Monthly Archives: September 2013

Reign of Error: Diane Ravitch in Philadelphia

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On September 17th, just one day after a comparatively poorly-attended “Teacher Town Hall” hosted by Michelle Rhee, Steve Perry, and George Parker at Temple University, Diane Ravitch spoke to a full auditorium—and via simulcast to a section of overflow seating populated with audience members who didn’t get a seat at the sold-out event—at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Dr. Ravitch’s presence in the city, which is a hotbed for political, economic, and social debates that center around the city’s troubled school system, was celebrated by thousands of educators—both those who were able to attend the event and those who weren’t. Ravitch was introduced by Randi Weingarten, Ravitch’s friend of many years and President of the American Federation of Teachers, who has spent a significant amount of time in Philadelphia in recent weeks to defend the city’s public school teachers from attacks on the profession that are all too common across the country–and to support the PFT’s efforts to negotiate a meaningful contract with the School Reform Commission, which has cut thousands of teachers and support staff, closed buildings, and asked teachers to take pay cuts of up to 13%.

When she took the podium, Ravitch, who is 75 years old, spoke with the energy and passion of a much younger woman–energy and passion no doubt partially derived from the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the release of her book. Her speech, which like Reign of Error itself was prefaced by quotes from John Dewey and John Adams about the importance of a public education system that is supported by all citizens, drew verbal expressions of assent and applause for its systematic, organized, and common-sense debunking of the claims corporate reformers make about the state of America’s system of public education. There is no chapter in Reign of Error that is irrelevant or less important than another (Ravitch addresses virtually every issue at the center of the educational debate, including specific effects poverty has on academic achievement, the overuse/manipulation of test scores, the “achievement gap” and its causes, teacher quality/seniority/tenure/merit pay, Teach for America, vouchers, and mass school closings), and Dr. Ravitch devotes the last thirteen chapters of her book to specific solutions which, if implemented, will undoubtedly improve public education for all of the country’s children.

Of particular interest to the Philadelphia crowd was Dr. Ravitch’s discussion of charter schools, the proliferation of which has had crippling economic effects on traditional public schools in the School District of Philadelphia. Ravitch devotes a chapter of Reign of Error to “The Contradictions of Charters,” and in it she describes former AFT President Albert Shanker as a “founding father of the charter school movement” (156), which he initially thought would be a solution for educating students who had difficulties in traditional public schools—an idea he ultimately abandoned when he realized that charters were contributing to privatization efforts.

In “The Contradictions of Charters,” Dr. Ravitch references examples of unfair admissions practices of charters around the country—and, specifically, a few in Philadelphia—to highlight enrollment procedures that allow charter schools to grant admission to only students whom the charters deem will be academically successful (and thus will give the appearance that the school is more successful than traditional public schools in the area). Ravitch also mentions Philadelphia’s failed “privatization experiment” (circa 2002, after the 2001 state takeover of the district), the many city charters which have been investigated by the federal government, and, of course, the general, widespread criticism that charters enroll many fewer students with disabilities than do traditional public schools.

In the same chapter, Dr. Ravitch also references Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School District (which, geographically, is only a short drive from Philadelphia) as an example of public schools damaged by the expansion of for-profit charters. In Chester Upland, Ravitch notes,

“a charter school operated by the governor’s biggest campaign contributor absorbed half the district’s children. The owner of the for-profit corporation that manages the charter school receives nearly $16 million annually in fees for goods and services” (177-178).

Not surprisingly, the Chester Upland district is virtually bankrupt, and, as in Philadelphia, its public school students have suffered immensely—largely due to Governor Corbett’s willingness to put political interests ahead of the interests of the district’s children.

Also noteworthy, and particularly relevant to the Philadelphia crowd, is Dr. Ravitch’s chapter entitled “Trouble in E-land,” which disproves claims that virtual schools make learning more meaningful and accessible for students—and instead exposes virtual schools as profit-making enterprises that are much less effective than traditional teachers in traditional schools. According to Ravitch, Pennsylvania and Ohio maintain the biggest online charter networks in the country, despite the fact that a 2011 Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes study of Pennsylvania charters showed that “100% of cyber-charters performed significantly worse than traditional public schools in both reading and math” (193). Once again, money for which starved public schools are desperate is being diverted to for-profit enterprises that hurt student learning and achievement.

During her speech in Philadelphia, Dr. Ravitch insisted that she isn’t opposed to all charters, noting that those which seek to serve children with disabilities or other special needs can be successful if they operate in conjunction with their traditional public counterparts. But she ultimately acknowledged that such schools are exceptions rather than the norm, and as such, charter expansion has an ongoing responsibility for the damage it has inflicted on so many traditional public schools. “The Contradiction of Charters” concludes with the observation that

“Albert Shanker’s worst fears have been realized. The charter movement has become a vehicle for privatization of large swaths of public education, ending democratic control of public schools and transferring them to private management. The charters seek to compete, not collaborate, with public schools” (178).

What’s most unfortunate is that the troubles Dr. Ravitch discussed in Philadelphia—which seemed so real, immediate, and personal to those who attended her event at the city’s Free Library—are realities in school districts all over the country. When I spoke with Randi Weingarten after the event, she echoed that sentiment, since she sees evidence of it first-hand all too frequently. But most moving was Weingarten’s description of the decades-long relationship she has had with Diane Ravitch as a metaphor for what productive dialogue about education should look like; the two have disagreed fundamentally on some issues over the years, but the mutual respect and admiration they have for one another allows them to work in concert toward the common goal they share: preserving and improving public education for all the nation’s children. If only more people who have some differing views on ways to improve public education could have a similar attitude, approach, openness, and willingness to work together.

Ultimately, in the face of politicians’, billionaires’, and corporations’ goals to privatize our country’s public school system, Reign of Error has emerged as what Dr. Ravitch described to me, when she signed my copy of the book, as the “game-changer” for which public school advocates have been so desperate. Perhaps more importantly, Dr. Ravitch represents hope for all the teachers, students, and parents who have been demoralized and discouraged by the destructive forces we’re all working so hard to fight.

-Ani McHugh

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A challenge for Steve Perry

In perusing Steve Perry’s vitriolic, attack-dog, conduct-and-language-unbecoming-a-school-principal twitter feed, a few things became clear to me–but none is more ridiculous and hypocritical than the claim that Randi Weingarten (you know, one of those union “roaches“) and Diane Ravitch support “racist policies” and are “fighting to keep minority kids in failed schools.”

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Central to Perry’s unabashed self-promotions are his constant announcements that he himself grew up in poverty, and that despite the conditions of his upbringing, he was able to succeed academically–which is certainly to his credit. He tweets frequently and fervently that teachers who “can’t” educate kids until poverty is ended should step aside (which, by the way, is a complete, manipulative perversion of the belief that poverty affects students’ academic performance) and let someone else do it, and that anyone who hasn’t personally experienced poverty or “race” (which we’re to assume means racial discrimination) “has balls” to tell Perry the impact those things have on a student’s education in the classroom.

(To turn the tables on Perry’s “I-know-better-than-you” argument, couldn’t a classroom teacher say it takes “balls” for someone with no experience teaching K-12 students to claim to understand the everyday ins and outs of teaching students who have a host of challenges—not just poverty—facing them? But I digress.)

And speaking of poverty, since Perry is such a champion for the impoverished minority students he claims opponents of his “no-excuses reforms” are purposefully persecuting, here’s a challenge one would think he’d jump to accept: open a school that purposefully recruits and retains the neediest, most at-risk, and most impoverished students (many of whom have absentee parents) in Hartford, and educate and support them without “counseling” anyone out. 0% attrition, 0% drop-out, and 100% graduation rates. Do it.

But oddly (or not), Perry seems to adopt the exact opposite approach. According to data from the Connecticut State Department of Education’s 2010-2011 Strategic School Profile report,

  • Capital Prep enrolls a disproportionately LOWER percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch compared with other schools in its District Reference Group (DRG) (50% vs. 80.2%)
  • Capital Prep enrolls the LOWEST percentage of students with disabilities in its DRG (5.7% vs. 13.6%)
  • Capital Prep has ZERO Juniors or Seniors who work at a job for 16 or more hours per week, as opposed to 8.3% in the DRG
  • Capital Prep enrolls among the LOWEST percentage of English Language Learners in its DRG (3.6% vs. 13.1%)

And, according to reports, Capital Prep’s attrition rates have increased steadily since 2009, with the most recent statistics suggesting that 43% of the students who enrolled as freshmen did not make it through their senior year. (I asked Dr. Perry to respond to this claim from the Buffalo Spree article on twitter, but so far, I haven’t gotten a response.) So they didn’t technically drop out and they weren’t expelled; on paper, they left willingly. And poof: the rest of the kids who remained validated Perry’s claim that 100% of Capital Prep’s students graduate and go to college.

As far as its enrollment policy goes, the Capital Prep website states that “Capital Prep expects that the student and his or her family intends to fully comply with both the academic program and our uniform requirements” and will be chosen through a process that decides whether or not to “select” students for “matriculation.”

Ironically, though it seems Perry’s life’s quest is to rectify the racism that he perceives stems from educators who keep minority students in “failing schools,” Capital Prep released the following statement describing the school’s recruitment process to the CT DOE’. In the section titled EFFORTS TO REDUCE RACIAL, ETHNIC, AND ECONOMIC ISOLATION,” officials describe the “compliance challenges” a large population of minority students present and details ways the school recruits non-minorities:

We have instituted a Catholic school day. This is a culminating activity in which we send buses and vans to 5 area Catholic schools and bring the entire 5th and 8th grades to our school for a day of activities. Last year we had over 100, mostly non-minority suburban students, attend. Over 15% of our student body has participated in True Colors, an interdistrict student organization. We have developed partnerships with organizations in which the majority of the participants are non-minority. These are relationships that we anticipate will produce greater numbers of non-minority applicants. We have added this to our traditional methods of recruiting. Finally, we are developing programming, such as theater and music, which will also increase the number of non-minority applicants. We are working to extend the reach of The Capital Preparatory Magnet School into communities that have more non-minority students. Although our suburban population has been robust, most of the students are minority. This has presented compliance challenges in years past, however, this year we have improved by 7%.

So for the sake of “compliance,” and to ensure that Capital Prep is allowed to continue its existence, Perry is recruiting Catholic school kids and “non-minority” applicants to join the Capital Preparatory community. And, says Capital Prep, it is developing “theater and music” programs to increase the number of “non-minority applicants.” (Do theater and music programs not attract minority applicants?)

But Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, who are advocating each day for improved conditions for ALL children attending starved urban public schools (yes, the very children who aren’t privileged enough to make the cut at Capital Prep), are promoting racist policies.

Seriously?

Public schools all over the country are operating without funds necessary for even the most basic supplies; teachers are being laid off; class sizes of 40+ students aren’t uncommon; buildings are without counselors and nurses—and these schools are charged with educating every single student who walks through their doors. No “counseled” attrition; no extreme disciplinary policies (did a five-year-old at Capital Prep really have to eat lunch standing up for an entire block because her mother sent her to school without the proper belt uniform?), and no egregious manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics.

So the question remains: if Capital Prep has such an elite selection process which creates a student population that’s fundamentally opposite from the one Perry claims to advocate for, where will the “less privileged” students, or the ones who are “counseled out” once it becomes clear that they won’t be successful, go? Capital Prep won’t educate them, but its principal will accuse others of being racists who purposefully keep such kids in “failing schools?”

Steve Perry will be in Philadelphia tomorrow (9/16/13) with Michelle Rhee, and it seems he’s pretty excited about engaging in some #RealEdTalk.

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Unfortunately, I can’t go…but maybe someone can pass on my question to Dr. Perry: why not focus your efforts on the most economically and socially disadvantaged students in your district, and keep those students under your care from the start of their high school career until the end You’re a miracle worker, and, as you say, THOSE are the students who need you the most–yet somehow, statistically speaking, they seem not to be the ones who are accepted into and who graduate from your school.

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My fundamental objections to charter schools

I’ve always been a critic of blanket generalizations that fuel debates about education (public schools are failing, students are ill-prepared when they graduate from high school, we’re lagging behind other nations in terms of academic achievement, teachers are greedy/lazy/ineffective, unions are ruining the world, etc.), so it would be wrong for me to claim that all charter schools are “bad.” And in the spirit of full disclosure, I acknowledge that there are charter schools that serve their students well—and, certainly, that there are many wonderful charter school teachers.

But my fundamental problem, which I can’t seem to reconcile, is with the very IDEA (no pun intended) of charter schools–and here are a few reasons why:

  1. The very presence and expansion of charter schools sends the immediate (and arrogant) message that traditional public schools, which are cornerstones of the American democratic structure, are entities from which people should seek to flee. I’ve spoken before of this kind of “abandonment policy,” which all of us know is an inherent acknowledgement that whatever one is abandoning is not worth the time, effort, or money necessary to improve it. What message does this send to the general population—and, more specifically, to the kids who are left in public schools? They’ve already been given up on by outsiders who think they can do things “better.”
  2. Most charters like to claim that their students perform “better” than those in traditional public schools—yet those charters fail to cite their attrition rates (I’ve seen statistics that in some charters upwards of 40% of students are “counseled out” before they have a chance to graduate—and guess where they go? Back to public schools, which must educate ALL STUDENTS), their disproportionately-high suspension rates/three-strikes-you’re out policies, strict disciplinary procedures/punishments that would never be tolerated in public schools, and policies that allow them to select the types of students they want to enroll (generally, fewer special education students, learners with disabilities and certain medical conditions, English Language Learners, percentage of students living in poverty, etc).
  3. Public charters siphon money from public schools, further crippling those schools—many of which are operating on bare-bones budgets that result in class sizes of 40+ students, buildings with few–if any–guidance counselors, and nurses’ offices that are alarmingly understaffed (most recently, see Philadelphia). In fact, On September 12th, AFT President Randi Weingarten, for the first time in her career are a teacher/union leader, was actually denied access to Lincoln High School in Philadelphia—because, she assumes, the conditions there were so bad that school officials didn’t want her to witness them.
  4. Charters’ advertising campaigns deliberately take advantage of public schools’ financial crises (and, further, misuse and misrepresent “data” to advance the false claim that public schools are failing) to support the notion that their schools are “better.” In Philadelphia, for example, the local ABC affiliate cheerily broadcast that KIPP charters were ready to welcome students in the beginning of September—while at the very same time, the School District of Philadelphia’s September 9th opening was in jeopardy until just weeks before the deadline because the city’s mismanagement of public education funding since the late 1980s had finally caught up to them. But somehow, KIPP had the money it needed to open its schools on time—and with ample resources–while $45 million in funding is still being withheld by Governor Corbett until teachers’ unions agree to take pay cuts (some proposals cite cuts of up to 13%, in addition to increased contributions to benefits packages).
  5. Bogus performance claims: charters (much like the Teach for America organization and many of its corps members) like to claim they’re able to close the “achievement gap” (which we all know is more of an “opportunity gap,” but that’s an entirely different issue)—but their claim to success centers largely around standardized test scores that most people acknowledge are fundamentally flawed. It’s one thing to teach children to pass a test using “drill and kill” exercises, but it’s quite another to implement an educational experience that focuses on educating the whole child—rather than teaching children tips and strategies to pass standardized tests that really don’t show much about authentic learning at all—and certainly don’t inspire a love of learning in children. And again, keep in mind that most charters have much more control of their populations than public schools do, so comparisons in test scores can be virtually invalid.
  6. Charters boast of small class sizes, favorable student-teacher ratios, and instructional freedom (in 2012, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said that “we’ve learned that eliminating unnecessary restrictions on how we teach, and breaking down the barriers of who can help children learn, has enhanced how children can achieve, learn, and develop”). Yet public schools teachers–now more than ever– are crippled by restrictions: they’re being told what to teach, how to teach, how to assess, when to assess (yet nobody really wants to discuss how much money is costs to assess and how doing so violates children’s/families’ privacy) and, essentially, that anything that’s not “measurable” is not worth learning. The testing frenzy that’s taken over the country–a direct result of RTTT–is causing very public opposition from teachers, administrators, and parents alike.
  7. In some cases, charters actually contribute to the social stratification and segregation that plague many communities by enrolling only students of a specific race, ethnicity, or creed.
  8. In the interest of time, energy, and space, I can’t even get into the issue of privately-owned, for-profit charters here, because, quite frankly, the profiteering that goes on in those institutions is sickening.

All of the conditions listed above result in one thing: a misrepresentation and manipulation of flawed data that ultimately depicts public schools, which are victims of poor governmental oversight/financial management, crippling restrictions, and calculated aspersions, as entities that cannot serve children (particularly those in urban settings) properly. In short, conditions in urban public schools are becoming so unbearable that charter operators prey on families frustrated with overcrowding and underfunding in their neighborhood schools to present themselves as some sort of revolutionary, miracle cure-all.

So what’s left to do? Advocates of public education must continue to shed light on the farce that “school choice” helps public education—because once one understands the larger scope of the movement, it becomes clear that charters have just the opposite effect on public schools.

And if we are to continue to exist as a country that values its public education system, we must pour all of our energy–in a united effort–into supporting public school children, teachers, and administrators and addressing the underlying social conditions that make learning difficult for so many, rather than haphazardly dangling superficially-appealing, superficially-tested, quick-fix alternatives (which really aren’t “fixes” at all) to public schools that ultimately hoodwink the general public into thinking that charters are somehow miracle solutions for society’s woes. On paper and in theory, I understand why charters can be appealing options to some parents and students. In reality, though, the reasons they seem appealing reveal the true injustice being inflicted upon the institution of public education in the United States.

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TFA looks to capitalize on School District of Philadelphia crisis

Like many other urban districts across the country, the School District of Philadelphia ended the last academic year in a financial crisis–one that resulted in a “doomsday budget” which cut thousands of teaching and staff positions, eliminated programs, and closed dozens of buildings. Despite very real fears that the district would not have the funds or the resources to open its doors on September 9th, the first day of classes began as scheduled (sort of) for the thousands of students the district serves.

On their first day of school, Philadelphia students were met with conditions that make academic success very difficult to achieve—conditions that are all too familiar in many inner-city schools across the country. In Philly this year, classes with more than 30 students aren’t uncommon (some buildings are reporting classes with more than 40 students)–and some high schools are only staffing one guidance counselor for thousands of students. In short, and by many accounts, the district is barely functioning.

Amid all this chaos, Teach for America’s Greater Philadelphia chapter is advertising, on its website, that “Today in Philadelphia, only 61% of kids graduate from high school within four years, and only 10% will go on to graduate from college. It’s clear that not all of Philadelphia’s students are getting the education and opportunities they deserve.”

As a solution, and taking advantage of the poor conditions that result from financial crisis (just as they did in Chicago, where they’re expanding their presence–particularly with plans to support the expansion of privately-operated charters while the district lays off thousands of public school teachers), Teach for America has initiated a regional restructuring plan that will transfer Camden and Trenton from the Greater Philadelphia chapter to Teach for America New Jersey. Doing so, says TFA, will allow Greater Philadelphia “to focus our full efforts on the opportunities and challenges ahead of us in Philly” (where, incidentally, TFA alum Marc Mannella is CEO of the KIPP charter network).

They’re coming, and no one should be surprised.

Anyone unfamiliar with TFA’s agenda need only look to its cheerleaders at Washington and Lee University, one of the “top producers of graduates participating in the Teach for America program.” According to Beverly Loring, director of Washington and Lee’s Career Development Center,

“Teach For America is an excellent first job, especially for high-achieving students who are not certain what direction they might want to take.”

The phrase “first job” makes clear that teaching is merely a stepping stone for many TFA corps members–notice Loring didn’t say TFA is for students who are committed to teaching children–and such jargon is consistent with TFA’s larger plan, which, according to W&L, encourages “individuals from all academic disciplines to spend two years teaching in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the movement to end educational inequity.” That’s right: TFAers who teach for two years (you know–the ones who don’t pursue careers in law, finance, and medicine) are encouraged to write education policy that affects the way career educators do their jobs.

Unfortunately, TFA is becoming an increasingly-appealing option for government officials like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, both of whom seem set on blaming teachers for the budget shortfalls that resulted from fiscal mismanagement at City Hall. Just today (9/10/13), a report revealed that PA state auditors have been warning the School District of Philadelphia about glaring accounting problems since 1987, so it’s really no surprise that these problems have finally caught up with the city’s public school system. Yet Corbett maintains that he won’t release an additional $45 million to the financially-starved district until teachers unions agree to major concessions (namely, pay cuts of up to 13% and increased contributions to benefits packages). To those who value rectifying politicians’ poor financial judgment at the expense of children, TFA is a way to save the district money in salaries and promote the teacher turnover rates that will ultimately weaken unions—not to mention the quality of education that Philadelphia’s children receive.

The TFA plan for Philadelphia is all part of a larger—and glaringly transparent—scheme that will ultimately hurt students, starve public schools, disrupt unions, and promote the expansion of charters in Philadelphia. In 2013, 175 TFA corps members were placed in charter schools and 75 were placed in the School District of Philadelphia (statistics that show TFA’s priorities), and it’s clear that the Greater Philadelphia restructuring plan is designed to place even more TFA corps members in schools throughout the city in the coming years. The organization has even reserved part of a recently-renovated apartment complex to use as both office space for the Greater Philadelphia Teach for America headquarters and living space for TFA corps members who are placed in the city. If this isn’t calculated infiltration, I’m not sure what is.

So while there’s certainly no easy fix for the School District of Philadelphia’s immediate crisis, one thing is for sure: an increased Teach for America presence in the city will only serve to make current conditions worse for the district’s public school students and their teachers.

Correction: my original post stated that ex-executive director of TFA Greater Philly Tre Johnson, who now sits on the Board of Trustees at Philadelphia’s Independence Charter School, attended Washington and Lee University, which is incorrect; he attended the University of Maryland.

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Depersonalization is at the heart of education reform – phillyburbs.com: Reader Voices

This letter was published in June–before I started this blog–so here it is again. Thank you to everyone who has shared it! Depersonalization is at the heart of education reform – phillyburbs.com: Reader Voices.

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