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I’ll probably alienate everyone with this one…but what else is new?

As I write this, my Facebook status is “Let’s disagree with some integrity, countering anticipated ‘mis’information with your own misleading ‘facts’ does nothing but further muddy the waters. If your case is that solid DFER and friends, then let real facts speak for themselves.”  This status update was my reaction to the opening statement made at the public hearing hosted by the RI Department of Education regarding the latest Achievement First (AF) Mayoral Academy charter schools proposal.  Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and RI-CAN (RI Campaign for Achievement Now) have led the charge in support of the proposal to open AF schools in Providence.  And, an array of community groups and residents has lodged opposition to the proposal, similar to the one that failed in Cranston just months ago.  Let the mudslinging begin!

The evening opened with a representative from DFER who outlined anticipated arguments from those opposing the AF Mayoral Academy charter proposal and then countered these arguments with dubious statements presented as fact.  For example, he denied that AF will siphon money from public school districts.  But, it will.  A fundamental tenet of the new fair funding formula in RI is that the “money follows the child” and that means, over the long term, that when a family elects to send their child to Achievement First, or any other charter school for that matter, the money that “follows” them leaves their sending district and goes to the charter school.  It was pointed out that for beginning kindergartners, the money associated with their enrollment was, in fact, never part of any district revenue, but I find this argument to be merely semantic.  DFER also denied that AF is a private organization with corporate backing.  But, AF isn’t a public entity, it’s a private non-profit organization.  Being a non-profit does not preclude you from being an organization that is backed by private corporate interests.  And, the root of these corporate interests in the success of charter schools like AF is what causes me to oppose the proliferation of such schools.

Take, for example, two of AF’s advertised core values: “no excuses” and “sweat the small stuff.”    “No excuses” is a term coined by the Heritage Foundation, an organization with a strong history dedicated to the interests of private corporations, the shrinking of the public sector, and the decimation of unions and social policy aimed at helping low-income communities and communities of color.  The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank dedicated to the continued economic stratification of our society through the celebration of free-market ideology in k-12 education, recently published a book titled Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. This book included research on AF’s Amistad Academy and lauded what it calls a “new paternalism” employed by no excuses charters.  Why are two organizations that spend large amounts of money on the preservation of wealth and power for the 1% so interested in the work of charter schools for low-income communities of color?  Some might believe that there are noble intentions, but I cannot.

Here’s what I think.  The no excuses ideology is appealing to those with wealth and power because it absolves them of responsibility for addressing the needs of those less fortunate or privileged. It enables them to skirt the issues of poverty and racism.  It allows them to point fingers at anyone else who they think are making excuses by talking about the severe barriers that poverty and racism erect to systematically deny high quality education and other public services to low-income populations of color.  In short, it gives the 1% an excuse to vilify the traditional public school system and say, “See, if they can do it, why can’t you?”  In this twisted way, no excuses schools enable those with power and wealth to continue ignoring what’s best and what’s needed for low-income communities and communities of color.

As for sweating the small stuff, I heard David Whitman, the author of the aforementioned book, speak on a panel at Harvard University a couple of years ago.  I listened to him celebrate an educational philosophy that unabashedly assumes that low-income Black and brown youth and their families need paternalistic guidance through school in order to become educated.  The underlying ideology of this “new paternalism” is reminiscent of what was behind Native American boarding schools: tightly controlled behavior and the promotion of dominant cultural attitudes in the cloak if “character” development—as if something is wrong with the character and culture of low-income communities and communities of color in the first place.

In short a no excuses, sweating the small stuff approach to education appeals to groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Fordham Institute because it is fundamentally racist and classist.  There is little to no attention that this educational model pays to the uplifting empowerment of the long term health and wealth of the communities it purports to serve, thus working to preserve the power of the 1%.  This racism and classism is most why I oppose the Achievement First mayoral academy charter proposal. While I support and believe in the power of families and youth to choose the type of education they want for themselves, I can’t, in good conscience, stay silent in the face of what I consider to be an egregiously harmful educational model practiced by AF.

Now, here comes the harder part for me to stomach.  As I sat and listened to the statements being made both in support of and in opposition to the AF proposal, I heard these same racist and classist undertones included in arguments on both sides.  Since I’ve spent until now problematizing those that support AF, I will turn to the problematic opposition.  When I hear arguments saying that the AF model isn’t necessary in Warwick, North Providence, and Cranston, I hear the racist and classist assumption that somehow it is needed in Providence.  When I hear the assumption that elders from the Southeast Asian community in Providence have been duped and have no agency in their presence in support of AF, I hear the same racist paternalism inherent to AF’s educational approach.  When I hear that it is a common saying that if you’ve been teaching in Providence long enough, then you aren’t afraid of anything, I hear a racist, classist assumption that there are things to be scared of in Providence in the first place.  When I hear people pretending that all that’s wrong with Providence public schools are faulty facilities and the lack of recess, I hear a uncritical denial of the systemic and individual racism and classism that plague our classrooms in the forms of bad policy and educational malpractice.

I will defend and support Providence public schools, but I cannot stand with those who do so while displaying the same toxic beliefs and assumptions that turn me against no excuses charters.  As I said earlier, I support choice in our public schools, but let’s actually create a system of authentic options.  For example, when Southeast Asian families are asked to choose between a system that effectively ignores their existence and one that has actually knocked on their doors to talk about the lack of quality education options for their children, this is not a choice.  We need educational leaders—including the mayor, district officials, principals, and teachers—in Providence to work hard to build relationships and trust between themselves and those who they serve: families and students.  We need these groups to come together to co-create educational options that provide real choice to Providence families and students, options that truly engage them (in more than a lottery), understand them as powerful leaders (not as passive consumers), and uncover their energy and ideas as experts of their own conditions (not treat them with any form of paternalism).  When people are ready for this work, then give me a call at 1-800-BOTTOM-UP.

For those keeping up with or interested in learning more about the situation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) resulting from the Dean’s denial of Prof. Mark Warren’s tenure case below is a press release prepared by students and alumni who are organizing to speak back to this decision and the overall direction in which HGSE seems to be heading.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 22, 2011

Cambridge, MA: When a candidate for tenure at Harvard is universally acknowledged as one of the foremost thinkers in his field, has the support of senior faculty, and is a model student advisor and community member, one would think that getting a fair shake to be considered for tenure is the least he could expect. Not so for Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) Associate Professor Mark Warren, whose bid for tenure was derailed by HGSE Dean Kathy McCartney when she informed him on April 12th that his tenure case with the university would not be advanced.

The decision comes as a shock to many, but students and alumni are concerned that this is part of a longer, disturbing trend. Under Dr. McCartney’s leadership—and before—HGSE has shown a pattern of systematically narrowing coursework and curriculum in a way that seriously limits the methodological and epistemological training available to its students. In addition, the senior faculty as a whole continue to lack the breadth of training to fully support the diversity of interests of new and continuing graduate students.

Indeed, the most recent tenure decision also threatens the success of the newest degree program at HGSE: The Doctor in Education Leadership (EdLD).  The EdLD cohort—comprised of 25 mid-career educational leaders—is charged with “Transforming the Education Sector” through their leadership and organizing ability. Unfortunately, Mark Warren is the only faculty member at HGSE who studies educational organizing. In a day and age when public education is facing crises and debates over the lack of community voice in school reform, the lessons learned from Warren’s research could not be more important for the success of the leadership and other degree programs.
“I’m shocked and disappointed,” said Keith Catone, current HGSE doctoral candidate and senior research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.  “Pushing Dr. Warren out of HGSE will leave the school with a gaping hole when it comes to understanding the importance of community influence on schools.”  Dr. Warren’s colleague and former student, Dr. Soo Hong, Assistant Professor in the Education Department at Wellesley College, stated, “In almost a decade at HGSE, Professor Warren has made a tremendous impact in the field of education by breaking new ground in scholarship and developing the academic careers of emerging leaders in research and policy.  The contribution of his scholarship, teaching, and service at Harvard University has been profound.”

In a display of solidarity with Dr. Warren and to express their disapproval of McCartney’s decision to halt Warren’s tenure case, over 50 students and alumni gathered in person for a demonstration outside of the HGSE Faculty of the Whole meeting on Monday, April 18th from 2-4pm.  Nearly 30 off-campus students and alumni were also represented.  Students, alumni and faculty will again gather this Monday, April 25th outside a meeting of Senior Faculty from 2-4pm in Longfellow Hall to continue to express their concerns upon Dean McCartney’s return to the campus from travel abroad.

Dr. Warren, author of three books and an array of academic journal articles, is widely acknowledged as one of the top scholars in the world who researches community organizing and school reform.  His first book, Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton University Press), is, according to Harvard University’s William Julius Wilson, “the best empirical study ever written on multiracial collaboration to address social inequality.”  Harvard University scholar Marshall Ganz calls Dr. Warren’s second book, Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Social Justice (Oxford University Press), “a genuinely unique contribution to our understanding of why we do what we do.  Warren’s book, like his first one, is of unusual value to scholars, practitioners, and the interested public.”  His newest book, A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform (Oxford University Press), is praised by University of Maryland’s Patricia Hill Collins as an “important volume” that offers “a provocative mosaic of not only what is possible, but what people are actually doing. . . .must reading for those who see how important quality public education is for building a strong democracy.”

Beyond his pivotal work at Harvard, he is also a founding member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)’s special interest group in Grassroots Community and Youth Organizing, where he has helped to establish a new and emerging research community with over 100 members in just its first three years. During his time at Harvard, Dr. Warren also brought about $750,000 in external grants to the institution, mentored a large number of doctoral students, served on key academic committees, and taught qualitative research courses required for all doctoral students.  In just the last two years, two of his advisees were awarded prestigious Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowships for their work on school reform.

We’re at it again!  RI education policy and decision makers are dangerously close to following more national trends of damaging educational policy and practice.  Tomorrow evening (1/25 @ 5pm), at the Providence Career and Technical Academy (91 Fricker St), the RI Board of Regents will hold its third public hearing regarding proposed changes to the High School Regulations in RI.  I want to comment on three areas of concern regarding the proposed changes: testing, tiers, and timing.

First, testing. The proposed regulations place undue emphasis on testing.  Namely, they will make worse an educational environment that is increasingly test-obsessed.  There is no research of which I am aware indicating that the past decade’s testing craze in particular has done anything to improve real educational outcomes for students or helped to correct the inequities that plague our education system.  In fact, in places like New York City, where education officials focused millions of dollars on raising student scores, recent research has shown that reported increases were manipulated and invalid, masking the reality of questionable improvement in educational outcomes.  In short, an intense and incessant focus on testing is at best unhelpful and at worst detrimental to the education of our youth.

Additionally, education policy makers continue to ignore the conventional wisdom and scientifically grounded recommendations with regard to the appropriate use of standardized tests.  Educational measurement and testing experts will tell you that tests provide important, but limited information about student learning.  In a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from the National Academy of Sciences’ Board of Testing and Assessment, we are reminded that, “The items on any test are a sample from some larger universe of knowledge and skills, and scores for individual students are affected by the particular questions included.  A student may have done better or worse on a different sample of questions.  In addition, guessing, motivation, momentary distractions, and other factors introduce uncertainty into individual scores.”

In other words, standardized tests provide us with imperfect and imprecise measurements of individual student learning, and thus should not be used as single or primary factors when making important educational decisions about individual students.  In fact, our very own guide to using the NECAP clearly states that, “NECAP is only one indicator of student performance and should not be used…for making promotion and/or graduation decisions” (Guide to Using the 2009 NECAP Reports, pg. 9).  The NECAP was developed to provide us with validated measures of school, district, and state-level progress toward grade level and grade span expectations, not precise measurements of individual student outcomes.

The “Code of Professional Responsibilities in Educational Measurement,” developed by the National Council on Measurement in Education and included in the same NECAP Guide, and to which RIDE claims adherence, states that we “have important professional responsibilities to make sure that assessments are appropriate for their intended use.” I understand that students will still be required to complete coursework and performance based assessments to graduate. But the proposed changes remove a system in which these components along with NECAP scores contribute to an overall composite measure of student achievement, and replace it with a system where each component stands as its own, independent measure.  These changes effectively turn the NECAP into a high stakes exam, which as a single measure could deny students a high school diploma.  Currently we do not have statewide tests that were conceived of or designed to be graduation exams, and to use tests like the NECAP in this manner is scientifically unreliable and ethically irresponsible.

Second, tiers. The proposed regulations would establish a system of differentiated diplomas, creating a tiered graduation system for the state of RI.  On top of the fact that these tiers seem to rely heavily on NECAP test results, which we already know are imprecise, I am confused as to the utility of such a system.  What does a tiered diploma system accomplish?  I cannot think of any useful outcome from such a system.

It seems to me that the RIDE should be concerned with setting the minimum standards and requirements for earning a high school diploma in RI, and not concerned with drawing distinctions between different groups of students both within and across local communities.  One thing that our society is already very good at is sorting, categorizing, and differentiating people into groups, and then doling out disparate treatment.  Colleges do this based on SAT scores and HS transcripts; employers do it based on their judgments of college prestige or assumptions about ones personal background.  I cannot imagine what we gain as a system by adding to the mix yet another way of sorting, categorizing, and labeling young people.

If this is a backdoor attempt to differentiate what some Regents might see as watered down diplomas from other more legitimate ones, then consider this alternative: one diploma for one equitable system.  Instead of working hard to delineate the high achievers from those who have struggled more in high school, work hard to put resources in place to assist those who struggle and make policies that champion their right to an equitable, high quality education.  Why cater to those who are already privileged and who have already achieved highly?  Their rewards are coming soon in the form of prestigious college acceptance letters, merit-based scholarships, and more.  We all know that we live in a society that provides disparate opportunities and support to different groups of young people.  Why exacerbate these disparities both across the state and within local districts by codifying them through a tiered diploma system?  In the end, such a system will serve no purpose worth serving.  If we truly believe that all people can learn, then let’s put our money where our mouth is and support struggling students, schools, and districts with the resources they need to excel.

Third, timing. If nothing else is done to overhaul the proposed changes to the HS regulations, there is a serious issue of timing with which to contend.  As currently written, the proposed changes would go into effect for the Class of 2012, or current juniors in high school.  This seems wholly unfair to both students and districts.  (Side note: RIDE’s first statement in the FAQ section of the proposed changes says that next year’s graduates will face no new graduation requirements.  This just isn’t true.  The new regs clearly remove the following language: “state assessments shall not be the sole grounds to prohibit graduation from high school,” effectively making a minimum score on the NECAP an absolute requirement, thus changing the graduation requirements for next year’s seniors!)

Most fundamentally, the current juniors have already taken their NECAP tests without the knowledge that the results could so negatively impact their chances at graduating.  To change the rules for these students now would be in violation of the Code of Professional Responsibilities in Educational Measurement, which clearly state: “Persons who prepare others for and those who administer assessments have a professional responsibility to inform the examinees about the assessment prior to its administration, including its purposes, uses, and consequences.”

Furthermore, as districts will not receive NECAP results until at least next month and official word about any new HS regulations until after that, these changes would place undue burden upon district officials, school administrators, and teachers to readjust their graduation and diploma expectations for soon-to-be seniors in a matter of months.  At the very least, any approved changes that directly impact students and their graduation or diploma status should not go into effect until at least 2013 so that everyone involved has a minimal amount of time to make the appropriate educational adjustments.

I understand that most educators and policymakers actually, in our own ways, act in what we believe to be students’ best interests.  I implore everyone who has the power to affect changes to the HS regulations in RI to keep the faces and lives of individual students who will be impacted at the front of their minds and in the center of their hearts as they make their decisions on this and all important educational policy matters.

Today the RI AFT President Marcia Reback announced that she and the majority of AFT locals will be endorsing RIDE’s RTTT round two application.  This is a huge political victory for Commissioner Gist and places RI in a better position to win the $75 million in federal RTTT grant money that it’s applying for in round two.  So, why do I remain skeptical?

The connection between the AFT’s change in position and the recent settlement of the teacher union-district dispute in Central Falls is obvious.  In fact, no one is hiding this.  What are we to think when, in the beginning we were led to believe that the decision to fire all the teachers at Central Falls High School was in the best interests of the students (a decision I disagreed with in the first place), and now it seems that saving the jobs of the 90 or so teachers is suddenly in the best interests of the students? Is this only because there’s a pot of federal gold at stake?  Could it be that the outside promise of federal dollars is confounding our ability to make decisions with students and families at the center?

Commissioner Gist was careful to state to news outlets that she would never approve the new arrangement in CF that preserves teachers’ jobs if it weren’t in the best interests of students.  I believe her sentiments are genuine, but only two days later it seems clear that the work to renegotiate in CF was also calculated to secure the AFT buy-in for RTTT.  To my knowledge, nothing of substance with which teacher unions took issue in the RTTT application has changed (in fact, these were portions of the application on which RI scored highly, so changing them wouldn’t make much sense in terms of winning the award), and so I’m confused as to why the union would suddenly agree except for that it’s a simple quid pro quo: we don’t fire you, you “support” our reforms.

Furthermore, the new settlement in CF essentially contains the same new conditions of work that Superintendent Gallo offered in her transformation plan in the very first place.  A major difference this time around (aside from the obvious drama and controversy that has surrounded this whole debacle) is that the CF teachers union actually put the approval of the transformation conditions to a vote from its membership.  I suspect that if the union leadership had truly asked the membership in the first place, it would have voted “overwhelmingly” to support these changes when it was clear that the alternative would be the mess that ensued.

In any case, the federal money grab and application circus that the Obama administration has created through RTTT has held hostage debates about educational policy and reform for months now.  The narrow RTTT reform agenda that further entrenches our culture of over-testing young people, demystifies teaching by deskilling it, and encourages the opening up of public education coffers to private interests, won’t do much to improve the educational lot of those most disadvantaged and underserved by our racist and classist educational institutions.

What it has done, however, is put education in the news, and at least in RI more and more people are talking about these headlines.  This is a good thing.  What I hope we can do moving forward as these reforms begin to take shape and we begin to sense that the change they promise may, in fact, not be on its way, is to at least use this new, more widespread engagement about education reform to build our ideas for what education should look like from the bottom up.  To do this we will need information outlets that do not merely serve as mouthpieces for RIDE and local district officials, union leaders, politicians, and the self-important psuedo-reformers who have entered the education arena because it’s the new sexy thing.  I hope that the dialogue that we see these folks having can be challenged by those who are actually most affected by all of this: students, parents, and grounded community members.

In a lot of ways I don’t really care what Deborah Gist, Fran Gallo, Marcia Reback, Steve Costantino, or Angus Davis is saying (or paying someone else to tell them what to say), or even how they think we need to change our education system.  They don’t matter, or at least they wouldn’t matter as much if we, as students, parents, and community members, started informing, mobilizing, and organizing ourselves to demand the changes we want to see.

I went to a RI RTTT meeting today at which the RTTT application steering committee presented their thoughts and plans for RI’s round 2 application.  The meeting was open to the public, but was specifically designed for those who received special invitations: district officials, school committee members, and teachers union leaders.  Turnout was impressive, as I would say that there were easily 75-100 people there to listen to a long presentation.

Part of RIDE’s renewed efforts to garner widespread support for the state’s RTTT application, this meeting may signify a slight shift in strategy that we should all welcome.  As RIDE acknowledged regarding their process for the RTTT round 1 application, they did not call any similar convening of RI’s educational leaders.  Instead during round 1, districts, school committees, and teachers unions were asked to support an application package together without any clear process for discussing the implications of such support beyond “we’ll win money!”  Today the messaging was different.  There was a clear understanding that the RTTT process, while immediately about securing additional funds for public education in RI, is more about working with various stakeholders to come together around a common reform agenda.

Now, anyone who has read other posts of mine knows that I am no fan of the policy priorities within RTTT, so I am not writing this post to endorse the specific priorities in any way.  But, what I will say is that as I was sitting in the meeting this evening I thought to myself, when is the last time a bunch of superintendents, school committee presidents, and teacher union leaders from all over the state gathered together in same room to talk about education reform?  I’ll venture to say that a meeting like today’s has not happened in my lifetime here in RI.  And this, a process that encourages dialogue and thinking around how to improve education in our state, is something I can get behind.  I may not like the reform priorities, but I have to admit, I can’t think of anything else right now that would have brought these stakeholders together in the same space.

There will be a follow up meeting with these same constituencies on April 27th.  Hopefully this meeting will be structured differently to encourage deeper conversations, critical discussions, and even spirited disagreement.  What would be even more exciting is if there were meetings of this kind not just when the state is applying for a pot of federal gold, but just because the stakeholders represented truly care about improving educational outcomes for our students.  And what would be even more exciting than that is if the meetings really were open and accessible to the public, and superintendents, school committee members, and teachers had these important conversations with students, parents, and other community members.

I could just write this all off as the newest political ploy by RIDE to entice people to support RTTT.  More cynically, one could see today’s meeting as a sort of soft power play to coerce union buy-in (it’s clear who is needed to realize “widespread support” when there is a powerpoint slide highlighting that they have secured 96% commitment from districts, but only 4% from local unions).  But, what I’d like to believe I saw today from RIDE, and in the leadership of Commissioner Gist, was a honoring and respect for something called process.  When too many leaders ignore process in order to push for particular outcomes, it is encouraging to see leadership cognizant enough to understand that the process is just as important as (if not more than) the product.  Let’s hope that Commissioner Gist, RIDE, district officials, school committees, and union leaders truly engage in and sustain a process for positive school reform in our state, one that also includes the powerful voices of students, parents, and other community leaders.

Yesterday RI Education Commissioner Gist delivered a “state of education” speech to the RI general assembly.  With the GA and a sizable crowd of interested community members present, she delivered a speech that highlighted a few school success stories and celebrated the accomplishments of a number of individual educators.  She also painted a challenging picture of how RI student test scores measure up when compared to rest of the nation.  With statistics like RI Latino students having some of the lowest test scores for their demographic from across the country, the message was clear: we must do better by our children.

But of course, a major goal of the speech was to gain support for legislative changes that will strengthen RI’s round 2 application for RTTT.  She noted that Delaware and Tennessee won first round funding due to bold plans–like RI–and widespread support (unlike RI).  The parenthetical reference here was not stated explicitly but was certainly implied.  Commissioner Gist admonished that we need the entire state to get behind the reforms and asked the GA, “Do we have the will?”  She repeatedly stated her belief that “RI is ready” for change, a belief that she has from her many school visits all over the state, and a belief that she needs to have if the kinds of reform she wants to see are going to come to pass.

So, what is Commissioner Gist hoping RI is ready for?  She highlighted four areas in which RI could score higher in the RTTT competition: 1) Data systems linked to instructional improvement; 2) More charter school friendly policies; 3) A predictable and equitable state education funding formula;  and 4) Widespread support for RTTT initiatives from the state’s districts and local teachers unions.

With regard to data systems Gist highlighted that while RI collects lots of relevant data, it lacks a system that can help educators use the data to improve practice.  RIDE is working on developing such a system.  For charter schools, the GA recently lifted the state cap on charters from 20 to 35.  With only 13 approved charters throughout the state and with multiple campuses being allowed within 1 charter, the Commissioner seemed confident that RI would score higher in this area for RTTT round 2.  She thanked the GA for their passage of the charter cap raising legislation.

It was clear that the next two issues were the ones of great importance.  For education funding, there will be a battle this spring in the RI state assembly over this important issue.  RIDE has proposed a funding formula that it developed with the assistance of Kenneth Wong, head of the Urban Education Masters Degree Program at Brown University.  State Rep. Ajello has also proposed legislation that would make stronger the aims of equitable funding for which the RIDE formula provides a good foundation.  Current funding is inequitable across the state, and there is no way of ensuring that students and communities with the most need actually receive adequate resources.  If there is a silver lining to RTTT for RI, it would be the passage of an equitable funding formula.

Finally, Commissioner Gist highlighted that the RI application lost 15 points due to a lack of support from districts and teachers unions from across the state.  Now, as far as I know, every district and school board in the state signed onto RI’s RTTT application.  So, this comment was a clear swipe at the local teachers unions, none of which signed on, with the exception of Providence and Foster (which only represents 1 school).  If the state assembly passes a funding formula, RIDE can convince the feds that its data systems plans are in order, and the charter school legislation is looked upon favorably, then RI’s RTTT round 2 fate may very well rest in the hands of the teachers unions.

This teachers unions-dependent fate is exactly the design of the RTTT initiative.  Following the latest trend of blaming teachers, and especially their unions for our educational ills, Arne Duncan & Co. created a set of education reform priorities that are far from union-friendly.  The design banks on the will and pressure that will come from state legislatures and the public for teachers unions to agree to reform plans that do nothing to ease the over-testing of our children and dumbing down of our curriculum.  In fact, RTTT further entrenches these misguided educational priorities by encouraging teacher merit pay and evaluation systems based on student test performance.

So, we’ll see what teachers unions will decide to do.  Will they capitulate and sign on to RTTT plans for fear of being further vilified?  Or, might RIDE consider modifying some of its RTTT application to accommodate some teacher-oriented interests?  Of course not, even if that were amenable to RIDE officials, it would take them out of the competition…by design.  Again, we see that the RTTT initiative is not about innovative educational solutions or the elicitation of ideas from teachers, students, and parents, but instead about which states can most deeply shove Duncan’s pre-conceived national reform agenda down the throats of their communities.

If anyone needs more evidence that Duncan and Obama are essentially anti-teacher in their educational policy priorities, you really only need to consider two recent education controversies that have received national attention and were created in the name of RTTT priorities.

First, anyone who pays attention to educational news knows that both Duncan and Obama made comments in support of Superintendent Gallo’s decision to fire all the teachers at Central Falls HS.  Incidentally, the CF firings were only the tip of the iceberg, and a the Savannah-Chatham County school district has followed suit, dismissing 200 teachers and administrators from Beach HS in Savannah.  More mass teacher firings are sure to come as the RTTT heats up for Round 2.  Duncan and Obama’s supportive comments with regard to the CF decision sent the message to keep doing what you’re doing in the teacher firing department.

Second, I find curious the lack of commentary regarding a bill sitting before the Florida state legislature that would work to dismantle the teaching profession in that state.  For a piece of legislation that is blatantly and unapologetically anti-teacher (Florida State Senate sponsor John Thrasher called it “the hammer,” implying its intent to smash teachers), Obama and Duncan have made no comment, at least to my knowledge.  You’d think that in response to such a horrible piece of legislation, they may remark that this is not the direction they think states should be going, especially when over 9500 people have voiced their opposition by joining the “Testing is Not Teaching” facebook page, compared to the measly 186 that have joined the bill supporters facebook page.  Instead, the administration’s silence on this matter is deafening to my ears.

In his rap battle track “Ether,” Nas pointed out to Jay-Z that “KRS already made an album called ‘Blueprint.'”  In the rap game, the ruling MCs require originality and innovation, and Nas decided that Jay-Z’s hit album couldn’t be that special if he had to copy the name from one of the original hip-hop rap battle kings.  So, what did KRS-One, also known as “the Teacha,” have to tell us in his track “The Blueprint” 20 years ago?

His first verse attacks the commercial sound of the budding mainstream hip-hop, accusing listeners of grabbing “the album that rocks most on the market.”  Of course, the commercial sound that tops the charts is thin and weak.  It carries no lyrical power.  The Teacha says as much: “–Bloo– and the target is hit; I shot the lyric then reload the clip;–Bloo– another shell hits the ground; Along with the shell, my opponent’s weak crown; –Bloo Bloo– the title comes after; What a disaster, listen to the laughter.”

This is the problem with the RTTT policies being peddled by state policymakers all over the country.  For the most part, these policies are thin and weak.  They carry no educational power.  In the end they will not result in improved educational experiences for the vast majority of the young people they purport to serve, for they are unoriginal.

I’m afraid as states scramble to pass hastily crafted legislation to appease the federal RTTT application reviewers and become viable candidates for Round 2 funding, that what our country will be left with in the majority of states are poorly conceived policy plans with little to no infrastructure or money to see them through.  (Although I do support RI’s current effort to legislate a fair and equitable statewide education funding formula).

KRS-One claimed that his non-commercial style was brought to the fore by the will of the people.  In other words he was a man of his community and he saw himself as accountable to that community.  “Try the ghetto, cause I refuse to let go,” he says.  When will we make education policy that is brought to us by the will of the people instead of what we see now, which is the effective carbon copying of a different kind of blueprint for school reform, one etched with the ink of a blue corporate interest pen?

If anyone wants to understand what the country is in for as it continues to participate in Arne Duncan’s RTTT contest, all you have to do is look at Chicago.  Under Duncan’s leadership and at the behest of Mayor Daley, Chicago Public Schools worked to dismantle neighborhood schools in favor of specialized boutique schools and charter schools that were designed to serve those already privileged and in newly gentrifying neighborhoods at the expense of historically marginalized communities.  Moreover many of these schools are managed by private education or charter management organizations (EMOs & CMOs), which are hardly accountable to the public, except of course through market forces.  Democracy Now recently ran a piece exploring the impacts of Duncan’s leadership in Chicago.  He doesn’t come out looking successful or clean.

The recent reports that Duncan kept a list of VIPs for whom he would grant school assignment favors should be concerning to all of us, and they reveal the interests that drive current school reform agendas.  As is often the case, when cities work to improve public educational opportunities, they do so in order to cater to a upper and middle class population that has either moved away or sent their children elsewhere for schooling.  Those to whom the public education system should truly be accountable–low-income communities and communities of color–are often left to fight over the limited number of quality opportunities left for them by a manufactured scarcity.  This creates divisive bickering among people who should really be on the same side as they fight for their children’s education.

If we want to see why the copycat educational policies sweeping the nation are a bad idea, look no further than Chicago.  And don’t just listen the “commercial sound” of isolated success stories that the mainstream media focuses on and Duncanites talk about.  Focus on the full picture, the entire–and original–blueprint.  If you don’t, then the Teacha’s lesson will come true: “You see, you don’t understand, I knew it; You got a copy, I read from the blueprint.”

This past weekend I went to watch the new Matt Damon movie, Green Zone.  The movie tells a story of US government conspiracy to manufacture a war in Iraq.  Loosely based on the Bush II Administration’s lies to the US public (and the world) to justify its illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, the movie follows Damon’s character in his quest to get the bottom of the US generated lies about Iraq’s supposed WMD programs.  As viewers we buy the story that implies corrupt US interests lead government officials to deceive the world by concocting intelligence reports about WMD’s in Iraq.  We buy this story because we largely know it to be true.  The movie pits longtime Middle East CIA Agent Brown (Brendan Gleeson) against Pentagon official and White House puppet Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear).  Brown wants to stabilize Iraq after US invasion and partner with Iraq’s Republican Guard, while Poundstone is peddling the Bush Administration’s search for WMDs and thus seeking to vilify the Iraqi military.   Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is caught in the middle as his unit continuously comes up empty-handed when searching supposed WMD sites and turns to Brown when he suspects that the US intelligence reports are corrupt.  When Brown tells him to do things contrary to Poundstone’s orders, Miller says, “I thought we were all on the same side.”  “Don’t be naive,” Miller responds as moviegoers chuckle in the audience.  Later, when Miller uncovers the US government conspiracy to falsify intelligence reports to justify invading Iraq even after finding out that there were no WMDs, Brown says something to effect of, “You mean they made up intelligence reports to justify their invasion of Iraq?” to which Miller replies, “Don’t be naive.”  And moviegoers chuckle again, because the US public was naive enough to believe that the actual US invasion of Iraq may have been justified even though most of us should have known better.

Green Zone has grossed over $24 million in just two weeks at the box office.  Enough people are going to watch, which means enough find the premise of story it tells to be plausible, or at least compelling.  So, why is it that we, as a moviegoing public, so easily buy a story of US government corruption and a manufactured war that was not in any way related to the democratic values of freedom and liberty?  We buy it because we know that things like profit and power drive our country’s decisions to go to war.  We know that there are billions dollars to be gained by a few very powerful interests from the perpetuation of the military industrial complex, and that there are elections to win and policies to push through when you can distract the media and the voters from real issues with the blind patriotism produced during war time.  Again, we know this because we’ve all so recently lived through it.

So, why when it comes to public education, do so many who will buy the story above, resist beliefs in the corrupt interests that drive education policy?  Why do so many find it hard to stomach the notion that profit-driven US corporate interests would view urban and low-income youth as disposable a population as capitalist profiteers seem to find everyday Iraqi citizens?  In August 2007, Jonathan Kozol wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine that should be read by anyone interested in education reform.  In this article he notes how Wall Street financial analysts view the education sector as the largest market opportunity since the health-care industry was opened up to private profit interests in the 1970s (and we’ve all seen how well that turned out), and that the K-12 market in particular is the “Big Enchilada” for private profit.  In little Rhody alone, public education commands $2 billion per year.  Nationwide the figure is about $500 billion, and so one can imagine the amount of salivating in the mouths of private profit-oriented interests should the public education sector become fair game.  So tell me, when so many power brokers line up to get behind public education policies promoting things like the mass proliferation of charter schools, the continued over-testing of students in as early as 1st grade, privately and mass produced curriculum packages, and the dismantling of one of the most highly organized sectors of our economy through the vilification of teachers’ unions, should those of us who are in education for the young people we serve, for the liberating power we know education holds for oppressed communities, and for the true realization of a democratic society, actually believe that we are all on the same side?  Don’t be naive.  Education officials wouldn’t peddle policy and research that are less than reliable, or that conveniently overlook many important variables, or that draw questionable conclusions at best, just to cater to the corporate interests that prop up their administrations, would they?  Again, don’t be naive.

In Green Zone, Chief Miller began the movie acting in good faith, believing that he was sent to Iraq to rid the region of WMDs and to make the world a better, safer place.  He soon woke up and realized that this was not the case at all and chose to search for the truth.  When will more of us wake up?  When will we search for truth?  When will we stop buying the lies that education policymakers are peddling in the interests of those far removed from our communities and take control of a situation that is quickly spiraling out of control?  How much more can we stand coming up empty-handed?

After a somewhat celebratory post, I would like to continue logging my criticisms of RTTT.  A previous RTTT post (Part 4) outlined the various point values of the initiative’s major priority areas and highlighted some of the more valuable subareas.  Judging from relative point values, “Great teachers and leaders” is the area of greatest importance for RTTT.  I will dedicate an entire blogpost to this area soon enough.  Right now I would like to focus on another area that at first glance seems less important in terms of point value.  “Turning around the lowest achieving schools” as a priority is worth only 50 points (compared to 125 for “Great teachers and leaders”), but 40 of those points are connected to a very limited outline of four turnaround options, three of which provide entry points for charter schools (turnaround, restart, and school closure).  In addition, 40 more points can be found in the “General” section connected to ensuring charter school friendly environments.  Together, these 80 points make for a valuable chunk of the application.  So, what’s the problem?  To answer that question, you have to understand the problem of widespread charter schools.

The early charter school movement was led by progressive educators who thought that in these alternative settings they’d be able to display for traditional district public schools how to do education differently.  Charters would be limited and function as test sites from which good ideas could be plucked, replicated, and implemented in the traditional schools.  The current RI law limiting the number of charter school operators in the state was made in this spirit of limited function.  However, the law was just modified increasing the charter school operator cap from 20 to 35 in an attempt to help RI’s RTTT application.  With 13 current operators in the state, there is now ample room for charter school growth.  Perhaps too much given a loophole in the charter school regulations that allows a single operator to manage multiple schools sites through a single charter.  For example, the RI Mayoral Academies can expand to additional sites without increasing the total number of charters in the eyes of the charter school cap law.  Unfortunately, the charter school movement has largely lost its progressive focus, and it has changed to be dominated by conservative interests intent on replacing, not informing or enhancing, traditional public schools.

Exposing the unfortunate reality that charter school proliferation has created in other places (like in New York City) is key to understanding my distaste for this RTTT priority.  First, most respectable research on charter schools shows that, on average, they do no better at educating students than their traditional public school counterparts.  Moreover, studies have shown that charter schools do worse for populations like special education students and English language learners by systematically excluding them.  The selectivity, and thus exclusivity, of charter schools is a major problem.  Even those that claim to admit students by random lottery still have an application process for their lottery, and even if selected via lottery, charter schools have the option to choose to maintain a student’s enrollment or not.  Students and families who do not fit the mold are often encouraged to leave charter schools, resulting in student bodies that are exclusive and display the least resistance to schooling.

Further, celebrated charter schools like KIPP and Roxbury Prep are notorious for high teacher burnout and turnover.  In fact, many leaders of charter schools will freely share that they expect high turnover.  They are content with recruiting young, inexperienced teachers that they can work to the bone for a small handful of years and replace with a new crop of elite college grads.  Not only is this model unsustainable, it is certainly not scalable, thus offering no real solution to widespread challenges facing urban school districts.  Some charter school teachers who would like to make teaching a longer-term career and who know that students benefit from a stable teacher corps have begun to organize and unionize in response to the misguided charter school attitudes toward teacher burnout.

One may wonder why, with such questionable outcomes and unsustainable models, charter schools seem to be getting so much attention from RTTT.  I believe this attention largely stems from interests that are far from having students’ education at the center.  Instead, there are many charter school interests that view public education as a vast industry with a wealth of resources to exploit and profit from.  As charter schools siphon off money from local school districts, they open up an entirely new source of capital from which private interests can profit.  Instead of being governed by public regulatory bodies (school boards, committees, and even mayors) that oversee contracts and manage budgets, charter school monies are opened up to a less regulated market.  Thus, conservative interests that would like to see any and all public goods and services privatized see charter school models as a step closer to a privatized public school system.  These interests have little to do with the education of students, and more to do with the commodification of education as something to package, market, sell, and profit from.

As RTTT promotes charter school options, we must question whether this direction makes sense for a system of public education in a supposed democratic society.  I believe that public education should be democratically run, as an educated citizenry is the foundation of a functional democracy.  I do not believe that the market forces behind the current charter school movement provide a viable democratic model.  I understand that public schools in urban America have never really been run in a way that is truly accountable to the communities they serve and have been plagued by corrupt school boards and mayoral leaders.  But, I want to see communities work hard to establish and ensure democratic control of public schools, and stepping toward the proliferation of more charter schools is a step in the wrong direction.

When engaging in discussions regarding charter schools in RI, it is important for youth, parents, and educators to think critically about how reclaim the charter schools movement so that it can return to its progressive roots.  It’s not that we should eliminate charter schools all together, but that we should view them in the proper light.  They are useful as models, demonstrations, and limited alternatives from which district schools need to learn so that all students and communities benefit.  We need to pressure district schools to adopt promising practices from successful charter school models.  This means building authentic community-based power that can help districts and teacher unions understand what they need to do in order to change.  Charter schools should not be seen as replacements for district schools and public school management should be as directly accountable to the students, parents, and teachers as possible.

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