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School reform opponents, please cut the S#%t.

Before the Storm and the Decision to Reform from Douglas Harris on Vimeo.

At the outset I have to tell you I’ve lost my patience with people who purposefully divert attention from the strong gains New Orleanians are making in public education. Students, their parents, and their teachers are putting in the work and producing eye popping results that we all should celebrate.

Yet, as students gain ground in proficiency, graduation rates, ACT scores, and college enrollment, advocates against the very school reforms responsible for those gains want to change the subject. To them the new measure of whether or not schools are successful depends on their ability to immediately reverse enumerable longstanding social issues, not whether or not students are learning or going to college in higher numbers.

I’ve spent the last year listening to the rich, layered, engrossing stories of people in New Orleans. What I’ve heard is big, complex, and can’t be reduced to a blog post. You can’t do it justice without addressing pre- and post-Katrina history, sociology, and politics; or unearthing  many contentious issues like school governance, choice, and transportation.

That said, people know the important connection between learning in school and having a good life afterward.

Telling a Story

Growing up in New Orleans I remember elders saying “boy, you telling a story.” It was a kinder way of saying “you a lie,” which was only slightly nicer than actually calling someone a liar.

That came back to me when I read “Reform” makes broken New Orleans schools worse: Race, charters, testing and the real story of education after Katrina” by the union-friendly blogger formerly known as Edushyster (now called Jennifer Berkshire). Apparently she went to New Orleans for 10 days intent on telling a story. Just not the right one.

Her piece is well-written. It is more moderate than expected. Even a few school reformers passed it around as evidence of some Val Halla for reform/anti-reform consensus. Forgive them. They are desperate to be liked by the other team and yearn for any confirmation of a middle Earth between opposing teams. They ignore the fact that Berkshire carefully curates the complaints of select individuals – complaints that could exist in any urban district whether reformed or not – and uses them as an indictment on school reform globally.

The upside is that the facts about education in New Orleans are better known now; So much so that Berkshire is forced to make two important admissions.

First, the third world dysfunction and corruption of the pre-Katrina New Orleans public schools was truly “awful.” Even lovers of traditional public schools can’t bypass that truth. Berkshire would have us quickly acknowledge it and move on, but consider this description from a recent Education Next article by Doug Harris of the Education Research Alliance (or, watch the video above):

The New Orleans public school district was highly dysfunctional. In 2003, a private investigator found that the district system, which had about 8,000 employees, inappropriately provided checks to nearly 4,000 people and health insurance to 2,000 people. In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued indictments against 11 people for criminal offenses against the district related to financial mismanagement. Eight superintendents served between 1998 and 2005, lasting on average just 11 months.

This dysfunction, combined with the socioeconomic background of city residents—83 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—contributed to poor academic results. In the 2004‒05 school year, Orleans Parish public schools ranked 67th out of 68 Louisiana districts in math and reading test scores. The graduation rate was 56 percent, at least 10 percentage points below the state average.

In other words NOLA schools were at the bottom of a state that was at the bottom of the country. Awkward.

The second admission is that post-Katrina schools are posting real gains in test scores, graduation rates, ACT scores, and college enrollment. Prior to the storm 62% of NOLA students were in a “failing school” based on state standards. Today that number is 7%.

If you want to spin a tale to say school reform is bad it will be a mammoth challenge to do it on the basis of results. You need to another strategy. Berkshire’s is to side step student outcomes all together and exploit authentic racial antagonisms for inauthentic purposes.

The new awfulizing

Berkshire’s opener says those of us “awfulizing” about how bad the old schools were are crowding out the possibility of good things that existed. Truthfully, there were good things in the prior system. Those good things were distributed on the basis of money, class, race, and color. Ironically she spends the rest of her piece doing her own awfulizing of the post-storm reforms and crowding out the consideration of good work being done in academics, discipline, special education, and community engagement.

Her strategy is to set a bar for success beyond what schools are charged to do. She say’s:

The challenge for architects and advocates of the reform effort here is that, expanded even slightly beyond these narrow metrics [student academic outcomes], the case that life is improving for the children of New Orleans gets much harder to make. Child poverty stands at 39%, a figure that’s unchanged since Katrina, even though the city is now home to tens of thousands fewer children. Inequality is the second highest in the country, on par with Zambia. And violent crime remains a persistent plague here.

Those are some damning truths, but I think she misses the point: outrageous child poverty rates, inequality, and violent crime aren’t reasons to belittle school reforms intended to increase literacy and college enrollment. To the contrary. It’s a reason to continue pushing for reform. She seems to be confusing the goal of schools with that of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice. That is like taking your child to a veterinarian for music lessons.

When she says “[s]chools increase the numeracy and literacy of students as measured by standardized tests. Effective schools are the ones that do the best job of that,” it sounds like she will stumble upon reality, but then she swerves into the fog by saying:

But what about New Orleanians who have a more expansive definition of what schools should do—whose descriptions of successful schools include, not just academic achievement, but harder-to-measure concepts like community building, justice, liberation, and the ability of the city’s children to not just survive but thrive in their own world?

Those are important stories to tell, but the primary voices she casts exposes a curious glitch with her piece. The star players of her story are almost all members of New Orleans’ disgruntled, grant-funded nonprofit industrial complex (with the exception of Ashana Bigard who is a parent activist).

Notably absent are the voices of educators and school leaders who are successfully educating poor black children everyday. It’s a peculiar omission for a writer shooting bows from the side of the debate that constantly reminds us of the importance of teacher voice.

How could you possibly tell the New Orleans education story without talking to folks like Jamar McNeely who runs InspireNOLA, a network of high performing charter schools; or Rene Lewis-Carter who is the 2016 Principal of the Year of the state of Louisiana; or Dana Ward, LaToya Douglas, and Lamont Douglas who had many complaints about their charter school management so they organized parents to determine who their next management would be; or to Erin Lockley, a student who thought her pre-Katrina schools were complete chaos and unchallenging, but now appreciates how her post-Katrina education contributed to college admission?

Without these voices and others like them you are telling a story, but not the truth.

The real story

The reality is New Orleans has always been a racist colony with an obvious white supremacist hegemony that uses economics to enforce a brutally efficient social hierarchy. A core part of that program involves a self-important black bourgeoisie that has often been a middle-man for a tiered system of oppression. At the bottom there has always been a sizable permanent underclass, NOLA’s version of the untouchables. The schools for that group have historically been reproducers of obscene inequity, even if a great jobs program for the black bourgeoisie who often tucked their own kids into selective enrollment magnet schools designed for the upstanding elite, or parochial institutions like St. Augustine.

To pretend that school reform invented any of that reality in the last 10 years is cunning. To act as if the heavy focus on lifting achievement of the underclass instead of the bourgeoisie is somehow a new form of racism, well that’s just too stupid to warrant consideration.

Our focus should be on the fact that kids are doing better. More of them are learning to read, write, count, and think. More are going to college. If we truly care about inequality and social justice, we should demand more of that in the next 10 years.

The push for quality schools needs to push even harder. The fight for results needs to produce more gains. The need for white people to be partners in education rather than a domineering power is critical.

I have numerous criticisms of school reform and its leaders. But I’m militant about results for kids. I was once left behind and it impacted my life in very real ways that still haunt me today. I’m damned tired of all the intellectualizing of the problem by people who are every bit the careerists, opportunists, and rent-seekers they claim school reformers to be.

So, please excuse my French, but reform opponents who divert attention to everything except school outcomes need to cut the s#%t.

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

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  1. Lee Barrios

    August 13, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Would you identify these opportunists I’m damned tired of all the intellectualizing of the problem by people who are every bit the careerists, opportunists, and rent-seekers they claim school reformers to be. And the “star players” you speak of?

    Fact is, the statistics you put forth as proof of reform success are manufactured, misrepresented and manipulated. If you were to sit down with say, Dr. Mercedes Schneider, to publicly compare your notes and sources with hers, which you would never dare do, even you would be left silenced. Could you really only find “union friendly” as a descriptor of Berkshire or does that just work for your audience along with placing references to HHS and DOJ in the same paragraph?

    Well this keeps the conversation going and grats for that.

    • Citizen Stewart

      August 13, 2015 at 7:45 pm

      I’m happy to sit down with Mercedes. But it might be more beneficial for the numerous researchers studying the data to do so. I saw her at the ERA conference where most of this research was discussed.

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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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