.0 – just with better test scores in a few poor schools.

My hope comes from the many committed, empathetic, and intelligent people I meet who are grinding it out every day to change policies and build schools that work for kids. Especially those who rarely get an invitation to the first, second, or third meeting where the movement agenda is determined and rockstars are knighted. The real people who walk out of ballrooms shaking their head too.

I hope Kingsland’s moment of reflection becomes a bigger moment of sobriety for the movement.

My vote for the world’s best school reformer goes only to a person who would decline that award on the basis that its gauche.

That would be reform.

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.

Why?

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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