Monday, January 28, 2013

Obama's Race To The Top Drives Nationwide Wave of School Closings, Teacher Firings

Black Agenda Report

Printer-friendly version
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Among Obama supporters, the gap between popular perceptions of the president's policies and the actual content of those policies is nowhere wider than in public education. While the president pays lip service to the centrality of public education, teachers and parent input, his Race To The Top is paving the road to privatization, closing more public schools and firing more teachers than any president in US history.
Obama's Race To The Top Drives Nationwide Wave of School Closings, Teacher Firings
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
A nationwide epidemic of school closings and teacher firings has been underway for some time. It's concentrated chiefly in poor and minority communities, and the teachers let go are often experienced and committed classroom instructors, and likely to live in and near the communities they serve, and disproportionately black.
It's not an accident, or a reflection of changing demographics, or more educational choices suddenly becoming available to families in those areas. It's not due to greedy unionized teachers or the invisible hand of the marketplace or well-intentioned educational policies somehow gone awry.
The current wave of school closings is latest result of bipartisan educational policies which began with No Child Left Behind in 2001, and have kicked into overdrive under the Obama administration's Race To The Top. In Chicago, the home town of the president and his Secretary of Education, the percentage of black teachers has dropped from 45% in 1995 to 19% today. After winning a couple skirmishes in federal court over discriminatory firings in a few schools, teachers have now filed a citywide class action lawsuit alleging that the city's policy of school “turnarounds” and “transformations” is racially discriminatory because it's carried out mainly in black neighborhoods and the fired teachers are disproportionately black.
How did this happen? Where did those policies come from, and exactly what are they?
Beginning in the 1980s, deep right pockets like the Bradley and Walton Family Foundations spent billions to create and fund fake “grassroots movements.” They churned out academic studies and blizzards of media hype, first for vouchers, later on for charter schools and what’s become a whole panoply of privatization-oriented “education reforms” ranging from teacher merit pay to common core curriculum and more.  
Those billions paid off with the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act which made the right wing corporate agenda of undermining and ultimately privatizing public education national policy.  Though standardized test scores were long known to prove little aside from student family income, they suddenly became the gold standard for judging teacher & school performance.  School districts were required to purchase & give dozens of costly meaningless tests and to publish lists ranking their own schools and teachers as “failing” when test scores were low, which again, was mostly wherever students were poor.
Amid torrents of “blame the teachers” propaganda, so-called “failing schools” were required to hire expensive contractors with cockeyed “run the school like a business” remedies and more crackpot tests. Thus it was that NCLB spawned almost overnight an entire industry of jackleg educational consultants and test suppliers guaranteed a market with dollars diverted from already tight public school budgets. Those industries attracted capital investors, and began doing what every other industry does in the US ---- make big campaign contributions to politicians to get sweeter contracts and more favorable regulation.  When test scores still didn’t rise, NCLB required many schools to close, making openings for chains of charter schools, often highly profitable charter schools, bringing the blessings of “choice” and free market competition to the educational “marketplace.”
It was an unequal sort of “competition” though, because charter schools have always been allowed to pick and choose their students, to turn away those with special needs, and to hire teachers and principals with little or no relevant training.
Results in the classrooms of poor neighborhoods around the country were devastating.  Where in 1987-88 the modal year for teacher experience -- that’s the number of years the largest cohort of teachers had been in the classrooms ---  was ten years, by 2008 the biggest block of teachers were in their very first year, by definition --- the least confident, the least experienced and the least effective.  
This was the state of public education when President Obama walked into the White House door.  What did he do? Did he turn it around? Or did he double down? The answer is that in the spirit of corporate bipartisanship, president Obama sided with the charter school sugar daddies instead of black teachers, black parents and their children.
President Obama appointed Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan Secretary of Education. A champion of privatization, Duncan had closed dozens of Chicago schools, many on short notice, some at the apparent behest of gentrifying real estate developers.  Duncan fired so many veteran black Chicago teachers to , fill their slots with mostly white rookies, that teachers sued him for racial discrimination in federal court and won.  Duncan even introduced military charter schools in Chicago, in one case handing a west side middle school to the US Marine Corps.
No Child Left Behind had been passed by a Democratic congress in the first days of the Bush administration. Opposition to its policies was widespread, and much of that opposition was among Democratic constituencies. So President Obama's signature education policy initiative, would bypass Congress and the opportunity for public debate on the disastrous effects of existing pro-privatization policies.
Secretary Duncan at his side, President Obama introduced Race To The Top, drawn up by the Bill & Melinda Gates, the Eli Broad, Boeing, Walton Family and other foundations.  Under Race To The Top states and school districts are forced to bid against each other for many of the same education dollars they used to receive as a matter of course. The winning districts are those who apply Race To The Top's four official solutions to their so-called “failing schools.”
Race To The Top's four federally mandated “solutions,” which are never spelled out by corporate media news outlets, are “school transformations,” “school turnarounds,” “school restarts,”  and “school closures.”
Race to the Top defines a school transformation,” its first remedy, as firing the principal and up to 50% of teachers, replacing them with temps and newbies, hiring expensive consultants, often the same folks who drafted Race To The Top guidelines or their cronies, to redesign curriculum and personnel policies. “Transformed” schools tie teachers jobs to test scores (that’s what caused the national epidemic of cheating scandals) lengthening school days with no extra pay, cutting wages & benefits and of course lots more costly and useless tests.
Race To The Top calls its second remedy “school turnaround.” Turnarounds are exactly the same as school transformations, with high priced “run the school like a business” consultants, increased reliance on standardized tests, sanctions for teachers and all new hires sourced from Teach For America type agencies, except that transformations fire up to 50% of school staff, but to be called a turnaround schools must fire at least 50% of school staff.
School restarts,” are the third Race To The Top solution. In a “restart” you close the public school and reopen a new school with new staff and the same connected consultants used for transformations and turnarounds, but all under the management of a private corporation. In other words, you close the public school and open a charter school in the same building. Charters of course can use public money to hire even less qualified teachers, pick and choose the students it serves, and often to generate handsome private profits.
Race To The Top's fourth remedy isschool closure.You fire the staff, padlock the school doors and let families take their chances on the free market, or find another public school if they can.
The states and school districts quickest to carry out the most transformations, turnarounds, restarts and school closings are the ones who get to keep or increase their levels of federal funding. Those who drag their feet lose federal education dollars. That's why it's a race, but not exactly to the top.
Clearly there's no broad support for these insanely destructive educational policies. But since news media never report what Race To The Top's actual requirements are, or even that a nationwide wave of school closings and teacher firings is underway, much of the public, and even many teachers and their unions are unable to make the connection between federal policies and their local school crises. Corporate media point helpfully instead to corrupt local officials, greedy organized teachers insufficient reliance on the invisible hand of the free market. News reports in many areas are full of stories about school districts whose certification is imperiled because of looming loss of federal funds, but the public is offered few clues as to exactly WHY the funds are lacking or WHAT measures the district will have to take to get them restored. The fact is, Race To The Top is consciously designed to punish school districts that try to protect their educational assets, and rewards those who eviscerate and sell them off.
President Obama's Race To The Top then, is the direct cause of our national wave of school closings and mass teacher firings from Philly to Atlanta and Los Angeles to Rhode Island. It was local implementation of Obama's Race To The Top mandates that forced Chicago teachers out on strike last fall, and it's reluctance to carry out these measures that now imperils education funding in cities as large as Las Vegas.
The Chicago teachers class action lawsuit is a good thing. But the courts have been captive to the far right wing for a long time now, and are not likely to issue quick and sweeping rulings that upset things as they are. In the end, the only thing that will begin to save public education, that will halt the wave of school closings and teacher firings is mass mobilization on a scale not seen in fifty years. Right now, that seems almost as unlikely as corporate school reform being reversed or halted by the federal court.
What passes for black leadership these days, the descendants of the old line “civil rights” organizations are firmly on the corporate education reform bandwagon. Bill Gates, for example, delivered the 2011 keynote at the National Urban League's annual meeting. The NAACP and similar outfits are no better, all preferring to do the bidding of their funders and their president, over the interests of ordinary black families and their children. Even teachers unions are handicapped. Unlike the Chicago Teachers Union most haven't spent the last few years forging deep ties with organized forces in their school communities, and lack even a tradition of standing up for their own members they way labor unions ought to.
In human history, the notion that everybody is entitled to a quality public education is still relatively new, and has powerful enemies. President Obama is one of these. It was the insistence of newly freed slaves that led to the first universal public education laws in the South. African American leaders till now have always been stalwart champions of public education. Until we raise up a new crop of leaders and movements not beholden to corporate funding, not disposed to uncritical worship of corporate power wielded by a black face, public education will continue to wither and die.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. Contact him via this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why Progressives Should Care About the Backash on Standardized Testing

Last week, celebrated statistics guru Nate Silver laid a bugger on advocates for test-driven education, the current policy fad that enamors Republicans and Democrats alike who fancy themselves as “education reformers.”
In an online conversation at the aggregator site Reddit, the man known for being the “Lord and God of Algorithms” was asked, “What are your thoughts on data-driven metrics for teacher evaluation? Do you think a system that accurately reflects teacher value could ever be created, or will it always be plagued by perverse incentives (teaching to the test, neglecting certain types of students, etc)?”
Silver replied, “There are certainly cases where applying objective measures badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of those.”
Silver explained that it would take “a book- or thesis-length treatment to really evaluate properly”
Of course, our current crop of leaders in Washington, DC and state capitals are not about to wait for “a book- or thesis-length treatment.” Because they are imbued with the “fierce urgency of now” for “education reform,” they want a formula instead.
But schoolteachers, principals, and parents on the ground have long understood that enforcing education practices on the basis of government mandated metrics is a losing proposition for children. Now they’re speaking out.
What’s Brewing In Seattle?
Since the creation of No Child Left Behind, the imposed metrics driving education policy have been student scores on standardized tests. Schools not making Acceptable Yearly Progress on raising test score results for specific populations of students have been subjected to all kinds of punitive actions, which include being shut down or turned over to a private management firm.
The Obama administration has intensified the situation. Its grant programs –including Race to the Top – and NCLB Waivers all require schools to base teacher and principal evaluations, as well as school rating systems, on student test scores, to a great deal of extent.
The intent of these policies was to impose “measured progress.” But lots of educators, parents, and public school activists don’t see it that way.
Recently, teachers at a Seattle high school refused to give the district-required MAP tests to students, saying the tests are bad and waste time and resources. Amazingly, people rushed to the schoolteachers’ support.
One of the teachers opting out of the test, Jesse Hagopian, reports at the online magazine TruthOut, “Thousands of people from around the country have signed on to a petition supporting the Garfield teachers. The school’s PTSA and student body organization  have stood behind the teachers. Other schools in the district are starting to line up behind Garfield, too, starting with Ballard High.”
More recently, the Seattle Education Association called for an elimination of the testing regime, calling for funding of the tests “to go to classroom and student needs first.”
At the online news outlet NationofChange, Hagopian explains the teachers’ rationale:
“To use this (the test) as a tool to evaluate our teaching makes no sense . . . “They’re setting us up for failure. And Garfield High School is not a failure. We’re the home of (former students) Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee and Quincy Jones . . . No one cares how Jimi Hendrix scored on a high school math test. And no one should.”
This isn’t happening in just Seattle.
NationofChange fights back with one simple but powerful weapon: the truth. Can you donate $5 to help us?
Testing Backlash Grows, Strengthens
Reporting from her blog at The Washington Post, education journalist Valerie Strauss traced the arc of growing unrest over metric-driven education policy:
“Parents have started to opt out of having their children take the exams; school boards have approved resolutions calling for an end to test-based accountability systems; thousands of people have signed a national resolution protesting high-stakes tests; superintendents have spoken out, and so have teachers. It has been building momentum in the last year, since Robert Scott, then the commissioner of education in Texas, said publicly that the mentality that standardized testing is the ‘end-all, be-all’ is a ‘perversion’ of what a quality education should be.”
Also at Strauss’ blog, Lisa Guisbond, a policy analyst for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, reviewed how Scott’s outcry evolved into a meme traveling to other states, including Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Virginia.
Both Democrats and Republicans are taking action. California’s school chief Tom Torlakson, a Democrat, recently proposed reducing the number of standardized tests that students must take. And the Republican dominated House of the Texas legislature has zeroed-out the state’s budget for standardized testing.
What People Are Upset About
A big problem with test-obsession is that basing education policies primarily on test scores has no basis in research, and evaluating teachers by students’ test scores – sometimes, unbelievably, students they don’t even teach – is a particularly bad idea.
As the Liz Dwyer at the website recently explained, “individuals and organizations have laid out the case against the practice pretty thoroughly.”
Article image
Dwyer quotes a letter written by the National Research Council to the Obama administration “warning them against including the policy in their Race to the Top reform agenda,” noting that “research does not support the practice.” She also quotes Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, who wrote that “holding teacher accountable for growth in the test scores (called value-added) of their students is more harmful than helpful to children’s educations.
The practice, Rothstein wrote, “creates rational incentives for teachers and schools to narrow the curriculum to tested subjects, and to tested areas within those subjects. Students lose instruction in history, the sciences, the arts, music, and physical education, and teachers focus less on development of children’s non-cognitive behaviors—cooperative activities, character, social skills—that are among the most important aims of a solid education.”
A Teacher’s-Eye View
Classroom teacher and prolific blogger Kenneth Bernstein recently described exactly how the “rational incentive” Rothstein pointed to works in the classroom. In a post titled “Warnings from the Trenches,” at the website for the American Association of University Professors, Bernstein warned university faculty to expect high school graduates to be “unprepared for higher education.” The reason? Test-driven “reforms” stemming from NCLB and Race to the Top.
Bernstein’s first complaint is that because only two subjects – math and reading– are being tested, “anything not being tested was given short shrift.”
Bernstein also explained how test-driven school practices are dumbing down students’ writing skills. Because the tests are made up of multiple-choice items – which, he notes “are cheaper to develop, administer, and score” – the tests don’t demand “higher-level thinking” or even “proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure.”
Even in more advanced courses such as AP, which Bernstein taught in addition to his regular classes, basing student performance solely or even substantially on mass-produced tests – in this case, AP exams and ostensibly “more rigorous” than state tests – enforces an inferior level of education. Because the exams are constructed with questions graded by a rubric that is, according to Bernstein, “concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument,” with “no consideration of grammar or rhetoric,” or fundamentals of good composition such as “a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion,” students get no credit for the quality of their writing.
“If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing,” Bernstein concluded. “My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing.”
Bernstein and his colleagues are exhorted by reform enthusiasts like Education Secretary Arne Duncan to not to “teach to the test” and still strive for learning goals that include higher-order skills. But “high schools are forced to focus on preparing students for tests,” Bernstein maintained, “and that leads to a narrowing of what we can accomplish in our classrooms.”
Is Resistance Futile?
The resistance to the test-driven approaches to education is getting some left-leaning people worried. At, Matt Yglesias fretted that “backing off” from test-driven education “sounds like a mistake.” He pointed to Texas, where much of the test backlash is taking place, as an example of the state where the “testing craze . . . seems to be working out well.” (emphasis original)
His evidence was more test data (what else), in this case, the most recent (presumably) results from the main National Assessment of Education Progress. Texas’ NAEP scores show that African-American and Latino students perform better than the national average on the 8th grade and math. With this statistic only, he declared, “Those are pretty good results!” because Texas “is unusually stingy of its funding of public schools.”
Setting aside the unsurprising conclusion that the state that “led the way in the testing craze” (his words) might perform better than average on standardized tests, the greater reality is that the test-driven policies mandated by NCLB have produced meager gains in achievement on the NAEP after so many years of intense concentration on reading and mathematics required by the law. In fact, the largest gains in the NAEP occurred before metric-driven education became the law of the land.
When “Reform” Is Really Old School
Contrary to what testing acolytes would have you believe, trusting the magic of metrics to guide education is really not something new. In a series of thoughtful posts at his website, educator Larry Cuban declared, “It’s time to question the rationale of a business model applied to education.” Cuban explained that using data in education decision making is not something new and sourced the practice back to the “scientific management movement” that started over a century ago.
Educators have used data “for decades,” Cuban recounted, to make all kinds of decisions. But “just like facts from the past do not speak for themselves and historians have to interpret those facts, neither do numbers speak for themselves.”
Instead of going by-the-numbers alone, data like test scores need to fit into “existing models” or “algorithms” that determine whether the numbers really explain something valid.
The “policy by algorithm,” as Jeff Henig, a contributor to the blog series, put it, has become “in vogue” in all sorts of policy arenas, especially education, a pursuit that can often defy clarity.
But “policy by algorithm” has a dark downside. “When data are thin, algorithms theory-bare and untested, and results tied to laws that enshrine automatic rewards and penalties,” Henig explained, the algorithm can become indifferent to “the specific processes that link interventions to outcomes.” In order to compensate for the problem, algorithms have to change. And whereas Google can make 500 changes a year to its algorithm, we certainly can’t expect that from national education policy.
What education policy by algorithm is leading to, Cuban predicted in a third post, is quite probably similar to what happened to the collapse of the housing market in 2008, when “all the finely-crafted algorithms available to hedge fund CEOs, investment bankers, and Federal Reserve officials” were no help in predicting an economic fiasco.
What’s needed, Cuban concluded, is much more transparency and straightforward communication about the nature of education models and much more reliance on the good judgments of professional educators and parents.
There are reasons progressives should care about this.
Wasn’t Education “Reform” Supposed To Be Progressive?
NCLB was originally sold to us as “progressive” legislation. Miraculously, now NCLB Waivers are being touted as “progressive” too.
Armed with the reams of testing data unleashed by metrics-driven school reform, progressives everywhere were going to have the information they needed to hold schools “accountable” for educating children, especially the least served.
Yet what we are seeing instead is a form of education that actually threatens students’ civil rights. Writing at the blogsite Daily Kos, education professor Sherman Dorn explained what test-driven education is resulting in:
“When schools with low academic achievement receive test-prep booklets, the cost of those purchases is stolen from instructional materials for the general curriculum. When children with low academic performance find their classroom time occupied by activities that mirror multiple-choice test formats, that is a denial of access to a broad curriculum. When teachers, aides, school counselors, and others spend hours in early spring drilling students on test-taking techniques, that is time that children are not reading, are not learning about math and science and history, and are not experiencing or creating art or music.”
Does that sound progressive to you?

ABOUT Jeff Bryant
Jeff Bryant is a Marketing and Communications Consultant for Nonprofits. He is a marketing and creative strategist with nearly 30 years of experience – the past 20 on his own – as a freelance writer, consultant, and SEM provider. He's written extensively about public education policy, most recently at and NationofChange.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Frontline mails it in about Rhee!

Frontline mails it in about Rhee!


On balance, a large waste of time: Did Frontline decide to get tough on Michelle Rhee?

Alex “Kid” Pareene said they might. But did it actually happen?

We’d have to say no, it did not. On Tuesday evening, Frontline aired a program about Rhee’s three-year reign in the DC schools. But Frontline was late to the scene of the action, and it glossed almost all topics.

For Frontline's preview, just click this. To watch the whole program, click here.

In fairness, you probably can’t cover the relevant topics in a 53-minute report. That said, no one made Frontline report on Rhee at all at this point.

What Frontline did was grossly inadequate. Four areas which were heavily glossed:

Rhee’s claims about her own teaching career: On her way to the DC schools, Rhee built her career around a set of highly specific, self-glorying claims concerning her own teaching career. Rhee’s claims about massive test score gains never really made sense. During her years in DC, it became fairly clear that her claims had simply been wrong.

This matter was glossed in the Frontline report, but it sets the stage for other parts of Rhee’s career. Why would a person make such specific (highly implausible) claims when she herself had never seen the data in question? Since Rhee’s claims never really made sense, did she ever really believe them? Or was she toying with facts about real children’s lives to pimp her high-flying career?

In this area, we think Rhee’s conduct was a disgrace. Frontline gave her a pass.

The history of cheating on standardized tests: Decades of cheating on standardized tests preceded Rhee’s tenure in Washington. Such scandals had occurred all over the country.

Was Rhee somehow unaware of this fact? In the Frontline report, Rhee is shown handing out large cash prizes to principals whose schools showed implausible score gains. Did Rhee understand the checkered history of such score gains? If not, why was she so clueless?

Rhee’s professional background: Frontline is remarkably silent about Rhee’s professional background. The program notes that Rhee wasn’t well-known when she landed the DC job at the tender age of 37.

How did this young, little-known person acquire such an important position? For all we know as Frontline viewers, Mayor Fenty spotted Rhee at some obscure school reform group in the Seattle suburbs.

In fact, Rhee was hired from Manhattan, where she was a favorite of the billionaire-based “education reform” crowd. She landed her job through that very powerful nexus.

Frontline said nothing about this. This is a massive journalistic failure, not to say a dive.

Rhee’s ideas about instruction: For ourselves, we admire Rhee’s loud insistence that urban children deserve better educational outcomes. Unfortunately, we have never seen the slightest sign that she has any ideas, of any kind, about how to improve instruction.

Frontline did illustrate Rhee’s basic belief about teachers: If you threaten them, they will improve! But did Rhee arrive with any ideas about how to improve instruction?

The program did show Rhee insisting that the DC schools distribute more glue and scissors to grade school teachers. Beyond that, did she have any ideas about classroom instruction? Frontline didn’t ask.

Having glossed Rhee’s test score scandal as a teacher, Frontline did spend some time on the test score scandal which occurred when she was chancellor. But the program sped through endless topics. In our view, the program was outdated and a general waste of time.

One last question: What happened to student performance during Rhee’s tenure in DC? Frontline glossed that question too. Here’s where matters stand:

In 2007, 2009 and 2011, DC students took part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the widely-praised “gold standard” of American educational testing. For plausible reasons, it is generally believed that no one cheats on these tests.

(Journalists will get around to examining that question around the year 2100.)

The 2007 testing preceded Rhee’s tenure in DC. The 2011 testing followed her three-year tenure, along with part of the following year. (Rhee arrived in DC in June 2007, resigned in October 2010.)

What happened to DC’s math and reading scores during that four-year period? Frontline thoroughly glossed that question. For ourselves, we’re trying to get clear on some technical adjustments the NAEP has made regarding scores from charter schools, which are numerous in DC.

When we get that sorted out, we’ll report those scores. As with almost everything else, Frontline didn’t much bother.

Frontline’s report was very soft. We think they did a bad job.

They get letters: The Frontline program can be watched here. A pair of early comments:
COMMENTER: As a former resident of DC, whose children attended a high-performing DCPS elementary school for several years, I was disappointed in this program. It was a very cursory look at an extremely complex issue. So much was left unexplored. Did they talk to any principals or teachers who remained supportive of her, or were there none to talk to? What about the high-achieving schools in DCPS (there are several)—how did Rhee interact with the principals and teachers in these schools and what are their opinions of Rhee and her methods?

How are we to judge her performance as chancellor? Were there overall gains in student achievement or is there just no way to know?

COMMENTER: The Michelle Rhee documentary was truly a low point for Frontline and journalism as a whole at PBS. To have an hour of propaganda in the face of mounds of evidence exposing Rhee as an abject fraud is a moral disgrace. To not even have a blurb from GF Brandenberg is the most damning indictment of this fiasco.

Rhee is a creation of Eli Broad, a man whose name was never mentioned in the entire broadcast. To have someone advocate for the exploitation of children for millionaires/billionaires under the guise of reform is quite frankly perverse.
They watched the same program we did.

Astroturf Activism: Who is Behind Students for Education Reform?

A student at Columbia challenges assumptions of astroturf SFER.
In late November, a small crowd of Columbia University and New York University students organized by Students For Education Reform (SFER) marched from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) building in downtown Manhattan to the steps of the Department of Education building, demanding that public school teachers reach an agreement with the Bloomberg administration over new evaluation standards. Hanging in the balance is $450 million worth of state aid that will be withheld from city public schools by Governor Cuomo if a deal is not reached by January 17. Students sporting red and green Christmas hats called on teachers to “Make a deal!” and “Compromise!” in a spectacular show of misplaced activist spirit.

The “compromise” would place teachers at the mercy of a counterproductive test-based system, allowing up to 40 percent of their evaluative ratings to come from the standardized test scores of their students. It's even worse than it sounds though, because New York state requires that “teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on objective assessments must be rated ineffective overall,” as education historian Diane Ravitch explains, “a teacher who does not raise test scores will be found ineffective overall, no matter how well he or she does with the remaining 60 percent. In other words, the 40 percent allocated to student performance actually counts for 100 percent.”

SFER, a student network that has exploded on more than 100 college campuses across the country since it was started by two students at Princeton in 2009, is an “education reform” front for a lobbying firm, exploiting college idealism for corporate profit. The group’s website declares: “We believe student voices matter. For too long, policymakers have not heard the voice of the stakeholders affected by education policy: students themselves.” But the pitch should replace stakeholders with stockholders, because the dollars behind the “grassroots” movement say more than the students themselves.

SFER has received $1.6 million from Education Reform Now, whose PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), shelled out $1 million to attack the Chicago Teachers Union. DFER worked with the Koch brothers and ALEC to push Proposition 32, which if passed, would have blocked labor unions from using automatic payroll deductions for political purposes. Though SFER claims neutral territory, its motives are laid bare by its rallying around the funding of charter schools, the issue of limiting tenure, and its strict focus on testing. The testing corporations and charter school CEOs might agree with hedge funder and DFER founder Whitney Tilson’s explanation for his interest in education: “Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.”
Attending a counter-rally planned to coincide with SFER’s day of action, I met Stephanie Rivera, a “future teacher” and “educational equity activist” currently studying at Rutgers University. She believes that educational reform “benefits organizations that look at education like a business. It benefits testing companies like Pearson, and groups like StudentsFirst, Teach for America, and DFER rather than the students themselves.”

Elaborating on the campus-corporate connection, public school teacher and education activist Brian Jones noted that “these are well-funded Astroturf groups with very specific agendas that try and sprout campus organizations to represent them on the idea that this is some kind of grassroots initiative, when really its very tightly scripted, controlled.”

At the counter-rally, I approached SFER activists about their understanding of the proposed evaluation plan’s implications for teachers and wider impact on students, but many deflected, declaring a singular focus on the $450 million at stake. I was surprised at the apparent shortsightedness, as the funds are part of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which encourages high-stakes testing and the expansion of charter schools. A participating NYU student named Danny told me, “I’m in no way anti-union, I’m in no way anti-teacher. In fact, I don’t even really like standardized testing.”

When I asked him why he thought the UFT was not on board with the proposed standards, he shrugged.

After the march, Columbia sociology professor Shamus Khan rebuffed the claim that NYC students would benefit from the funding regardless of its consequences, explaining that despite the “well-meaning impulse, it doesn’t actually matter how much money you’re pouring into schools. The New York school system spends almost $20,000 per student on education, which is a tremendous amount. It’s not doing well because how can you expect that putting a kid in a space for six hours a day will overcome all conditions of poverty?”

Other SFER students became sensitive when pressed about the organization’s funding, brushing off donors as irrelevant and never stopping to consider why test-making corporations and hedge fund moguls were bankrolling an “activist” movement.

The most difficult part was considering that the consequences of bowing to the requirements of state funding could exacerbate the situation for the public school kids that many SFER student members genuinely want to help. SFER’s general body chair was quoted in the Columbia Spectator as saying, “There was one child talking about how he needed money in his art class and it was something that manifested itself every day in his life and he knows that we can do better.” The problem is that turning classrooms into test prep centers won’t provide the space and supplies for his creativity.
After the protest and counter-rally, I emailed Ravitch about her response to SFER. She responded:

"I find it bizarre that students at any level would demand more standardized tests, and would demand that teachers be held accountable based on student test scores…Why would students promote a method that testing experts say is inaccurate for measuring teacher quality and that promotes narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test? Clearly, none of the members of Columbia's SFER chapter plan to become public school teachers."

After all, teachers don’t teach for money, they teach for students. Until SFER understands this, their avenues for real reform will always miss the point.

James Cersonsky: Fighting Education Shock Therapy

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Sixty-five-year-old John Washington pick up his great grandson, Rayshaun Cates, at Samuel Morse Elementary School, a Chicago school closed in 2006.
The watchword of austerity, “there is no alternative,” connotes painful cuts and layoffs adopted by fiscally shot local governments. In practice, though, this is a contradiction in terms: the politics of austerity are also a politics of imaginative restructuring, in which fiscal crisis is a cover for what Clintonites called “reinventing government” or, as partisans of Naomi Klein might prefer, “shock therapy.”
The lie is starkest in the realm of education policy, where the Obama administration prescribes a slate of options for impoverished communities receiving federal School Improvement Grants. These range from “turnarounds,” which replace the principal and at least half of school staff, to charterization or outright closure.
The catch with turnarounds and closings? Urban schools affected by them house more students of color than those left alone. As such, a growing national movement argues, the implementation of these policies systematically violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits race-based discrimination in federally funded programs.
In a coordinated effort, Title VI complaints have been filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) by plaintiffs from turned-over districts across the country: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, D.C., Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. Coming soon, says Jitu Brown of Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, are filings from Austin, Cleveland, Kansas City, New Orleans, Oakland, and Wichita. That’s 14 cities (and counting) that see evidence of discrimination in federal education mandates.
Though the complaints vary city by city, the themes are common: school closings and turnarounds have a statistically disproportionate impact on students of color, and this impact is destructive: displaced students are shipped away from their neighborhoods and forced to cross many social boundaries, with little to no precedent of advanced academic success in their new environments.
The Chicago filing notes that black students make up 42 percent of the city’s public school population, but 82 percent of those affected by the 14 closings, phase-outs, and turnarounds in 2012. For the closings and phase-outs alone, the figure is nearly 100 percent. It goes on to say that the district “has no criteria which can justify these decisions”—rather, a list of non-academic “considerations” which have been described as “extremely vague” by the legislatively appointed Educational Facilities Task Force. What’s more, schools slated for turnaround are stripped of their Local School Councils—a key outlet for the voices of black and Latino parents in school policy—and may not get a funding boost even if the district anticipates a school action years in advance. (In a recent twist, teachers have filed a separate suit against the district alleging that turnaround policy has a discriminatory impact on black teachers.)
The New York filing, signed by Zakiyah Ansari from the Coalition for Educational Justice and Jorel Moore from the Urban Youth Collaborative, notes that the 117 schools closed between 2003 and 2011 had greater percentages of English Language Learners, students in special education, and students receiving free or reduced-price lunches than the citywide averages. The city’s school board—the mostly Bloomberg-appointed “Panel for Education Policy”—has never voted down a school closure.
These data-driven arguments stem from years of heated protest at the local level. In Chicago, ten parents and teachers were arrested in November for sitting-in at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office to protest the district’s slash-and-burn, displace-and-gentrify school closing policy. Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is planning a five-year freeze on the closing of school facilities—but only after shutting down 100 “underutilized” schools this year, and with no promise not to authorize further turnarounds or closures based on performance ratings. Meanwhile, district officials have successfully entreated the Illinois state legislature to extend the city’s deadline for announcing school closings from December 1 to March 31. Officials argue that this will allow more time to collect input from city residents; for community groups and the Chicago Teachers Union, who have demanded an immediate moratorium on all actions, the extension means less time during the school year to wage organized pushback.
Title VI has bureaucratic hurdles of its own. After 2001’s Alexander v. Sandoval Supreme Court ruling, private petitioners—that is, everyone besides the federal government—lost their ability to press Title VI charges against defending parties directly. (This goes for cases of “disparate impact,” as distinct from “intentional discrimination”; the conservative court held that plaintiffs, in this case a woman alleging that Alabama’s English-only drivers’-license test policy was discriminatory, had no “private right of action” to pursue their charges.) As a result, activists in the current campaign must file complaints with the OCR, which can decide whether or not to pursue them.
Under the Bush administration, the feds “were not viewed as an ally of civil rights advocates,” says Ted Shaw, the head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund from 2004 to 2008, and coordinated filings like the current ones “would not be productive.” Now, it’s up to Obama appointees—from the same department that trumpets turnarounds and closings—to take action.
What do the feds think?
“Each of these complaints is being addressed on a case-by-case basis,” a spokesperson from the OCR wrote in an email. Officials are staging “grassroots impact tours” in Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans to meet with people in communities where schools have been closed. On January 29, the department will be hosting what it calls “a community meeting in our building held at the requests of the groups,” where Secretary Arne Duncan is scheduled to speak.
For Jitu Brown, the department’s response thus far has been underwhelming. “The feeling was that a lot of their immediate [delay] was out of concern about it being an election season,” he says. “The concern is, are they really the Office of Civil Rights, or is it just a bureaucracy that’s there to maintain the status quo?”
Molly Hunter, the director of Education Justice for the Newark-based Education Law Center, lays out the following possibilities: “Worst case: the OCR could more or less sit on [the complaints], and nothing happens. On the other end, OCR could pursue them and find a lot of good data to support the claims and pursue the claims aggressively, and perhaps win. The policy implications are that, not only could this help individuals in entire cities, but it could potentially change some of the policies at the federal level.”
“The best case scenario is that public pressure moves an investigation,” Brown says. “We also have a complete set of demands that I think these civil rights complaints have put in the light.”
Last year, a number of groups involved in the filings converged on Washington to promote the “Sustainable Success Model,” an alternative to the four intervention measures required under School Improvement Grants. The alternative centers on four themes: “comprehensive needs assessments” undertaken in partnership with grassroots stakeholders; “research-based” curricular and organizational reforms; wrap-around services to address students’ holistic needs; and a commitment to parent and community engagement.
These demands are a rebuttal to the civil rights rhetoric bandied by moneyed scorched-earth reformers—Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mitt Romney, and their far-flung bases of support. They also remind us that the Civil Rights Act—whose Title VI took an extra decade of litigation to be enforced by federal education officials—is a vehicle for civil rights struggle rather than the one-off win that school textbooks often make it out to be.
While Title VI has been used to varying degrees of success to equalize education funding and desegregate schools, its application to school closings is seeing its first test.
“Unfortunately as parents of color, we’re elevating this because [for] community groups in the city, every time being turned away, this is kind of it,” says Ansari about New York. “Our voice—the parents and youth—it’s not to grandstand, but to tell the story that has never been told.”

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Meanwhile, my union-thug wife is too busy grading papers and planning lessons to be able to get properly mad about it all

Cover Story: “Threshold”

On December 14th, I helped chaperone my daughter’s second-grade-class field trip to a local production of “The Nutcracker,” where I spent most of my time not watching the ballet but marvelling at the calm efforts of the teacher to keep the yelling, excited class quieted down. Teaching was not, I concluded at one point, a profession in which I could survive for even one day. Our buses came back to the school at midafternoon, and I and the other volunteer parents left our children for another hour of wind-down time (for us, not them) before returning for the regular 3-P.M. pickup. I came home, however, not to any wind-down but to the unfolding coverage of the Newtown shooting. Shaken to the core, I returned to the school, where a grim quiet bound myself and the other parents together, the literally unspeakable news sealing our smiles while, at a lower strata, our happy, screaming children ran out of the building into our arms still frothed up by sparkling visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

My wife is a public-high-school teacher in Chicago, and though there has never been a shooting in her school during her tenure, there have been fights and thefts. Shootings have occurred outside and near her school, and one student died last year. A metal detector cowls the single student entrance. Such a safeguard, including two real guards—Chicago police, with guns—have been put in place (as at most Chicago public schools) because of gang unrest from within, not Playstation-style nightmares from without. Needless to say, rarely does a day pass where I don’t pray to my vague, atheist-default Supreme Ruler of the Universe that everything go effing well for her.

In the course of the next few days, I was privy to the exchanges among my wife and her colleagues about Newtown, culminating in flabbergasted e-mails and Facebookings following the farcical N.R.A. press conference. Memes abounded, like, “First they call us union thugs and now they want to arm us?!” and self-mocking jokes about their own forgetfulness: “Do you really want to trust people like us with guns?” (Teachers are notoriously overworked and so occasionally forget their two pounds’ worth of keys in one classroom or another.) What astonished me most was that the gun lobby seemed to imply that it was somehow partly the unarmed teachers’ fault that the Newtown shooting occurred at all. Well, why not? Isn’t everything lately always somehow the teachers’ fault?

Meanwhile, our government revved its engines to Evel-Knievel itself over the fiscal cliff, civilization’s rock face having partly crumbled away because a clot of representatives seem to feel that government shouldn’t be funded at all. Over the holiday break, news arrived that thirty-seven Philadelphia public schools were closing because of budgetary cuts, and meanwhile the whole idea of public education continues to be cored out nationwide by taxpayer-funded private “charter” schools in a sleight of hand that I still can’t believe is legal. (Meanwhile, my union-thug wife is too busy grading papers and planning lessons to be able to get properly mad about it all.)

In September, I pictured, more or less, my daughter’s teacher and her class on a “back to school” cover (click to expand) that jokingly pointed to the free time that parents would have now that their kids were back in class; it was something I saw every morning, and I thought it would make a sort of funny picture. In the wake of Newtown, it didn’t seem so funny anymore. As parents and citizens, we entrust our children not only to the safety of schools but also to the nurturing and cultivated environment of schools and teachers. Education is the very foundation of civilization and cannot be undermined or undersold. That we now have to somehow consider an unchecked population of firearms as part of this equation seems absolutely ludicrous and terrifying.

Schoolhouse Shams: Myths and Misinformation in School Reform

My book, Schoolhouse Shams: Myths and Misinformation in School Reform, has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield Education (

"Peter Downs takes the reader into the heart of the school reform debate–the people, the policies, the decisions–to understand the complexities and contradictions of what is really at stake in the school reform debate. 

Drawing on a decade of evidence, Schoolhouse Shams provides a serious warning about the costs of neoliberal educational reforms, a critique important for urban school districts around the nation," says Rebecca Rogers, associate professor of literacy and discourse studies, University of Missouri St. Louis.

Each chapter takes an in depth look at a sham claim made by some of the loudest voices in the big money school reform industry:
• Desegregation destroyed our schools;
• Testing is the answer to everything;
• Reading is the basis of all learning;
• Teaching means not worrying about what students understand;
• Public schools are too wasteful;
• Private enterprises always are better than public enterprises;
• Shopping will improve schools;
• Democracy ruins schools;
• Justice has no place in education; and
• It's all about the children.

"Downs's [book] should serve as a warning to all elected school board members that political considerations and privatization efforts are a threat to democratically elected boards of education. What happened in St. Louis could easily happen in any community,” says William Purdy, sixteen-year elected member and former president, St. Louis Board of Education.

The book examines how the myths and misinformation used by well heeled “reformers” led to the tanking of public education in St. Louis, Missouri, and how the same myths and misinformation are being used by similar “reformers” in other school districts around the country.

"Peter Downs has written a provocative, informative, and timely book about school reform in St. Louis. Its lessons apply to many cities undergoing similar reforms today," says Diane Ravitch, research professor in education at New York University, Brown Chair in Education Policy at Brookings Institution, and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

I hope you will take a look at it.


Peter Downs

Monday, January 07, 2013

Taibbi: Secret and Lies of the Bailout

This came from Rolling Stone via  Jesse's CafĂ© AmĂ©ricain

Taibbi: Secret and Lies of the Bailout

This is a long piece from Matt Taibbi about the financial crisis and the bank bailout.

It is under-reported, too often overlooked, and well worth understanding.

I find it remarkable and almost disturbing that discussions by economists and thought leaders so rarely mention and account for the epic fraud and distortions created by the banking system. They occasionally mention it for the footnote of history, as they did the housing bubble and Greenspan's policy failures, so that they can go back at some future date and say that they did 'speak out.'

Big money has polluted the political process and stifled discussion in the corporate media. And they treat this like some embarrassing cousin whom the family rarely discusses in public.

It is the credibility trap. And it is crippling the Anglo-American economic system.

Rolling Stone
Secret and Lies of the Bailout
By Matt Taibbi
January 4, 2013

It has been four long winters since the federal government, in the hulking, shaven-skulled, Alien Nation-esque form of then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, committed $700 billion in taxpayer money to rescue Wall Street from its own chicanery and greed. To listen to the bankers and their allies in Washington tell it, you'd think the bailout was the best thing to hit the American economy since the invention of the assembly line. Not only did it prevent another Great Depression, we've been told, but the money has all been paid back, and the government even made a profit. No harm, no foul – right?


It was all a lie – one of the biggest and most elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people. We were told that the taxpayer was stepping in – only temporarily, mind you – to prop up the economy and save the world from financial catastrophe. What we actually ended up doing was the exact opposite: committing American taxpayers to permanent, blind support of an ungovernable, unregulatable, hyperconcentrated new financial system that exacerbates the greed and inequality that caused the crash, and forces Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup to increase risk rather than reduce it. The result is one of those deals where one wrong decision early on blossoms into a lush nightmare of unintended consequences. We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.

How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform

But the most appalling part is the lying. The public has been lied to so shamelessly and so often in the course of the past four years that the failure to tell the truth to the general populace has become a kind of baked-in, official feature of the financial rescue. Money wasn't the only thing the government gave Wall Street – it also conferred the right to hide the truth from the rest of us. And it was all done in the name of helping regular people and creating jobs. "It is," says former bailout Inspector General Neil Barofsky, "the ultimate bait-and-switch."

The bailout deceptions came early, late and in between. There were lies told in the first moments of their inception, and others still being told four years later. The lies, in fact, were the most important mechanisms of the bailout. The only reason investors haven't run screaming from an obviously corrupt financial marketplace is because the government has gone to such extraordinary lengths to sell the narrative that the problems of 2008 have been fixed. Investors may not actually believe the lie, but they are impressed by how totally committed the government has been, from the very beginning, to selling it.


Today what few remember about the bailouts is that we had to approve them. It wasn't like Paulson could just go out and unilaterally commit trillions of public dollars to rescue Goldman Sachs and Citigroup from their own stupidity and bad management (although the government ended up doing just that, later on). Much as with a declaration of war, a similarly extreme and expensive commitment of public resources, Paulson needed at least a film of congressional approval. And much like the Iraq War resolution, which was only secured after George W. Bush ludicrously warned that Saddam was planning to send drones to spray poison over New York City, the bailouts were pushed through Congress with a series of threats and promises that ranged from the merely ridiculous to the outright deceptive. At one meeting to discuss the original bailout bill – at 11 a.m. on September 18th, 2008 – Paulson actually told members of Congress that $5.5 trillion in wealth would disappear by 2 p.m. that day unless the government took immediate action, and that the world economy would collapse "within 24 hours."

To be fair, Paulson started out by trying to tell the truth in his own ham-headed, narcissistic way. His first TARP proposal was a three-page absurdity pulled straight from a Beavis and Butt-Head episode – it was basically Paulson saying, "Can you, like, give me some money?" Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, remembers a call with Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. "We need $700 billion," they told Brown, "and we need it in three days." What's more, the plan stipulated, Paulson could spend the money however he pleased, without review "by any court of law or any administrative agency."

The White House and leaders of both parties actually agreed to this preposterous document, but it died in the House when 95 Democrats lined up against it. For an all-too-rare moment during the Bush administration, something resembling sanity prevailed in Washington.

So Paulson came up with a more convincing lie. On paper, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was simple: Treasury would buy $700 billion of troubled mortgages from the banks and then modify them to help struggling homeowners. Section 109 of the act, in fact, specifically empowered the Treasury secretary to "facilitate loan modifications to prevent avoidable foreclosures." With that promise on the table, wary Democrats finally approved the bailout on October 3rd, 2008. "That provision," says Barofsky, "is what got the bill passed."

But within days of passage, the Fed and the Treasury unilaterally decided to abandon the planned purchase of toxic assets in favor of direct injections of billions in cash into companies like Goldman and Citigroup. Overnight, Section 109 was unceremoniously ditched, and what was pitched as a bailout of both banks and homeowners instantly became a bank-only operation – marking the first in a long series of moves in which bailout officials either casually ignored or openly defied their own promises with regard to TARP.

Congress was furious. "We've been lied to," fumed Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, raged at transparently douchey TARP administrator (and Goldman banker) Neel Kashkari, calling him a "chump" for the banks. And the anger was bipartisan: Republican senators David Vitter of Louisiana and James Inhofe of Oklahoma were so mad about the unilateral changes and lack of oversight that they sponsored a bill in January 2009 to cancel the remaining $350 billion of TARP.

So what did bailout officials do? They put together a proposal full of even bigger deceptions to get it past Congress a second time. That process began almost exactly four years ago – on January 12th and 15th, 2009 – when Larry Summers, the senior economic adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, sent a pair of letters to Congress. The pudgy, stubby­fingered former World Bank economist, who had been forced out as Harvard president for suggesting that women lack a natural aptitude for math and science, begged legislators to reject Vitter's bill and leave TARP alone.

In the letters, Summers laid out a five-point plan in which the bailout was pitched as a kind of giant populist program to help ordinary Americans. Obama, Summers vowed, would use the money to stimulate bank lending to put people back to work. He even went so far as to say that banks would be denied funding unless they agreed to "increase lending above baseline levels." He promised that "tough and transparent conditions" would be imposed on bailout recipients, who would not be allowed to use bailout funds toward "enriching shareholders or executives." As in the original TARP bill, he pledged that bailout money would be used to aid homeowners in foreclosure. And lastly, he promised that the bailouts would be temporary – with a "plan for exit of government intervention" implemented "as quickly as possible."

The reassurances worked. Once again, TARP survived in Congress – and once again, the bailouts were greenlighted with the aid of Democrats who fell for the old "it'll help ordinary people" sales pitch. "I feel like they've given me a lot of commitment on the housing front," explained Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska...

Read the rest here.