Monthly Archives: July 2013

Charles Dickens rolls in grave each time Scroogey ed reformers dismiss the effects of poverty

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’ life and works understands the extent to which class divisions in Victorian England influenced his writing.

Though Dickens enjoyed a relatively stable early childhood, he was forced to abandon his formal schooling at the age of 12 when his father was imprisoned for failing to pay outstanding debts.  Soon, the stability Dickens once enjoyed was gone—and he was sent away from his family and forced to work long hours in a shoe-blacking warehouse.  There, Dickens became aware of the miserable, unsanitary working conditions to which so many impoverished citizens were beholden—and there, Dickens found inspiration for the themes and characters he developed in the writing he would do as an adult.

Central to Dickens’ works is the criticism of social policies that promote class division and ignore the plight of those living in poverty.   In Oliver Twist, for example, Dickens calls attention to the inhumanity of child labor and the commonly-accepted Victorian stereotype that people living in poverty were criminals; in Great Expectations, he guides readers to the conclusion that a person’s worth is determined by his character—and not by social status; and in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens extends his examination of social injustice to show the commonalities between the mistreatment of the impoverished populations in both England and France.

But Dickens’ most accessible, widely-read, and recognizable moral tale, A Christmas Carol, provides the most direct warning of the consequences of ignoring poverty.  Scrooge insists that he will not give any money to support “idle people”– because, by paying his taxes, he already contributes to government relief programs: prisons, the Treadmill, and workhouses. Such institutions were established to provide assistance to and work for “inmates” (those who were too poor or sick to take care of themselves), but the conditions in many workhouses were so poor that public and religious opposition prompted government officials investigate these claims. When one of the gentleman visitors insists that “many would rather die” than go to a workhouse, Scrooge snaps, “if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” He concludes by saying that supporting the poor isn’t his problem: “it’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”  This lack of concern for the plight of his fellow citizens—and the insistence that it’s acceptable to ignore societal problems that don’t immediately affect an individual—are central to the selfish character so many of us know Scrooge to be.

Dickens scholars note that the author was an ardent critic of Thomas Malthus, a British economist whose writings in the 1800s influenced the ways in which many British government officials and citizens viewed and responded to the issue of poverty. In short, Malthus believed that poverty was the result of population growth that exceeded the rate at which food could be produced—and that impoverished people were actually responsible for this disproportion:

They are themselves the cause of their own poverty; … when the wages of labour will not maintain a family, it is an incontrovertible sign that their king and country do not want more subjects, or at least that they cannot support them; that, if they marry in this case, so far from fulfilling a duty to society, they are throwing an useless burden on it, at the same time that they are plunging themselves into distress; and that they are acting directly contrary to the will of God, and bringing down upon themselves various diseases, which might all, or the greater part, have been avoided, if they had attended to the repeated admonitions which he gives by the general laws of nature to every being capable of reason.

Yes, you read that quote right.

In other words, food shortages, diseases, and money shortages were God’s way of punishing people for their laziness and irresponsibility–and that poor people who married and reproduced were burdening society.  This was a commonly-accepted belief in Dickens’ time, so it’s no surprise that much of Dickens’ writing was in direct response to Malthus’s philosophies and the government programs that supported them.  Scrooge’s reference to the “surplus population” is often cited as evidence of as much.

Perhaps the broadest societal warning in A Christmas Carol comes in Stave 3, when the Second of the Three Spirits uses Scrooge’s own words from Stave 1 to reinforce the dangers of ignoring poverty.  Two children, “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” emerge from within the folds of the Spirit’s robe—and Scrooge asks to whom they belong:

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And abide the end!’

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’

Though throughout the course of A Christmas Carol the spirits show Scrooge the large scope of poverty in England, the episodes involving children (Scrooge as a child at boarding school, Ignorance and Want, and Tiny Tim) have the most profound effect on Scrooge.  It is through them that Scrooge understands the extent to which children are beholden to and affected by their circumstances—and the extent to which the adults in any society must improve conditions for children at any cost in order to have any hopes of improving society as a whole.

In today’s American society, most people who dictate education reform policies are both 1) rich, and 2) quick to discount the effects poverty has on students’ ability to thrive.  Just as Scrooge does, they place supreme importance on financial gain—and at the same time, turn a blind and privileged eye to the very real and very crippling effects of poverty in our country.

The moral of this lesson: Scroogey reformers who seek to blame teachers (particularly those who teach in urban settings) for failures of society and claim that teachers use poverty as an excuse for students’ poor academic performance would do well to focus their efforts and money on improving societal conditions for children.  They should open their eyes to and seek to improve the conditions in which many of America’s students live.  Only then will these children be able to succeed.

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Why the term “status quo defender” is so offensive

Of all the labels people assign to public school teachers and other proponents of public education, the term “status quo defender” is one of the most offensive.

At the center of attacks on public educators are reformers like Michelle Rhee and Jeb Bush–and, though perhaps less blatantly, organizations like Teach for America, whose five-week training program claims to prepare college graduates without a background in education to teach in urban school districts. While TFA corps members often enter the program with noble ambitions and good intentions, the organization itself contributes to the very problems reformers identify by placing a never-ending supply of temporary, inexperienced teachers in urban schools.  And as stability is something many children who live in poverty lack at home, it is essential that those children have teachers who are dedicated to their students–and not teachers who plan to teach for two years and then move on to bigger and better things, like careers in law, medicine, and finance.

Michelle Rhee, a product of the TFA system, spent a mere three years in front of a classroom—and she herself admits that those years were marked by difficulties for which her five weeks of training did not prepare her.  She admits to taping her students’ mouths shut, to having no control of her classes, and to feeling generally helpless and ineffective as a teacher.

So what did Rhee do? Instead of staying around and improving her trade—and, as veteran teachers do, learning with each year of experience—she jumped ship and started dictating policy to the hard-working people who chose to remain in the classroom instead of pursue six-figure salaries.  And now she claims that “left wing union folks don’t like accountability for their teachers” and that teachers are happy to perpetuate what she calls the “status quo.” This idea has been embraced by Rhee’s reformist disciples, many of whom use it to justify their cutthroat, damaging policies.

Implicit in such a claim is the idea that public school teachers and their allies are happy with the current state of affairs in urban public schools and do not try to combat the many problems that affect student performance in school.  This idea couldn’t be more untrue. (Instead, and as an aside, isn’t support of failed and flawed initiatives like NCLB and Race to the Top–and the misuse of standardized testing that accompanies both–defense of the “status quo”?  But I digress.)

Because they spend every day in the schools reformers identify as being “failures,” teachers know all too well why some students have trouble achieving.  Teachers see children with medical problems who never get taken to a doctor; they see children who witness violence on the sidewalks right outside of their homes; they see children who are abused by family members or other caretakers; they see children who come to school dirty, hungry, sick, or cold; and they see children who, because of all these factors, simply cannot muster up the strength, attention, or desire to reach their full potential in school.

THESE are the problems that people and corporations with millions of dollars should fix, but teachers’ screams for help with the problems they witness are largely ignored. Instead, the people and corporations with millions of dollars–and virtually no experience in classrooms–claim that teachers are failing at their jobs.

Urban educators see heartbreak that many people cannot even fathom, and those educators understand that in many cases, school is the safest part of a child’s day.  But a day is 24 hours long, and many teachers see their students for as few as 40 minutes of those 24 hours per day.

And somehow, if teachers are unable to overcome all of the difficulties that a room full of 30 students face, those teachers are accused of defending the “status quo.”

How arrogant and ignorant must one be to suggest that teachers whose students are confronted with the problems listed above—and countless others—do not desire to improve the few conditions over which they themselves have control?

How arrogant and ignorant must one be to suggest that teachers who devote their careers to improving the lives of children do not want accountability–and do not want to be supported in meaningful ways?

How arrogant and ignorant must one be to fail to understand the inseparable link between a student’s home life and his/her performance in school—and to neglect the humanity and experiences that define children in favor of the scores those children produce on standardized tests?

And how arrogant and ignorant must one be to fail to recognize that by the time children arrive in kindergarten, the opportunity gap that their circumstances have created and the damage that poverty has caused can present teachers with the impossible job of fixing something that is well beyond their realm of control?

To further simplify this point, here is one more question to consider:

If a child repeatedly jumps off of his swing set and keeps breaking bones, would anyone dare to label the doctor who treats that child as a contributor to or defender of the “status quo”?  Of course not, because the doctor cannot control the circumstances which cause the child to need the treatment that doctor is qualified to provide.

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Why do many parents choose private schools? Not because of teacher quality…

As attacks on public schools and their teachers become more and more frequent, politicians from both sides of the political spectrum perpetuate the myth that America’s public schools are failing. Such politicians and policymakers advocate “school choice” and tout the benefits of private schools vouchers in an effort to “rescue” children from “poorly-performing schools” populated with “bad” teachers.

Though many polls suggest that an overwhelming percentage of parents are happy with their neighborhood public schools, some parents believe that private schools are a better alternative to a public education. Aside from the fact that many families choose parochial schools to reinforce their religious beliefs and values, the most common explanation parents give for choosing private over public is that private schools offer a “better education” or “better opportunities” for children.

But what does this generic response really mean? WHY do people perceive that private schools are superior to their public counterparts?

Here’s a hint: it generally has nothing to do with teacher quality.

This about.com article provides general, introductory insight into such a claim and lists the following “Reasons to Go to Private School”:

1) Individual attention—this article claims private schools boast smaller class sizes, and goes on to say that “discipline is not usually a problem in private schools. There are two reasons why: most students are in private school because they want to learn and, secondly, the codes of conduct by which most private schools operate, are enforced.”

2) Parental involvement—“Private schools expect parents to be actively involved in their child’s education. The concept of a three way partnership is an important part of the way most private schools work.”

3) Academic issues—“Most private schools do not have to teach to a test. As a result, they can afford to focus on teaching your child how to think, as opposed to teaching her what to think. That’s an important concept to understand. In many public schools poor test scores can mean less money for the school, negative publicity and even the chance that a teacher could be reviewed unfavorably.”

4) A balanced program–that includes “academics, sports and extracurricular activities.” (It’s no secret that public schools are becoming less and less balanced, as many have been forced to cut extracurricular activities and art/music/elective courses that aren’t subject to standardized testing.)

5) Religious teaching

How interesting that nowhere in this article does its author list “teacher quality” as a reason children should go to private schools; in fact, there’s research to suggest that “the quality of private school teachers has…been declining substantially” in recent decades. And since some private schools don’t require their teachers to be licensed (one author even claimed, in 2005, that “a person can teach in one of Milwaukee’s 125 publicly funded private schools without even a high school diploma”), parents can’t always be certain of a private school teacher’s training or credentials. (This is not to say that wonderful teachers don’t exist in private schools, because they certainly do.) But perhaps most important is that the benefits of private schools listed above are factors that extend well beyond what a classroom teacher is able to control.

Moreover, a study by Center on Education Policy found “no evidence that private schools actually increase student performance.” Private schools do, the study says, have a higher percentage of students who want to do well academically–and whose parents support those ambitions–which creates the illusion that the schools, and not the children who populate them, are responsible for the students’ successes. Many other researchers have arrived at the same conclusions, yet school choice proponents are unwilling to acknowledge that problems in society (absentee parents, poverty, substance abuse, etc.) translate to problems in public schools.

When it really comes down to it, do parents believe that private schools offer a “better education” or “better opportunities” because of their teaching staffs—or because private schools enjoy freedom from the crippling restriction to which public schools are subject and because of the “favorable” demographics of the student/parent populations in private schools? All signs point to the latter explanation, but nobody really wants to admit as much. Either way, teachers aren’t to blame here.

So public school educators continue to be the subjects of witch-hunts and are blamed for the failings of society to which many of their private school teacher counterparts are immune. Are there bad teachers? Absolutely. But the farce that they exist (and make up a significant portion of the staff) solely in public schools–and are the reason for failures in those schools–is ludicrous.

To be simple and redundant: public schools and their teachers teachers do not cause failures of society that drive parents to pursue private education options for their children, nor do public school teachers have the means, power, or resources to fix many of these failures. Until policymakers (many of whom send their own children to private schools) acknowledge this and give teachers the credit and authority they deserve, the restrictions, funding/program/personnel cuts, and regulations to which public schools are subject will continue to cripple the institution and drive privileged children to private options.

But maybe that’s the point.

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Cory Booker advocates policies destructive to public education

In a July 22 Philadelphia Inquirer article, University of Pennsylvania professor of pediatrics Hallam Hurt says, “Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.” Though the link between poverty and poor academic performance is well-documented, politicians and policymakers who promote educational reform continue to identify schools—and not failures of society—as being the primary problem in many urban areas.

One such politician is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whose position on public education in New Jersey becomes more and more troubling as the August primary for the US Senate seat nears. Booker, the son of two executives at IBM, was raised in Harrington Park, NJ—a wealthy suburb in Bergen County whose high-performing school system has won national recognition. In discussing his position on educational issues, Booker has said that he desires to afford Newark children the same educational opportunities he himself had growing up in an affluent community.

Such a desire is certainly commendable, yet Booker’s approach to education policy reflects a gross misunderstanding of the workings of public education and a denial of the effects poverty has on learning.

There’s no question that Booker has spent a great deal of time living in, working in, and examining the city he governs—which makes his philosophies regarding how to improve education for all students even more perplexing. In an interview with the Associated Press, Booker said, “How can we have a democracy in which we create, in a sense, an educational apartheid, where kids born in certain zip codes get great educations and kids born in other zip codes are trapped in schools?”

Yet as he blames zip codes and the public school system for what he describes as “educational apartheid,” Booker’s support of vouchers, for-profit charters, and union-busting further divide the city’s children—26% of whom live in poverty. In essence, Booker has adopted the abandonment policy that is shared by education reformers all over the country: public schools are failing, so instead of supporting and funding them and focusing our money and efforts to help support children and their families, we’ll use taxpayer dollars to shuffle kids out to “new” or “better” schools. Same kids…just rerouting them to different buildings—most of which are not bound to the crippling policies (test, test, test; cut programs and personnel; blame teachers for failures in society over which they have little control) to which their public counterparts are subject.

All this kid-shuffling and fund diversion begs the question: who will be left in the public schools if we dangle charters and vouchers in front of kids who feel “trapped” by the “educational apartheid” to which they’re subject? Simple: those who really have no advocates—no parents or guardians who are informed, motivated, or present enough to get their kids out of the schools Booker says are failing. Yes, it is possible to further divide an already-divided society.

Has “school choice” done anything to help public schools, which are already being destroyed by interference from non-educator corporate and political reformers who have their own financial interests in mind—and who naively believe that test scores are the best measure of a student’s and teacher’s worth? If we continue to advocate alternatives to public schools, what message do we send to those who will remain in them—either to learn or to teach? Simple: that public schools themselves are the problem—and that charters or private schools are somehow better.

And how will the limited funding for public schools—along with the new teacher evaluation system that places supreme importance on test scores and limits the autonomy educators have in their classrooms—affect the educators who have devoted their careers to those public schools? Simple: teacher turnover will be at an all-time high, and organizations like Teach for America (which provides college graduates with a 5-week training program to prepare them to teach in urban settings, and whose Corps Members generally only teach for a few years before moving on to other careers) will gain increased favor with policymakers who value cheap and temporary labor over the expertise trained, veteran educators offer. Those same veteran educators, who have been demoralized and devalued, will have the odds so stacked against them that their jobs will be virtually impossible. (They’re currently working under Superintendent Cami Anderson, who drew a unanimous vote of no confidence from the Newark school board in April and who could be awarded a $50,000 bonus on top of her $247,500 salary this year.) After all, how can a teacher provide a rich learning environment in overcrowded classrooms when programs, extracurricular activities, support services, and other personnel have been cut—especially when the goal of those teachers must be to train students to pass high-stakes standardized tests?

The ultimate irony in the current climate of educational reform? Proponents of reform dictate policies that will undoubtedly cause public schools to fail. It’s as if they want public schools to fail. That would make sense, though, since a complete failure of the public schools system would help justify private takeover of our children’s educations.

In short, the policies reformers advocate are damaging to public education, and since Cory Booker supports many of these policies, he too is actively contributing to the breakdown of the public school system.

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An Open Letter to CEA President Kerrie Dallman

Dear Ms. Dallman,

As an educator, you must be aware of one of the greatest dangers facing our children: predators who, using seemingly-attractive bait, lure naïve youngsters into very bad situations which compromise their safety, privacy, and general well-being.

At first, many predators seem friendly and well-intentioned—and certainly the bait they dangle in front of children is attractive on the surface. Unfortunately, though, their ultimate goals are dangerous.

Not only are predators a danger to innocent children, they are a danger to our public school system—of which you, the President of the Colorado Education Association, surely must be a defender.

As major cities close schools public schools all over the country, billionaires like Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch use their money, power, and jargon to impose corporate reforms that will ultimately lead to privatization of our system. And to see that you are advocating for one such reform (which, among other things, encourages an over-reliance on the standardized testing that accompanies it) is thoroughly disheartening. The inBloom system itself is controversial for many different reasons, but what inBloom represents for public schools as we know them is the much bigger problem.

Your editorial in The Denver Post seems disingenuous to me, as it’s rife with empty jargon that is characteristic of so many corporate reforms that are bad for children. Your claim that you and your colleagues log into “30 different information systems” every day to gather student data is troubling in and of itself, because it validates the importance reformers place on the use of endless, problematic, and often meaningless data to drive instruction. But more troubling is that your claim echoes, just as paid advertisements do, the inBloom FAQ page, which cites a pilot district (yours, can we assume?) whose teachers log into “30 different technology systems.” Was your public praise of the system part of the deal when the CEA accepted hundreds of thousands in grants from the Gates Foundation?

Aside from your support of inBloom in Colorado and the glaring ethics and privacy issues the system poses, I have some real problems with your argument that teachers need inBloom as a “tool.” First, you claim that inBloom fixes the problem that teachers “don’t have enough time to truly personalize learning for every student to meet their individual needs.” Sure: teachers who log into 30 systems with different usernames and passwords each day (this really happens?) waste time. But the solution to that waste of time isn’t to consolidate confidential information about students into one database; it’s to reevaluate the overuse of data that you describe. After all, the best teachers in the world have been successful for hundreds of years without staring at test results and other flawed data on spreadsheets, and those teachers will continue to be successful whether the Gates Foundation gets its hands on children’s personal information or not. The idea that storing loads of statistical data about our children can “personalize learning” is counterintuitive, as the testing culture that accompanies corporate educational reform reduces students and teachers to numbers and depersonalizes the personal culture of learning teachers work so hard to achieve. As you note, “nothing can ever replace the instincts of a teacher.” Unfortunately, the people making decisions about education don’t trust the instincts of a teacher.

Another problematic assertion you make is that a system like inBloom is necessary because it will help “reduce the need for teachers to reinvent the wheel for each new lesson and instead focus more time on quality of instruction and learning.” Such a claim is wildly misleading, particularly to those who have no understanding of what it is that teachers actually do. Collaboration is certainly important, but in the age of technology in which we currently live, teachers already have plenty of resources at their disposal. Maybe I’m too much of a cynic, but I see the “resource-sharing platform” as a way to can, cheapen, and standardize a “wonderful presentation on the Declaration of Independence.” We all know that the mark of a great teacher is that he or she “reinvents the wheel” all the time; to suggest that printing out and teaching a lesson someone else created is a practice that will lead to better instruction undermines and insults those of us who work so hard to develop lessons that are personalized for the different children who are in our classrooms each year.

Your case for inBloom is lukewarm at best, and an unintended (I hope) consequence of your argument is that it affirms reformers’ claims that teachers are failing at their jobs and that data collection is the answer. The inBloom benefits you describe are certainly not justification enough to warrant manipulation of existing privacy laws to circumvent confidentiality issues and allow private corporations access to student information.

Back to my original point: the bait used to lure children isn’t always inherently evil. The intentions of the predator, though, extend well beyond the original offertory. I’m not necessarily doubting that inBloom could be useful in some educational settings, but the implications of allowing corporations to infiltrate the system they claim is broken for the purposes of meddling in our children’s educations are alarming. In short, Ms. Dallman, you’ve fallen victim to the Gates bait. In doing so, you’ve further compromised the future of public education for our children—all in the name of a data-mining system that will ultimately, unjustly, and unnecessarily track sensitive information on the children we teach and the teachers you were elected to represent.

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Shared responsibility: a concept school reformers choose to ignore

The best orthopedic surgeon in the country performs a knee replacement, but the patient fails to complete his prescribed physical therapy and the knee doesn’t heal properly.  Is the bum knee the surgeon’s fault?

A master violinist gives a pupil violin lessons, but the pupil refuses to practice and does not care to learn how to play the violin. Is the pupil’s failure to excel at the instrument the master violinist’s fault?

An expert carpenter builds a beautiful deck, but its owners neglect to seal it regularly and take care of it. Is the run-down deck that results the expert carpenter’s fault?

A skilled dentist cleans a person’s teeth, but the person refuses to brush and floss. Are the person’s dirty teeth the dentist’s fault?

A top-rated cleaning company cleans a person’s house from top to bottom, but the homeowner continues to leave trash everywhere. Is the dirty house the cleaning company’s fault?

A respected dog trainer teaches a dog proper behavior, but the dog’s owners do not reinforce the trainer’s methods at home. Is the dog’s misbehavior the trainer’s fault?

An accomplished architect drafts plans for the perfect house, but a contractor doesn’t follow the plans. Is the poor construction of the house the architect’s fault?

An exclusive art supply store sells a customer the very best art supplies available, but the customer paints a hideous picture with those supplies.  Is the ugly art the art supply store’s fault?

A highly-trained psychologist suggests behavior-modification techniques to a patient struggling with an anxiety disorder, but the patient is unwilling to try and refuses to apply these techniques.  Is the patient’s continued anxiety the psychologist’s fault?

A lawn service lays beautiful sod on a client’s property, but the homeowner fails to fertilize and water the sod.  Is the dead grass the lawn service’s fault?

A wise financial adviser makes investment and savings recommendations to a client who has come into money, but the client ignores the recommendations and spends irresponsibly.  Is the client’s loss of finances the financial adviser’s fault?

A local farmer’s market vendor sells a customer freshly-picked vegetables, but the customer leaves those vegetables in a hot car.  Is the disgusting dinner the customer makes with those vegetables the vendor’s fault?

A professional football player runs a children’s football camp in the summer, but none of the children make it to the NFL.  Is this the kids’ “failure” the professional football player’s fault?

Most people would answer these questions with an emphatic “no!”  So why is it that teachers are often the first–or only–ones to be blamed if students aren’t successful?  It’s obvious that a good teacher can make a huge impact on a student’s life and level of success, but it is ignorant to ignore all the factors beyond teachers’ control that affect student performance.

Because a master teacher teaches to the very best of her ability and makes a positive impact on so many of her students, but she has one child who is unwilling to learn.  Is his failure the master teacher’s fault?

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July 16, 2013 · 9:58 pm

An Open Letter to Eli Broad

Dear Mr. Broad,

In a 1785 letter to John Jebb, future President John Adams said,

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

Yet going against every fiber of our country’s philosophy about the importance of public education, you promote the idea that we should turn schools into businesses and children into commodities. You project a seemingly-philanthropic interest in impoverished school districts because you see them as a means to profit for corporate America, and in doing so, you make the following claims:

Claim #1: The Broad Foundation “seeks to dramatically transform American urban public education so that all children receive the skills and knowledge to succeed in college, careers and life.”

How ironic that you—with your billions—target poverty-stricken areas as those needing the most help but effectively ignore poverty as the root of so many students’ struggles. Instead, you implement policies that widen the social divide which exists between urban students and their rural counterparts. To many urban children living in poverty, schools are homes when the ones to which they return at the end of the day are not sufficient. Yet you, with your cavalier attitude and financial power, publish manuals that give your superintendents license to close schools en masse with no regard for the children who will be displaced, the teachers who will lose their jobs, or the communities that will be divided as a result.

Claim #2: “Teachers feel disempowered.”

How ironic that your approach to “education” has already created conditions that are so unfavorable to teaching and learning that the best educators in the profession no longer recognize the jobs they once loved. You’ve implemented a depersonalized, high-stakes testing culture that pressures districts to raise test scores at any cost and stifles teacher and student autonomy, creativity, and love of school and learning.

Claim #3: “To become effective, efficient organizations that serve students well, American school districts and schools need strong, talented leadership.”

How ironic that so many superintendents who have graduated from your Broad Superintendent Academy have been driven from their posts because of votes of no confidence and questionable ethics—and left the districts they were supposed to “rescue” in shambles. Where is there real evidence of improvement your “leaders” have made? (Hold it right there: proliferation of for-profit charters and manipulated scores on meaningless standardized tests are not evidence of improvement.)

Claim #4: “Competition among American schools is healthy.”

How ironic that even your jargon seeks to destroy the idea of a unified, cohesive, collaborative public education system in the United States. As corporate influence continues to weaken the public school system and push education toward privatization, all but the least fortunate children will be driven to private and charter schools that are not bound by the ridiculous, limiting, and restrictive regulations to which public schools have become subject. And when those students fail because the underlying causes of their troubles have not been addressed and because their programs are being cut, their schools are closing, and their teachers are being laid off, people like you will say, “we told you: public schools are failing.”

Make no mistake that children who are successful academically will never attribute their successes to nameless, faceless billionaires who close schools, lay off thousands of teachers, and mandate standardized testing that’s used too frequently and punitively. Instead, they’ll attribute their successes to teachers who know them, who care about them, and who do their best to educate students every day despite the uncompromisingly capitalist influence you and your fellow profiteers have over their careers.

Just as teachers would never presume to dictate how you sell insurance, build houses, or manage your finances, you should refrain from dictating educational policies and practices—especially those that are destructive to students, teachers, communities, and the future of public education in America.

Why not focus your charitable undertakings on improving the conditions in our society that stack the odds against children before they even enter kindergarten? You don’t have to answer: we all know it’s because doing so won’t make you a profit.

Simply put, public education cannot afford your billions.

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Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden: inspirations to education reformers?

Ayn Rand, philosopher and author of The Fountainhead, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged, is widely known to be a controversial, polarizing political figure–and a current darling of many Tea Partiers.  One particularly disturbing component of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist/Virtue of Selfishness philosophy that is particularly appealing to education reformers is her disparagement of the American public school system.

In a 1973 essay, Rand proclaimed that “of all the government undertakings, none has failed so disastrously as public education.” She pointed to adolescent drug addiction, violence, and what she called “functional illiteracy” as evidence to support her claim.

Rand attributed the failures she described to the government’s role in education in the U.S. and vehemently argued for “tax credits for education” which would give citizens the following choices: pay taxes and send their children to “government schools,” or accept a tax credit and use the money toward private schooling. This radical and extremist policy, which goes against the democratic foundations of the American public school system, was an influential, elitist proposal that promoted academic and social stratification: Rand said, “if a young person’s parents are too poor to pay for his education or to pay income taxes, and if he cannot find a private sponsor to finance him, the public schools would still be available to him.”

Sound familiar?

Likewise, Nathaniel Branden, an early Rand disciple, promoted similar theories about education in a 1963 essay (published in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New American Library, 1966.).  Central to Branden’s extremist ideas was the theory that “there are no moral grounds whatever for the claim that education is the prerogative of the State—or for the claim that it is proper to expropriate the wealth of some men for the unearned benefit of others” and that “the disgracefully low level of education in America today is the predictable result of a State-controlled school system.”  Further, he equated a government-funded educational system with a “Nazi or communist theory of government” and faulted the “growing trend in American education…for the government to exert wider and wider control over every aspect of education.” Ultimately, his conclusion was this:

“Education should be liberated from the control or intervention of government, and turned over to profit-making private enterprise.” 

Sound familiar?

Not coincidentally, Branden claims that unions are counterproductive to the idea of a free-market economy and have “forced wages substantially above their normal market level,” and asserts that “one of the most widespread delusions of our age is the belief that the American worker owes his high standard of living to unions and to ‘humanitarian’ labor legislation.”

Sound familiar?

It’s obvious that Rand and Branden would unequivocally oppose an initiative like the Common Core, as its purpose is to circumvent the “anathema” of a national set of standards by leaving adoption of the standards to the states—who then accept funding from the federal  government for their implementation of the initiative.  (This is why many conservatives who favor small government oppose the Common Core.) But in today’s culture of educational reform, the push for privatization and the desire for more government control over public schools paradoxically go hand-in-hand.

Oddly enough, the result of the current reform movement is a politically-hybrid policy: one which at once advocates for privatization while still promoting a national set of standards for and government oversight of public schools and those who are left in them.  In an educational system that favors privatization, children of the elite—and children who have advocates—will enjoy private or corporate-funded education that’s not subject to the crippling regulations to which public schools are beholden.

Sound familiar?

How ironic that the radical ideas of an idol of many modern-day conservatives (remember Paul Ryan’s declaration that Rand is his hero?) are being embraced, perhaps unconsciously or unknowingly, by people from both ends of the political spectrum.

Is this what we want for our children?

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Walt Whitman’s century-old preemptive message to reformers

One need not be an English major to appreciate and understand this Walt Whitman poem, whose message is particularly applicable today:

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;                  5

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Reformers could take a lesson from the speaker of this poem, who describes the way an expert astronomer effectively removes the speaker’s joy of learning about the stars. The lecturer presents his students with “figures,” “charts,” and “diagrams” that provide an overly-technical approach to astronomy that masks the inherent beauty in it.  The speaker, who soon becomes “tired and sick” of the lecture, decides that it is better to find joy in studying the stars on his own than in an environment like the astronomer’s “lecture-room.”

Walt Whitman really WAS a poet of the people, wasn’t he?

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Student substance abuse: bad news for teachers’ test score-based evaluations

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “illicit drug use among teenagers has continued at large rates, largely due to the popularity of marijuana.”  According to the Institute’s statistics,

Marijuana use by adolescents declined from the late 1990s until the mid-to-late 2000s, but has been on the increase since then. In 2012, 6.5 percent of 8th graders, 17.0 percent of 10th graders, and 22.9 percent of 12th graders used marijuana in the past month—an increase among 10th and 12th graders from 14.2 percent, and 18.8 percent in 2007. Daily use has also increased; 6.5 percent of 12th graders now use marijuana every day, compared to 5.1 percent in the 2007.

Well-documented are the effects marijuana has on the developing brain.  According to John Knight, MD, Senior Associate in Medicine and Associate in Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard University Medical School, the earlier a child starts smoking marijuana, the earlier “potential changes to brain structure and function” occur.

Further, Dr. Mona Potter, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at The Landing/Dual Diagnosis Adolescent Residential Treatment Unit at McLean Hospital in Boston, says:

“While there is conflicting information related to cannabis’ long-term neurocognitive effects, there is no debate that adolescence is a very vulnerable time to put extraneous substances into the brain. While some adolescents report being able to use marijuana without a major negative impact, they are not always aware of the deficits in learning and memory related to their use.”

But marijuana isn’t the only drugs to which teens have access.  One of the newest trends in adolescent drug abuse involves use of a drug teens refer to as “Molly,” a powder form of MDMA–a component of ecstasy.  Doctors and substance abuse counselors warn that use of this drug, which is highly addictive, is on the rise–particularly because it’s accessible: it’s cheaper than marijuana, and it’s becoming so commonplace that teens generally have no trouble getting their hands on it. Experts warn that it can cause “permanent and irreversible damage to [adolescents’] brains, hearts, kidneys, and other vital organs.”

And then there’s alcohol, which  has a similar–and well-documented–effect on an adolescent’s brain.  

Studies conducted over the last eight years by federally financed researchers in San Diego, for example, found that alcoholic teenagers performed poorly on tests of verbal and nonverbal memory, attention focusing and exercising spatial skills like those required to read a map or assemble a precut bookcase.

It’s no secret that teens have been experimenting with illegal substances for decades, but the movement to tie teachers’ evaluations to the test scores of their students is relatively new.  Which unfortunate teachers will be assigned the students who have recently fallen into depths of substance abuse–and who, by doing so, have literally altered their brain chemistry and affected their ability to focus and to learn–and to perform well on or care about a standardized test?  

What’s even more concerning is that in a time of rising concerns about teen substance abuse and decreased funding for public schools, after-school programs that might otherwise keep kids out of trouble and substance abuse counselors are being cut.

Where does substance abuse within the context of today’s educational system leave kids?  In a bad place with a decreasing number of resources for support.  And where does it leave teachers?  In an equally bad place: one in which they’re at the mercy of reformers, who refuse to consider the effects extraneous factors (drug abuse, poverty, home life) have on students’ standardized test performance.

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