Monthly Archives: July 2014

#Questions4Campbell: think stripping teachers of due process helps kids? Think again.

I wonder how many people, particularly those funding and cheering for education reform, were excited when Campbell Brown left CNN in 2010.

Unemployment would, after all, give the widely-known news personality the opportunity to focus all of her time and energy on dismantling public education: and that’s exactly what she’s doing.  Using reformers’ favorite buzz phrases like “all kids should have great teachers!” and “all students need to have access to great public schools!” and “bad teachers should not be teaching!”–declarations with which few people would argue–Brown is on a crusade to promote the reform agenda that’s become her focus since low ratings drove her from journalism exactly four years ago.

Before we go any further, though, here’s a brief Campbell bio for anyone who forgot about her a long time ago would like some context for the rest of this post:

  • The daughter of a state senator, Brown attended the exclusive Madeira School (she was reportedly expelled for sneaking off campus), a private institution whose current tuition is $41,224 for non-boarders and $54,555 for boarders. Her sons, too, attend private schools.
  • Brown is married to Dan Senor, a political strategist who sits on the Board of Directors of Michelle Rhee‘s anti-union group StudentsFirstNY.
  • In 2012, Brown penned a ridiculously shallow and purposefully-misleading op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in which she accused teachers’ unions of “go[ing] to bat for sexual predators” and “resisting almost any change aimed at improving our public schools.”  (Read this article for a link to Brown’s op-ed and to understand the extent to which her piece was pure propaganda.)
  • Brown is a member of the Board of Directors at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter chain–which I assume means that she condones all of the corrupt and abusive practices of which the network is guilty.

But Brown is in the news right now because as the founder and chair of Partnership for Educational Justice, she’s leading an anti-tenure lawsuit in New York.

(Fun fact: Nina Doster, one of the plaintiffs who claims that incompetent teachers are the reasons her children cannot read on grade level, is also a paid organizer for StudentsFirst. Another fun fact: PEJ uses the American Federation of Teachers’ slogan of “reclaiming the promise of public education” in the “about us” section of its website. When Valerie Strauss asked for an explanation, the group’s executive director attempted to discredit the AFT by citing the 31% proficiency rate–which was calculated and predetermined to perpetuate the idea of “failing schools”–on NY Common Core-aligned tests. We all knew these tests would be used to label and punish students, teachers, and scores even before they were administered; PEJ’s response here, as well as its lawsuit, is evidence of as much. It’s all part of the plan, folks.)

So because some nameless, faceless teachers are allegedly so incompetent that due-process protections should be stripped from the entire profession, Campell Brown says her lawsuit is necessary to address “anachronistic” tenure laws that she said are responsible for students’ educational woes in New York and beyond. To bolster their argument, PEJ has even included a page on their  website called “Share your Story“–where parents can fill out and submit a form explaining how bad teachers have hurt their kids.

Brown’s lawsuit first takes issue with “last in, first out” policies, which dictate that teachers with the least amount of seniority are the first to be let go in RIF situations.  In fact, Brown suggests that she’s actually doing teachers a favor by taking away their due-process protections–because removing tenure actually protects teachers (?), since so often, she says, the best teachers are the ones who are let go. (She provides no data, of course, to support this claim–nor does she say what constitutes “good teaching.”) This kind of rhetoric suggests that new teachers are somehow inherently better than veteran educators, and it disregards evidence that shows just how much experience matters in teaching. It’s also important to point out that much research exists to suggest that teacher attrition, which Brown’s lawsuit certainly promotes, is disproportionately prevalent–and particularly harmful–in urban schools. I suppose Brown, a non-educator, wouldn’t understand any of this, though.

And just after she insinuates that new teachers are superior to experienced ones, Brown claims that three years is an insufficient amount of time to determine whether a teacher is effective or not. How odd, especially given the love affair between StudentsFirst and Teach for America–the organization that requires its corps members to commit to only two years of teaching–and the extent to which Success Academy staffs TFAers.  By Brown’s own logic, she, as a board member at Success Academy, will never know if many of the teachers who populate SA’s charters are effective because the turnover rate is so high. How does that make sense?

(As an aside, and in true Success Academy fashion, Brown has refused to disclose the names of the individuals and groups who are funding her group and lawsuit. But then again, transparency was never a cornerstone of education reform.)

When it really comes down to it, Campbell Brown’s lawsuit is as irresponsible and manipulative as her 2012 WSJ op-ed, and it represents what is so wrong with the idea of corporate education reform: that specific, isolated problems should be “fixed” by implementing sweeping, untested, top-down mandates–which are most often implemented by non-educator elites–that punish everyone and facilitate privatization and union busting. Brown’s empty rhetoric, which sounds reasonable on the surface, is meant to trick parents and taxpayers into thinking that teacher tenure is what ails public education–when it most certainly is not. Conversely, it’s due-process protections that allow teachers to advocate for their students and do what they know to be best for children without the fear of retribution.  Anyone who believes otherwise–or believes that the best way to improve teacher quality is to strip teachers of their rights to a fair hearing and protection from capricious, arbitrary, or politically-motivated dismissal–is misguided at best.

The bottom line is this: if Campbell Brown really cared about supporting teachers, she would work with unions to construct meaningful reforms to existing laws–instead of spending millions of dollars on a politically-motivated lawsuit that hurts teachers and the students they serve.  If Campbell Brown really cared about students, she would advocate for reforms that support the neediest children–instead of serving on a board of a charter network that excludes such students or pushes them out when they’re unable to perform well on standardized tests. If Campbell Brown really cared about public education, she would use her foundation’s money and influence to address the root of the problem, which we know to be poverty. And if Campbell Brown really wanted to understand why due process is so important for teachers, she would herself teach in a public school–preferably an urban one–and attempt to advocate meaningfully and passionately for her students without such protections.

But it doesn’t seem that Campbell Brown really cares about any of those things.


* If you’re on twitter, check out all the #Questions4Campbell that were submitted in advance of Brown’s appearance on The Colbert Report. Campbell is notorious for blocking twitter users who challenge her, so it looks like she’ll be pretty busy for a while.


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Coming to Camden: reformy professional development from Relay GSE

Regardless of whether or not parents and community members approve of them, Mastery and Uncommon charters are coming to Camden.

And what’s the best way to prepare teachers for the charterization of the city? Provide them with charterized professional development workshops, of course!

Last week, Camden educators got a letter from state superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard telling them about “a new series of professional development opportunities intended to build on the skills of teachers and school leaders.” Here’s the kicker: “The new training series includes support from the Relay Graduate School of Education, which is one of the best principal training programs in the country.”


For anyone unfamiliar with Relay Graduate School of Education, here’s a quick review. From the Relay GSE website (emphasis mine):

Our education system has failed to keep pace as society has moved forward—creating an achievement gap that has grown from decade to decade. At the center of this education crisis are low income youths living in urban communities across America. Fueling the crisis has been a nationwide failure by most university-based teacher education programs to prepare teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.

As leaders of educational reform, the founders of Relay GSE recognized the need for teachers who can close the achievement gap and give our youth a promising future. So they were inspired to create a new graduate school that immediately and effectively addresses the demand for great teachers in urban communities.

Who are these founders of Relay GSE, you ask?  Surprise! They’re none other than Norman Atkins, founder and Board Chair at Uncommon Schools, and David Levin, who Taught for America for three years and then co-founded KIPP. (Fun fact: in 2012, the six (6) members of the Relay GSE “leadership team” made a combined $1.1 million, with Norman Atkins bringing in a salary of $247,000.)

When asked for input in 2012 regarding Relay GSE’s petition to begin business in NJ, the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education–a coalition of 24 higher education institutions–released a scathing position statement detailing the many reasons the Relay program, which is “largely video-based,” should not be allowed to operate in the state.  In addition to concerns about the program’s lack of accreditation, weak curriculum, and lack of appropriate faculty oversight, the statement notes that “there is a lack of evidence, vis-a-vis publications in refereed journals, that the RSE program provides sufficient training to novice teachers to be effective.” (And what happens when districts allow charters to proliferate?  You guessed it: they staff lots of novice teachers!)

Another particularly troubling component of the Relay GSE program–one that sets it apart from more traditional, well-rounded teacher-education programs–is that it centers around the very narrow (and flawed, and easily-manipulated, and curriculum-narrowing, and characteristically-charter, etc.) goal of “achievement gains” for students in urban areas:

Our program is the first ever to require graduate students to demonstrate proficiency and achievement in their K-12 classrooms while teaching in order to earn a degree. Graduate students who complete the two-year program must demonstrate that their students have made a minimum of a year’s worth of academic growth in a year’s time.

In other words, raise your students’ test scores and we’ll give you a degree! (How’s that for pedagogy?)

Despite numerous and valid concerns about Relay GSE, the Christie administration granted approval to the program in 2013. It didn’t take long, though, for Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker to explain what Relay is all about.  Baker makes the connection between Relay and Newark’s North Star Academy, the Uncommon school that also serves as Relay’s NJ headquarters, and–as he often does–proves that charters don’t have a “secret sauce” when it comes to educating children in urban areas. Instead, many of the practices North Star Academy–and by extension, Relay GSE–promotes are very troubling. (This is a long but important excerpt. Read the whole post, as well as this Baker piece about Arne Duncan’s reformy praise of Relay.)

Put simply, Relay GSE uses relatively inexperienced teachers to grant degrees to their own new colleagues, where those colleagues may be required by the school to gain those credentials in order to retain employment. No conflict of interest here? But I digress. Back to the point.

Their modules, as shown on the Relay website, are in their best light, little more than mindless professional development for classroom management, and reading inspirational books by school founders, discussed with “champion” teachers. Hardly the stuff of legitimate graduate work, in any field. But again, I digress.

Relay GSE will likely place a significant number of its graduates in its own school (or in network).

North Star Academy has pretty good growth scores, by the (bogus) New Jersey growth metric.

Therefore, not only is North Star Academy totally awesome, but Relay GSE must be an outstanding teacher preparation institution! It’s just that simple. They must be offering that secret sauce of teaching pedagogy which we should all be looking to as a model. Right?

Setting aside that the New Jersey growth scores themselves are suspect, and that the endeavor of linking teacher preparation program effectiveness to such measures is completely invalid, what the current approach fails to recognize is that North Star Academy actually retains less than 50% of any given 5th grade cohort through 12th grade in any given year, and far fewer than that for black boys. The school loses the vast majority of black boys, and for the few who remain behind, their growth scores – likely as influenced by dwindling peer group composition among those left as by “teacher” effects – are pretty good.

But is a school really successful if 50 enter 5th grade, 1/3 are gone by 8th grade and only a handful ever graduate?

Is this any indication of the quality of teaching, or pedagogy involved? I won’t go so far as to suggest that what I personally might perceive as offensive, demeaning pedagogy is driving these attrition rates (okay… maybe I just did).

But, at the very least, I might argue that a school that loses over half its kids from grade 5 to 12 is a failing school, not an outstanding one. Whether that has any implications for labeling their teachers as “failing” and their preparation programs as “failing” is another question entirely.

And there you have it: attrition + segregation + test prep = “success!” (I wonder if Relay GSE has a course that focuses exclusively on this phenomenon–or if it’s more of an unwritten-practice-type-thing.)

So let’s connect the dots to summarize:

  • Uncommon schools and Relay Graduate School of Education are inextricably connected.
  • Uncommon schools, as evidenced by Newark’s North Star Academy, have a record of high attrition (60% of the students who left the school between 5th and 12th grade in 2002-2008 were black boys), serve lower special education populations, and have high suspension rates.
  • Uncommon’s founder, along with the founder of the KIPP charter chain, determined that traditional teacher preparation programs are insufficient–so the two created a graduate program that centers around the (reformy) “proven practices of high-performing schools.” (See above bullet for “proven practices of high-performing schools.”)
  • Uncommon and Mastery schools will join KIPP in Camden, and by 2019-2020, charters will educate over 12,000 of Camden’s 14,000 public school children. (Don’t worry–there will still be a couple district schools left to take the kids who are “counseled out” of the charters.)
  • To prepare educators for this charter takeover, Camden district officials have decided to provide professional development through Relay Graduate School of Education.

And that’s that. Nobody should be surprised.

Camden parents and taxpayers: are you okay with this?


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About Chris Christie’s Executive Order #159…

Yesterday, Chris Christie issued Executive Order #159, a mandate which creates a governor-appointed “study commission” tasked with accomplishing the following:

The Commission is charged with reviewing and providing appropriate recommendations about the effectiveness of the volume, frequency, and impact of student testing occurring throughout New Jersey school districts, including those administered for college admission, college credit, and college pathways. The creation of this Commission will also help ensure the effectiveness of the Core Curriculum Content Standards, including the Common Core State Standards, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) assessments.

Accompanying the Executive Order is a set of regulations that modifies the terms of TEACH-NJ, the teacher evaluation component of Christie’s reform law that was passed in 2012. Indeed, that teachers’ evaluations will not be based as much on inherently flawed SGP calculations is good news for teachers and their students; see more on this from Marie Corfield. But, as Jersey Jazzman notes, the arbitrary nature of the order itself “lays bare the fundamental problems with AchieveNJ.”

There appears to be a good deal of debate regarding this order, but everyone seems to agree on one thing: that Christie issued it to avoid finding himself in a position to veto the largely popular A3081/S2541, legislation that was much more comprehensive than Executive Order #159 and had almost unprecedented bi-partisan support.

The contents of the order and regulations aside, there are some bigger concerns people should be considering here.  First and foremost, what were Christie’s motives for this move? What was it about the original legislation–remember, it had overwhelming bipartisan support–that he found so objectionable that he’d have to veto it? Why was Sweeney so unwilling to allow a vote in the Senate?

I’m quite certain that we can all make some pretty accurate guesses about the answers to these questions, but focusing on this particular order and the circumstances around it is a distraction from the larger issue here: the extent to which education policy has been corrupted by toxic federal mandates.  

THIS is what we should be focusing on. As many and as valid are our concerns about PARCC testing, for example, PARCC is just one component of a large, destructive plan that seeks to drastically change (read: cripple, destroy, privatize, etc.) the institution of public education in the United States.

A quick review: in 2001, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act–a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–which required states to develop, administer, and report the results of standards-based assessments. While many people celebrated NCLB as a way to improve educational outcomes for students and schools, many criticized the law because, among other things, of its focus on flawed standardized tests.

In 2009, President Obama and US Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top (which many people, including Diane Ravitch, have described as NCLB “on steroids“), a competition that awards federal funds to states that adopt various reforms–one of which is the Common Core State Standards. It is Race to the Top that essentially forces states to buy into the testing craze that most educators knew all along was bad news.

A brief aside here: though many people don’t know the intricacies of CCSS, most do understand that the initiative is the subject of much debate from people on both ends of the political spectrum–and that Common Core-aligned tests are used punitively and to promote the current administration’s education reform agenda. Last weekend, at a meeting of the National Governors Association, Chris Christie dismissed opposition to CCSS as a manifestation of people’s fears about the power of the federal government:

He said that voters, “given the lack of confidence they have in government in Washington and that type of centralization, want their governors” to figure out solutions that work for their states. [Emphasis mine.]

That’s weird, because the National Governors Association, of which Christie is a member (and was when the standards were adopted), was largely responsible for the Common Core:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort coordinated by the NGA Center and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, 2 territories, and the District of Columbia developed a common core of state standards in English language arts and mathematics for grades k-12.

It’s curious that Christie, and other governors who are now getting heat about the standards (and even governors like Bobby Jindal, an original CCSS supporter who now wants LA to break ties with the CCSS), didn’t consider the implications of the initiative he pushed when he signed on to it in 2009. As Save Our Schools NJ notes, various versions of Christie’s (incomplete and late) move to study the effects of testing are being considered or implemented throughout the country–and as many people have observed, the process of studying reforms after they’ve been implemented and have done irreparable damage is glaringly backwards.

But I digress. Back to the issue in NJ. Many people (parents, students, educators) in the state are frustrated and angry that students will still have to take PARCC exams in the 2014-2015 school year–but it’s important to understand that a delay of PARCC implementation was never part of A3081/S2154. Even if it were, though, students would still have to take whatever tests would replace the PARCC–be they Smarter Balanced assessments or revised NJASK/HSPA tests that would have had to be rewritten to align with the Common Core.

In short, the PARCC is just one form of Common Core testing–the one New Jersey chose to use–and as long as New Jersey is a Common Core state that’s receiving federal funds under Race to the Top, our students will have to be tested in accordance with the federal mandates that accompany these initiatives. If we weren’t subjecting students to PARCC testing, we’d be subjecting them to something very similar–and no doubt equally flawed, equally expensive, and probably equally invasive of their rights to privacy.

So, the bigger picture:

That students and teachers across the country are at the mercy of untested, unproven reforms is the problem here.

That those reforms are being used to push a privatization agenda that further segregates our population and punishes students and schools in our already-struggling urban areas is the problem here. (This is certainly no secret in New Jersey; Christie even acknowledged his pro-charter, pro-school choice agenda within the text of his executive order. What he failed to acknowledge is the crippling damage it’s done to children in cities like Newark and Camden. Also, read this just-published piece from The Atlantic entitled “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing.”)

And until there is enough resistance to corporate-driven education reform and the toxic, punitive testing culture Obama’s Race to the Top has created, comparatively small pieces of legislation or executive orders themselves–independently and in isolation–will do very little to cause significant changes to our broken system.  (This certainly doesn’t mean that such legislation isn’t worthwhile; the opposite is true. We must continue to put pressure on lawmakers, we must hold them accountable for their actions, and we must force them to act in the best interest of our children, their teachers, and their schools. My point here is that Executive Order #159–and the legislation from which it’s derived–is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.)

So what are parents, educators, and taxpayers in New Jersey to do? Lots of things.

First, understand that there are many more important bills pending in the legislature. Here are two (and there are more which I don’t have on hand); call your legislators and ask them to support these bills:

  • A3079 prohibits the administration of standardized testing in kindergarten through second grade.
  • A3077  “Requires school districts and charter schools to annually provide to parents or guardians of enrolled students information on certain tests to be administered during the school year.”  (This “information” includes the costs associated with administering standardized tests, the validity of the test results, the ways in which results will be used, etc.)

More immediately, and because the PARCC tests are coming this year whether we like it or don’t: know your rights.  Know your children’s rights. Understand the tests themselves (you can and should take a sample of the PARCC test like I did, so you can understand what your children will be asked to do and evaluated on), and understand the steps you are entitled to take if you wish to refuse those tests on behalf of your children. Watch the film Standardized and visit sites like to understand the problems with high-stakes tests.  Join groups like Opt Out of State Standardized Tests–New Jersey (on Facebook) to read about others’ experiences and share your own. (Also, here’s a post I wrote a few months ago about refusing the NJASK; most of it should be applicable to PARCC testing, though I will compose another PARCC-specific post soon.)

The bottom line is this, and it’s nothing new: we cannot trust most politicians to act in the best interest of children, of teachers, or of public education on their own. We simply cannot.

Our job, then, has to be to continue to remind politicians–and other policymakers–that we are watching, we are informed, and we will continue to advocate for what’s best for children.



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Arne Duncan’s failed civil rights initiatives

Last week, NEA delegates adopted a new business item calling for US Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s resignation. Given the damage Duncan’s policies have done to the American institution of public education, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

There’s too much to say about Duncan’s bad education policy in one post, but every time his name comes up, I find myself thinking back to a quote that I simply can’t get past–and I think it’s even more relevant today than it was when Duncan said it on June 25th, 2013:

I believe the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.

*I’ll preface the remainder of this post with an acknowledgement that the NEA and AFT both still support the Common Core, though leaders from both unions are actively criticizing the implementation of and testing associated with the standards. There are, however, teachers’ unions–namely the CTU and the NYSUT–that have made statements of opposition to the CCSS.  Also, the Badass Teachers Association, a one-year-old Facebook group of 49,000 teachers from across the country, remains staunch in its opposition to the Common Core.  

Back to the quote. I can’t say whether the Secretary’s statement was a product of ignorance, arrogance, or both (remember, he is a race expert; he knows all about minorities AND “white suburban moms“), but I do think that the year of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision is a good opportunity to revisit Duncan’s implication that the Common Core State Standards will help to ensure equal educational opportunities for minority students.

Though there’s much debate about the virtues of the actual standards themselves, it seems that there’s even more upset about the construction and implementation of the CCSS initiative. Either way, given all the controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards, nobody should be convinced that CCSS is some magic cure-all for what ails public education–especially when it comes to inequality.

Anthony Cody’s “Common Core Standards: Ten Colossal Errors” is one of the most thorough and concise essays I’ve read about the many and diverse issues with the CCSS. Though all the points Cody makes are interrelated, the final “error” he describes is perhaps the most applicable to this post:

The biggest problem of American education and American society is the growing number of children living in poverty. As was recently documented by the Southern Education Fund (and reported in the Washington Post) across the American South and West, a majority of our children are now living in poverty.

The Common Core does nothing to address this problem. In fact, it is diverting scarce resources and time into more tests, more technology for the purpose of testing, and into ever more test preparation.

The tests Cody mentions here, which he describes in more detail in other parts of his essay, are an inextricable component of the Common Core State Standards–and the data from these tests is being used to label and punish students and teachers and to close public schools, primarily in urban areas that are populated by socioeconomically-disadvantaged and minority students.

Are these school closures, which are increasingly justified by Common Core test scores and which disproportionately affect minority and low-income studentswhat Duncan was referring to in his 2013 statement? (Note that in the same speech, Duncan also touted the CCSS as a solution to the “achievement gap,” which the rest of us know is better labeled as an “opportunity gap.” But if we’re sticking with the “achievement gap” language, I should point out that the flawed Common Core tests New York administered last year “expanded the black/white achievement gap.” In this same article, author Carol Burris concludes that “unless we level the playing field between rich and poor we can never achieve college and career readiness for all.”)

But again–CCSS does nothing to address or correct the issue of poverty or help its victims, many of whom are minority students living in urban areas.

In May of 2014, and because Duncan’s “reforms” were hurting instead of helping minorities, Journey for Justicean “alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 cities across the country,” filed civil rights complaints in Chicago, Newark, and New Orleans, since “striking inequities remain in public education,” as “predominately African-American and Latino communities being targeted for school closings – with students re-enrolled in different schools, or neighborhood schools turned over to private companies.”

At the same time, the J4J released a brilliant 38-page report entitled “Death By A Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage” that sharply criticizes Duncan (and Rhee, Gates, Emanuel, and Bloomberg) for calling his kind of education “reform” “the civil rights movement of our time.” If you haven’t read this report, please do so. It is so important (and I regret that I didn’t write about it sooner), and so clear in its exposure of the education reform movement for what it really is: a billionaire-backed push to privatize education by imposing untested and unproven initiatives on our country’s most vulnerable children. Particularly relevant here is a quote from the section entitled “The Perversity of ‘Reformers’ Claiming the Mantle of the Civil Rights Movement”:

As residents of the communities most affected by school closures and charter school expansion, we must take issue with this rhetorical deception.

First, it is appalling that anyone would dare to equate the billionaire-funded destruction of our most treasured public institutions with the grassroots-led struggles for racial equality to which many of our elders and ancestors made heroic sacrifices.

Second, we simply cannot tolerate anyone telling us these policies are for our own good.  Because we are the students they claim to be doing this for.  We are the parents and family members that they claim to be helping.  The communities they’re changing so rapidly are our communities, and our experience with school closures and charter school expansion confirms what an abundance of research has made quite clear: these policies have not produced higher-quality educational opportunities for our children and youth, but they have been hugely destructive.

The report also asserts that “the dramatic expansion of charter schools has done nothing to address the root causes of the challenges our communities face,” (challenges that most reformers discount, diminish, or ignore–i.e. poverty, racism, etc.), and that “the policies being implemented have unquestionably been racially discriminatory.”

Yet despite outcry from the people most affected by Duncan’s reforms, the secretary continues to impose his agenda on marginalized groups throughout the country.

Because it’s been making national news lately, let’s use New Orleans as an example. In 2010, Duncan said, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina” (yes, he really said that), and it was clear that Duncan wanted to use the “opportunity” of a devastating storm to “reform” the city’s school district. And lo and behold, in May of this year (the same month in which J4J filed suit and released its report), it was announced that New Orleans would soon become the first all-charter city in America–despite experts’ insistence that the NOLA charter “experiment” was already failing.  (Also, see here, here, here, here, and here.)

Just yesterday, New Orleans’ Recovery School District had an “embarrassing fiasco for an enrollment process” when hundreds of parents were turned away after waiting for hours in long lines to register their children for school–effectively leaving their children’s educational placements for the next academic year up in the air. (As an aside, the Recovery School District “OneApp” process sounds strikingly similar to Cami Anderson’s One Newark Universal Enrollment process, which has been a disaster.)  One parent who was turned away in NOLA yesterday was a member of one community organizing group, among many, that filed–you guessed it–a civil rights complaint last year that the Recovery School District was failing to serve non-native English-speaking families. And that J4J civil rights complaintmentioned earlier that was filed in May? LA Education Superintendent John White called it “a joke.” 

(Also worth noting is that Bobby Jindal, a former Common Core supporter, wants out of CCSS and is currently fighting over the issue with White.)

I wonder if Arne Duncan would consider NOLA’s Recovery School District the shining example of a Common Core Reformy Civil Rights Success that he hoped it would be. Or what about Chicago’s schools?  Philadelphia’s?  Newark’s?  Camden’s?

Ultimately, the information detailed in “Death By A Thousand Cuts” reiterates a theme that’s all too present in the current climate of education reform across the country: disenfranchisement. Billionaires and people of privilege and influence close schools without adequate justification or community input, and then they privatize education. This increasingly-common practice, as Mark Weber and Bruce Baker have shown in New Jersey, disproportionately affects minorities.

The long and short of it is this: as J4J notes, Arne Duncan’s brand of education “reform,” which makes billionaires and profiteering corporations richer, is hurting the very people reformers claim it’s designed to help. And regardless of the value of the Common Core standards themselves, the CCSS initiative–with its non-educator billionaire creators/backers, its incessant and punitive testing, and its use as a vehicle to facilitate mass school closures–is a large part of the problem.

Sorry, Arne.  You need to go. Please take your reforms with you–and give public education back to the parents, communities, and educators who know what’s best for their children.

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Civil Rights? How Gates-driven corporate reforms harm the neediest students

I originally wrote this post for Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates in August 2013.  

Given that proponents of the corporate education agenda continue to claim their reforms address civil rights concerns, and given that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, I thought now would be a good time to share this letter again.  I’m currently working on a new piece on this issue; look for it in the near future.


Dear Bill,

I’d like to believe that everyone who’s interested in education has a common goal: to ensure that each child in America, regardless of race, creed, or circumstance, has access to great public schools. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the education reform policies you promote—which you claim help civil rights causes—actually accomplish the exact opposite goal: they cripple the institution of public education and segregate, divide, and stratify our society—beginning with our children.

The biggest and most central problem with the education reform movement is one that anyone who advocates for civil rights will find uncomfortably familiar: its agenda is driven singularly by generalizations and stereotypes, starting with blanket claims that public schools are failing, teachers are failing, and, most upsetting, that our children are failing. While few people would doubt that there are schools, teachers, and children who could be performing better, it is inappropriate, demoralizing, and ignorant to impose far-reaching, top-down, one-size-fits-all reforms to address a fabricated “crisis.” Have we not learned the degree to which blind, universal statements that fail to consider individuals as such are damaging? Have we not learned that labeling nameless, faceless people (“bad” teachers? “failing” children?) to advance an agenda is unfair and unjust? And have we not learned that aggressively and blindly implementing policies that take resources away from the most disadvantaged communities in America further cripples those communities and the people who live in them?

It’s no secret that reformers and those who take issue with the movement disagree fundamentally on many issues—primarily, the role poverty plays in a child’s academic performance. You acknowledge that you’ve never experienced poverty and claim that you don’t want to “minimize” its effects, but you DO minimize and trivialize the issue when you suggest that people use poverty as an “excuse” for students’ academic struggles. The unfortunate reality is that poverty often becomes a part of a child’s identity, and I’m sure that educators who work with children living below the poverty line could enlighten you about just how difficult it is for so many of their students to even function in an academic setting. You’ve said that “we know it’s possible to have a good school in a poor neighborhood,” yet the schools in poor neighborhoods are the ones that suffer the most from your reforms.

Another current and dangerous reform trend involves placing inexperienced teachers in schools whose children struggle the most. Organizations like Teach for America promote the idea that young, energetic, yet inexperienced teachers are more effective than those who have devoted their careers to education. While there is certainly something to be said for youthful energy, the notion that novice teachers are better equipped to educate our children is exceedingly dangerous—and sends the flawed message that the most untrained teachers (Teach for America’s corps members train for a mere five weeks before they’re placed in a classroom.) are the best equipped to handle students who face the biggest challenges. Virtually all educators know that it takes years for a person to be considered a master teacher, and to put our children’s educations in the hands of people who have neither studied methodology nor been able to refine their craft over the courses of their careers is to do those children a great disservice. And because the inner-city districts that are already financially strapped are the ones recruiting novice teachers like the ones TFA produces, our neediest, most at-risk, and most volatile children are being taught by college graduates who typically intend to teach for a year or two and then move on to bigger and better endeavors. In essence, the academic and social divide reformers claim they seek to repair is actually widened when novice teachers who leave after a couple years of service populate schools filled with struggling students.

Perhaps the most laughable and divisive component of the reform movement is the flawed theory that constant, “rigorous” standardized testing—a money-making outgrowth of the Common Core—will somehow help students. In this punitive and high-stakes culture, children have come to understand that only material that appears on tests is important, and teachers have been forced to teach to a test because of the importance placed on scores. And because Race to the Top links funding to standardized test results, administrators have little choice but to design their programs of studies to center around the exams that reformers have determined are supremely important. Unfortunately, children who excel in arts, music, theater, and other untested subjects lose out on experiences that will benefit them in their future, simply because policymakers have dictated what’s important to learn (math and English) and what’s not—and students in districts plagued by financial turmoil (Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, Los Angeles, Detroit) feel such cuts the most and will soon find themselves even further behind children who come from a more privileged background. The recent release of NY Common Core-aligned test scores showed evidence of as much already, as minority students’ scores dropped at a disproportionate rate. If that’s not humiliating, discouraging, and demoralizing, I don’t know what is.

But the element of reform that I find to be the most disturbing is the one that leads most directly to social stratification and segregation: “school choice”–and the closures of traditional public schools it facilitates. Aside from the loathsome reality that individuals and corporations stand to profit from our children’s educations, the most troubling and fundamentally flawed message school choice sends is that public schools are institutions from which children and families should try to escape—and that charters and private schools are somehow inherently better. How can anyone claim to want to improve public schools—and at once advocate for children to abandon them? For whom, then, should we improve public schools? For the children who have no advocates and so must remain in them? For the children whose parents/guardians have no knowledge, ambition, or means to pursue school choice? For the children who enroll in charter schools but are sent back to public schools because of disciplinary issues? For the children who were denied admission to or pushed out of charter or private schools because of special needs? Unfortunately, such children will be left with in bare-bones, standardized, test-prep factories staffed with novice teachers and run by Broad (or otherwise superficially-trained) superintendents. Public schools will continue to close, a disproportionate percentage of minority students will be displaced, and already-volatile communities will be further disrupted in the name of education “reform.”

So my questions, Bill, are simple: how can you—and everyone who supports you—continue to justify the reforms you promote when it’s glaringly obvious that they hurt disadvantaged children (a disproportionate percentage of whom are minorities), their schools, and their communities? How many thousands of educators need to be laid off, how many programs need to be cut, and how many schools need to be closed for people to understand that the reform agenda involves making conditions in public schools so deplorable that charters and private schools are the only acceptable options for children? And most importantly, how can you, in good conscience, believe that you can deceive, propagandize, and fund civil rights groups into believing that what you’re doing is actually good for minority children—when all tangible and observable evidence points to the the opposite?

Ani McHugh

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What is wrong with the Star-Ledger Editorial Board?!?!?!

I’ll make this quick because I’m going to a barbecue today.  (Happy 4th of July weekend, everyone!)

Thanks in advance, as always, to Bob Braun and Jersey Jazzman, et al., who have done so much research and writing on Newark that linking to their work makes my job here easy.


So I’m just trying to figure out which scenario is more likely: 1) the Star-Ledger Editorial Board is comprised of people who are so ignorant to the educational situation in Newark that they are completely unfit to write about the subject at all, or 2) the real members of the Star-Ledger Editorial Board were kidnapped and replaced by underlings from the Christie/Cerf/Anderson administration crew a very long time ago. (If you think scenario #2 is more likely, someone should think about organizing a search and rescue party.)

We’ve been through this so… many… timesalreadyit’s… ridiculous, but it appears the S-L Editorial Board STILL doesn’t get it.

This morning, they declared that “For all Cami Anderson’s political problems, the state was right to renew her contract as superintendent of Newark schools. Letting her go now would be massively disruptive to children starting the next school year.”


Could there be anything more disruptive than a botched “Universal Enrollment” process, led by Anderson, that

  • forces children to attend schools far away from their homes–with no transportation/busing plan in place?
  • ignores community input and concerns?
  • prevents appeals from families that didn’t get matched with their preferred school (which is most of them)?
  • sells taxpayer-owned buildings to private charter operators at below market value?
  • results in layoffs of the district’s most dedicated and experienced teachers and closures of public schools?
  • keeps families wondering about the fate of their children’s educations because the district failed to meet its own timeline for student placement?
  • is wildly discriminatory?

Throw in a couple disastrous snow-emergency school-closing (or not) episodes and claims by the superintendent that Newark children engage in crime when they’re not in school, and you’ve got the perfect leader for the state’s largest school district!  Right?!

YES, says the S-L! “At this stage, revising major parts of [Anderson’s] plan just isn’t practical.”

PRACTICAL, you say, S-L? Is allowing Anderson to continue her path of destruction particularly “practical”?

Has anything Anderson has done been “practical”? Show us the evidence. PLEASE.

The board then continues to praise Anderson’s “promising reforms,” including the “innovative new teachers contract”  (you know, the one that includes a superdisastrous merit pay system) and the recruitment of “top charters to take over grades in failing schools” and an insistence that “charter schools take their fair share of low performers” (you know, the ones that don’t serve special-needs students who require self-contained setting, the ones that have high attrition rates and ship kids they don’t want back to district schools, and the ones that will employ a disproportionate number of inexperienced teachers–many of whom will live in a “village” that was built for them). Okay.

The S-L board only faults Anderson for her “failure to build a coalition” in Newark. But don’t worry, anyone! Because “the state has established a community board intended to help Anderson dig out of this hole, and to engage Newarkers in the project.” (Wait! Will this “community board” include the Newark community Chris Christie was talking about when he said, “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them”? And does the S-L board realize that Anderson is the same woman who stormed out of a school board meeting and refused to attend any future meetings because stakeholders opposed her ideas? Good one, S-L! Lol!)

I also wonder if the S-L board remembers that the Newark school board, which it criticizes for failing to “ensure a civil discourse” at meetings, is “largely powerless“?

Can someone please force the S-L board to read the work of Bruce Baker, Mark Weber, and Joseph Oluwole, as it is proves unequivocally that takeovers of public schools by unproven charters are arbitrary and have a disparate impact on both minority and low-income students and minority teachers?  Can someone please force the S-L board to listen to the people of Newark–including the 77 clergy members who wrote in opposition to Anderson’s plan? Please?!

Cami Anderson’s One Newark is a disaster, and the children and citizens of Newark deserve better.  I cannot understand how the S-L board can continue to publish this kind of nonsense and expect to have any credibility whatsoever.


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About that StudentsFirst tweet…

It never shocks me when StudentsFirst says something ridiculous, but this tweet I came across yesterday is particularly laughable.  

The tweet itself is a quote from an Alexander Russo blurb (which is in direct response to a Politico article) that compares StudentsFirst’s campaign spending to that of the NEA and AFT and their state affiliates.

So to mislead people and attempt to vilify teachers’ unions like they usually do, StudentsFirst chose to tweet Russo’s assertion that, “reform money, however new and on the rise it may be currently, remains substantially less than teacher union money.”

Um, NO. What?? No no no no no. No.

First of all, Russo’s post refers specifically to campaign contributions from one reform organization (SF)–yet he makes an inaccurate and irresponsible leap: that StudentsFirst’s campaign contributions are the only funds behind the “reform” movement–and, further, that StudentsFirst is the only “reform” organization. Let’s be clear: campaign contributions and reform money are not the same thing–at all–and StudentsFirst is aided in its reform efforts by lots of other individuals and groups who have LOTS of money.  So let’s take the two issues separately.

Campaign Contributions:

The NEA and AFT collectively represent about 4 million members. 4 million.  Though the member makeup of these organizations is slightly different (see this Ed Week article to which Russo links), both are primarily made up of teachers. The campaign contributions the NEA and AFT make come from members’ PAC (Political Actions Committee) contributions, which are funds members choose to have deducted from their paychecks–separate from union dues–so unions can pool the funds and contribute to political campaigns. (Also, as a result of two 2010 court decisions–some union contributions also come from Super PACs, which cannot contribute directly to individual candidates or their campaigns.) Imagine that: much of money Russo says that teachers’ unions are spending on campaign contributions comes from teachers who choose (they’re not compelled) to contribute money from every paycheck into PAC funds that their unions use to support candidates who are pro-public education.

And who’s StudentsFirst? They’re a “grassroots movement…designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout the country, and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level. StudentsFirst is a 501(c)4 organization based in Sacramento, CA.” And who’s financing Students First’s campaign contributions?  As Diane Ravitch notes, StudentsFirst does not disclose its political donors–but we can safely assume they’re anti-public education billionaires like the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, and the Walton Family.

It’s also worth noting that Michelle Rhee, the organization’s leader, hoped that StudentsFirst would elicit $1 billion in contributions to promote “reform”–so the $62 million it’s has raised to date must be a huge disappointment to Rhee and her reformy friends.  (But hey: Rhee herself makes $350,000 per year–plus $50k per speaking engagement–as head of StudentsFirst…so don’t be too quick to feel sorry for her.)

And let’s not forget that the same people who are financing StudentsFirst are also making political donations on their own–as individual donors–to candidates who support StudentsFirst’s agenda.

So did NEA and AFT, which represent 4 million members, contribute more to campaigns than did StudentsFirst (which is only one of many education reform organizations)?  If we trust the figures Russo cites, then yes. Is “reform money substantially less than teacher union money”? Hell no.

Reform money:

So what’s “reform money”–and who’s behind it?  Billionaires–beginning with Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons.

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field. Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher. Other foundations—Ford, Hewlett, Annenberg, Milken, to name just a few—often join in funding one project or another, but the education reform movement’s success so far has depended on the size and clout of the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate.

See this, too, from Jon Pelto:

While exact numbers are hard to pin down, since 2008 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent at least $2 billion, the Walton Foundation at least three-quarters of a billion and the Broad Foundation an estimated half a billion dollars on efforts to “reform” America’s system of education by promoting charter schools, pushing the use of standardized testing, lobbying for teacher evaluation programs based on student’s standardized test results and other corporate-driven initiatives. (Emphasis mine.)

$4 billion dollars from NON EDUCATORS to “reform” education.  Wow–that’s a lot of money! Is Russo not aware of this? And image this: the Gateses, the Waltons, and the Broads aren’t the only ones funding education “reform”!

There are hedge fund executives, who for years have poured millions into the charter school movement— because, well, there’s money to be made there!

There are groups like Education Reform Now, who donated $2.1 million to try to keep Ras Baraka from winning the mayoral race in Newark.  (It didn’t work.) *Adding: see Darcie Cimarusti’s comment below–and her link to another May blog post detailing a twitter exchange she and Russo had about corporate vs. union money in Newark.

There’s Democrats for Education Reform, who plot their reformy activities during exclusive $2,500/person retreats at which teachers and other educators are not welcome.

There are individuals like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, who plan to spend $120 million on education reform in California–despite the fact that the $100 million they shipped to Newark was wildly mismanaged and used to further cripple the city’s struggling school system.

And let’s not forget about groups like Educators 4 Excellence, Teach for America, Chiefs for Change, SUPES Academy, B4K, Connecticut Council for Education Reform, etc.  (There are plenty of organizations I’ve left off this list. But you get the point.)

THIS is “reform money.”  How silly, shortsighted, and misleading of Russo and StudentsFirst to 1) suggest that StudentsFirst is the only “reform” group whose spending (only campaign spending, at that) should be compared to that of teachers’ unions–and 2) that political contributions are the only funds spent on “reform.”

If Russo had simply said that NEA and AFT have spent more in campaign contributions than has StudentsFirst in the past two years, I’d have no argument.  But the bottom line–and in direct contradiction to Alexander Russo’s misleading sentence and StudentsFirst’s promotion of it–is this: “reform” is backed by big money.  Big.  Huge.  To suggest otherwise is absurd.


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The shady charterization of Camden

On January 30, 2014, Camden’s state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced that two charter chains, Mastery and Uncommon, would be “the next organizations to be approved under the Urban Hope Act, the 2012 state law that allows a hybrid version of charter schools to open in Camden, one of three pilot districts covered under the legislation.”

One problem (well, actually, lots of problems, but we’ll get into those later) that was quickly noted by Save Our Schools NJ, a state-wide grassroots organization formed by parents to “protect and preserve New Jersey’s excellent public schools”: the Mastery and Uncommon applications, and Rouhanifard’s promotions of them, were in direct violation of the Urban Hope Act for three separate reasons:

1) The applications fail to propose new renaissance school facilities or to provide the required information about those facilities.

2) The applications fail to provide the required opportunity for public input.

3) Mastery and Uncommon Schools proposed to house their renaissance schools in temporary facilities, which is not permitted under the urban hope act.

In May, Save Our Schools NJ sent a four-page letter to NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe, detailing the violations of the Camden deal and requesting that Hespe reject the Mastery and Uncommon applications because of their illegality according to Urban Hope laws.  

Yet late at night last Tuesday, as SOSNJ reports, this happened:

Legislation was introduced and voted on in the NJ Senate and Assembly Budget Committees without the legislators being able to see the bills or having a real understanding of what they were approving. The legislation then was quickly pushed through the full Senate and Assembly.

This legislation retroactively changed the Urban Hope law so that the actions of Mastery and Uncommon were no longer illegal.

So, rather than stopping their illegal activities when they were exposed, the predatory Mastery and Uncommon charter chains turned to their friends in the Norcross organization to “fix things.”

This is the corporate equivalent of slipping the police officer $500 to look the other way while you rob your neighbor’s house.

And, while the Norcross legislators were at it, they added an extra year to the program, so that a fourth renaissance charter chain could be identified and rammed through the application process. Look for that to be completed by the fall of 2015.

(Hey, look: another classic example of legislators making laws–and then completely disregarding or changing those laws for political purposes.  Chapter 78, which Christie signed in 2011 and requires state pension contributions?  Who cares.  Urban Hope laws, which set forth specific guidelines for charter establishment? Meh.)

So what will be the result of the Mastery and Uncommon invasion in Camden? SOSNJ notes that the city currently serves 11,000 students in traditional public schools, and 3,000 in charter schools–but by 2019, 9,000 Camden children will be enrolled in charters.  (And all this amid a “budget crisis” officials blame for mass teacher layoffs.  That’s a completely separate issue; see here and here.)

Yeah…about those charters: now’s a good time to repost, again, some information on Uncommon (see here and here) and Mastery.  A few very troubling things they have in common: histories of segregation (they don’t serve the same populations as do district schools), high attrition rates, and ridiculous discipline policies–all of which set them apart from traditional public schools.

Here, a Philadelphia Mastery student decries his school’s “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies, which, among other things, force students to wear “demerit cards” around their necks:

This constant feeling of being watched for every move you make becomes stressful rather fast. It makes me, and I’m pretty sure a great deal of other students, feel as though school is our enemy, thus not encouraging us to be enthusiastic about attending. Is this the true purpose of the school system? At my school, Mastery Charter School Lenfest Campus, there are a number of different methods to mete out punishments, with the most prominent being the demerit system. Students at my school are required to carry around a demerit card with our school ID badges. The card lists categories of trivial and minor violations ranging from chewing gum, improper uniform (like having your shirt untucked), disruption, lateness, body language, language, disrespect, environment (e.g. leaving a workspace unkempt), integrity, and being unprepared. This long list puts students in a constant state of high alert, making us wary of every single thing we do. In my opinion offenses as trivial as simply saying “no” to teachers or disagreeing with them are not offenses worthy of a missed day of education. To my peers and me, this situation is absolutely unacceptable. It is sending a message to the world that education takes a back seat to talking back, that education takes a back seat to throwing a paper ball across the room, that education takes a back seat to an untucked shirt.

(For more information on the damaging effects of “zero tolerance” discipline policies, sometimes referred to as “no excuses” policies, that many charters implement, see here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, and here.)

Is this what Camden’s children, most of whom are socioeconomically-disadvantaged, need?  And, more importantly, is this what parents in Camden want for their children?  Most importantly, has anyone asked them?  And would anyone care about their response?

Certainly not Chris Christie, who said, in response to community outcry about Cami Anderson’s Two Newarks One Newark plan: “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the schools, not them.

So let’s be clear: “school choice,” especially when it’s driven by shady 11pm committee meetings that lack transparency, is really about “politicians’ choice.”


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