The pendulum swings, and choices await

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

(See more of the interview with Emily Feistritzer on this topic here.)

Time was, this country had about 130,000 school districts; today we have somewhere around 14,000. The pendulum has swung toward centralization.

No question that the pendulum swings. Not all that long ago about the only beers you could buy were Budweiser, Miller and Coors, but today you can choose from among thousands of microbrews. And that’s just the pendulum swinging back to the days before the Coors/Miller/Budweiser ‘beeropoly’ because in an earlier day, your parents could buy Schiltz, Schaefer, Piels, et cetera.

When I was a kid, there were thousands and thousands of radio stations; today Clear Channel owns about 1250 stations and dominates the market. But perhaps not for long, because the internet makes it possible for anyone to have his own ‘radio station.’

... and so the pendulum continues to swing...

Time was, the only way you could become a teacher was to go to a normal school, later called schools and colleges of education. Not any more, thanks to Wendy Kopp and Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, Troops for Teachers and a host of other alternative certification programs.

I could go on, because consolidation and expansion have occurred and are occurring in television, the music recording industry, health care and a ton of other industries.

It must be clear by now that I am not one of those who feels the sky is falling in because of monopoly or near-monopoly conditions. The strength of this country is our stubborn insistence on both change and independence. Take the consolidation of school districts as an example. Yes, the number of districts has dropped by close to 90 percent, but many of those districts are now experiencing their own mini-revolts, in the form of charter schools, which can actually resemble a school board — largely free of central regulation but accountable for results. Take New Orleans, where 70 percent of students are in charter schools. Is that one district, or 40+?

Did I mention textbooks and testing, where Pearson and McGraw-Hill now rule the roost? Their domination upsets a lot of observers, who fear and resent what mass testing seems to be doing to our children’s learning.

But that too will change in time. In fact, when I read that more families are home-schooling these days, I wonder if we are now seeing the beginning of change, because I have no doubt that a major motivation for some families is to escape the ‘cookie cutter’ schooling that they feel the testing regime imposes on schools.

When the Secretary of Education says, as he did in his Twitter Town Hall, that any more than 10 days spent on testing and test-prep was a cause for concern, that could be a sign that the times will soon be a-changin’.

And as McGraw-Hill and Pearson are well aware, school systems are moving away from textbooks and embracing the iPad and other tablets.

That the pendulum swings is undeniable. Whether the arc is toward equality, fairness, opportunity and justice is largely up to us.

The wild card in education today is emerging Common Core standards, which inevitably will lead to pressures for national testing. This pendulum is swinging strongly toward centralization. So the question is “Can we have high national standards without narrowly prescribing the single path that schools must follow to get there?” Can we ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ in our schools?

My bet is, we can. What do you think?

14 thoughts on “The pendulum swings, and choices await

  1. I think we can, but instead of calling it “centralization,” let’s call it “putting together expert content knowledge and best practices.” I prefer to think of the potential for development of a unified curriculum (now that most states are adopting the CCSS) in the way that computer operating systems have developed. Sure, there’s the big centralized, proprietary guns like Microsoft and Apple, but there’s also a whole underworld of open source Linux-based systems that allow the user to customize their experience if they are willing to get involved and mess with it. At the end of the day, it’s about what works best for the end user’s needs and purposes. But whatever one chooses these days, one can be assured that if you can still interact with other operating system protocols if need be.

    As long as our curriculum meets the CCSS, we can have a vast plethora of customizable curricula to choose from–may the most effective win.


  2. It’s hard to have “fairness” when billionaire boys clubs use public funds to create money-making opportunities with our children, and only those that they WANT to have involved with their “success” stories. Developers and charter interests have financed 5 of the 7 school board positions (they recently lost one seat – before it was 6 of 7). Superintendent Deasy was “gifted” with 3 administrators at the behest of charter orgs, but with the stipulation that the charter orgs determine who will be in that position. Our Parent Collaborative Services Branch, which assists and facilitates training and support for Title I parent committees (DAC – District Advisory Committee, CEAC – compensatory Education Advisory Committee, ELAC – English Learner Advisory Committee and others) saw a director “let go” to be “replaced” by a charter org plant. She immediately “disbanded” the DAC, claiming they had violated procedures when in fact parents refused to just sign-off on compliance paperwork when LAUSD had not been doing their job properly. She cannot “disband” the DAC, only a School Board can and the parents are rising up against her dictatorial tactics. Charter foundations have spent many years collecting “dues” from schools and using it for lobbying efforts in Sacramento and DC. While LAUSD was busy teaching children and building schools to relieve overcrowding, charters were planning the take-over of public education.

    I’ve collected data for many years regarding the inequities in enrollment of moderate to severely disabled students in charters. They do not take these students, nor do they provide as many services to those they do enroll (the “easy” ones – SLD – Specific Learning Disability and a couple other milder categories). Test scores should be through the roof, but they’re not. A recent LA Times article showed that regular public schools had better scores – this after having been “dumped” with those students the charters did not want.

    I’m still waiting for the “best practices” to be shared with LAUSD, but I don’t think “exclusivity” and “discrimination” in their enrollment practices would cut the mustard in a public school. Why there aren’t civil rights lawsuits flying, I don’t know. New Orleans has the Southern Poverty Law Project filing suit against charter operators there for discrimination against students with disabilities. The blow-back is coming.

    Teach for America students don’t take the teaching classes that require a credential for Moderate/Severe Disabilities. Many of the charters in LAUSD don’t have teachers with that credential at all. It’s necessary to teach students with the Autism diagnosis. We can only assume that if charters are not seeking teachers with that specialized credential, they obviously are not going to be enrolling those students who need the additional supports and specialized teachers. As they receive “block grant funding” – each child in LAUSD has a percentage of special education funding attached to their ADA – Average Daily Attendance dollars. By “cherry-picking” and leaving behind those who need more services, it takes funding away from the students who need it most. The funding system should be changed to have the money follow the child that needs it – not give every single child a portion even if that child does not need it.

    The system is unfair and the laws need to be changed. Well-paid charter lobbyists and lawyers are building swimming pools in their backyards with our public school money. No school should be allowed to use public funds unless taking ALL children. Charters do not and many should be shut down. There is little oversight and less transparency than a regular public school. I tried to call one the other day to ask what type of special education credential one of their teacher’s held (per NCLB) and was stonewalled. I complained to the LAUSD office of charter oversight, the Superintendent and all Board Members as well as the Division of Special Education. Only the Division of Special Education got back to me because we have a Consent Decree and they must respond to complaints. Not a peep from anyone else because either they don’t care, or the teacher is not properly credentialed to teach the students they do have on site.

    This is a big problem, too. Many charters have teachers with “pending” or “partial” credentials and are technically NOT fully certified. Parents are not given enough data to make informed decisions. Our state “Dataquest” site stopped providing “enrollment by disability” at each local school level several years ago when our State Board of Education was top-heavy with Charter operators and investors. I’ve asked repeatedly over the years to bring back this option, but have been ignored. Personnel claimed that schools provided faulty data so they did not post it. My question back was. “why post any of the data, then (demographics, socio/economic. ethnicity, etc). Wouldn’t it all be suspect?” It’s impossible to make comparisons of schools when data is not available. Touting school choice is a fallacy when you have nothing to compare.

    We’ve also recently had a “School Choice” program (allowing Charters to “bid” on taking over schools) pushed through by a Board Member who termed out recently to jump right into a gig directing a charter foundation. Now I’m wondering how much of this School Choice plan was created behind closed doors by her with her buddies. Now that the plan is in place, she’s in a position to enrich herself. It’s disgusting how our children have become product. This is not the public education our country should be pushing. We need to focus on letting educators decide what curriculum should be, not a testing industry. We need to realize that not all students will go to college and reinstate shop, electronics and hands-on classes – those that used to keep kids interested in school even if they had difficulty in English or Math. Why should high-stakes testing determine whether a student with disabilities graduates or not?

    There is so much that has been broken and needs to be fixed.


    • I completely agree. It’s also crazy that our government creates all of these regulations for public schools, then waives them for charter schools, then criticizes the public schools for being too slow and bureaucratic.


  3. I couldn’t agree more, Mark! I hope the readers here will look at . It’s all about K-12 open (source) educational resources that are freely shared using Creative Commons licenses. OERs allow for infinite re-purposing and remixing of content “chunks” and allow teachers to create differentiated instructional opportunities for students.


      • Mark, great article – and you are spot on about the definition of OER needing to include open source. I’m glad you asked about Curriki! From the very beginning, when Curriki was a project that lived inside of Sun Microsystems (it’s been an independent non-profit since 2005), the idea has been to build a community of practice around resources, and for the resources to be continually improved upon by the community – akin to the Java Community Process. Curriki provides the opportunity and the space for teachers to connect, co-develop curriculum, and share that curriculum. Not only are they sharing curriculum, but best teaching practices, as well. Typically a group of educators will form a group, work on curriculum they can keep private on the system over a period of time and share the content with the rest of the Curriki Community when it is “ready for prime time.” There is a fantastic example of a group, the San Diego Area Knowledge Exchange for Developmental Math: a faculty team from the San Diego region community colleges. They are collaborating to mobilize knowledge, expertise and resources to enhance learning experiences and improve student success in Developmental Math (in affiliation with the CCC Success Network). I hope you’ll check it out.

        Not only does Curriki encourage contributors to upload open source documents so they can easily be modified to suit anyone’s needs, they provide open source creation and editing tools on the site.

        It’s not just lesson plans and unit plans, it’s student facing content as well as teacher facing content. It’s video clips, it’s simulations, it’s webquests, it’s smartboard presentations, it’s full courses, its labs, activities and exercises. Big chunks and little chunks waiting to be found and repurposed and edited and remixed and mashed!


      • Gayle,

        I’m honored that you took the time to not only read my post but to write an extended response. Thank you for sharing more information about the great work that Curriki is hosting on the web. I didn’t know that it was originally incubated by Sun Microsystems!

        I think Curriki is doing a great job establishing a forum for the sharing of educational resources. I’ve superficially picked around a tad in Curriki and I checked out the link you posted above. I’m impressed by the extent to which teachers are using Curriki to share and develop resources.

        I may be missing something, but I feel that my critique about whether we can call that type of sharing truly open source (as opposed to simply “free”) still stands. When I am talking about the open source process translated into curriculum development, I envision it as more closely aligned to the manner in which software code is developed, which is that the process of collaboration is taking place directly within the product that is being developed. One person adds a line of code to the established body of code, another person adds a few extra lines, and then they merge it together. So in curriculum development, this collaboration would occur DIRECTLY in the context of the units and lessons being created, such as the collaboration that occurs when multiple people are writing and editing a singular document in Google Docs.

        I may just have a different interpretation of curriculum, but what I see on Curriki (again, I haven’t gone deeply into it so I may be missing something) is a loose collection of resources aligned to a topic, which can be a highly useful supplement to a teacher’s own unit, unless the teacher decides that the unit plan posted on Curriki (if there is one) is one they want to use. But I envision one common template unit document, aligned to the Common Core, in which not only resources are being shared, but furthermore the manner in which that content will be delivered is presented in a standardized, easily applicable format.

        This is hard for me to articulate, but I see this process as a step beyond educators sharing resources. Rather than disparate pieces thrown together, I envision a singular product crafted through collaboration. So a unit on realistic fiction, for example, would be one document in which many different educators have crafted a common vision on how to best present the procedures and understandings necessary to master that content. Within that single document, there would be multiple pathways presented for presenting the material, but it would be arranged as a sort of menu by subtopic. For example, there could be many different “language objectives” that could be presented for a given content objective which a teacher would choose from based upon their own students’ abilities. If that teacher didn’t find any of the available suggestion applicable to their students, they would give feedback or become directly involved in developing the next version of the unit, such that the updated version (like new releases of software) would better encompass a diversity of student needs.

        Look, I’m not claiming to be an expert on any of this, and I realize that my own conceptions of open source may be based on a misinformed non-techie user’s understanding. Utilizing technology effectively in education is the new frontier. Right now, I view Curriki as akin to an effective concept of a Collaborative Design Environment (CDE) in software coding. It’s a great first step. But a CDE is only half the equation. The other half in software design is the Version Control System (VCS) which allows for a unified, actionable product (code) to be created and adapted by multiple people. If Curriki can utilize it’s established collaborative design environment to better hone standardized platforms of units that unifies best ideas and practices, I think we can then truly state that Curriki curriculum is developed via the open source process.

        To see some more on implementing my vision, see

        I look forward to corrections and critiques of any holes in my logic or misunderstandings of Curriki or open source I may have presented above! 🙂


  4. As Sonja already explained so well, the issue now is who has access to the choices and innovations. If the only people who can circumvent the Pearson/McGraw monopoly are home-schoolers, what kind of choice is that? It’s only a choice that is available to people who have the time and resources to home-school their children, which isn’t the majority of our population in an age where both parents have to work just to make ends meet.

    It’s the same with charters. At least in the middle class/upper middle class communities where I’ve lived, charter schools often seem to be about who’s child gets a bigger piece of the pie. Wealthy parents of “gifted” students clamor for a charter school — and they often get one. Meanwhile, working-class kids, second-language learners, special ed students, and those who aren’t motivated to go evening-long to wait-list drawings “Waiting for Superman”-style end up getting lumped together in the public school. Then the public school teachers get blamed for not being resourceful or efficient enough, and charter schools get portrayed as the answer for “those kids who are really motivated to learn.”

    In one of my college education classes, when we talk about school choice, I have students tell me where they are from and how many grocery stores were within an easy drive. People from wealthier areas often had access to several grocery stores, discount stores, specialty stores, health food stores, and farmers markets. People from rural or poor areas often had access to one grocery store and maybe a few gas station convenience stores at most. Then we talk about whether competition and “choice” are actually democratic, and whether everyone had access to the same choices. Then we talk about whether a “competition and choice” model is really going to help resolve equity issues in schools. It ends up being pretty clear to many of us that choices follow the money and that those who have more money get more choices.

    So I think that’s the issue right now There are lots of choices and alternatives — for those who can afford them. But since they’re happening outside of the public school system, they aren’t available to most students. This time the pendulum is only swinging for those who have the money and power to force it to swing in their direction.


    • An additional area of discrimination in charters that is rarely mentioned is lack of Foster and Homeless Youth enrollment. Many of these students do not have “involved” or “motivated” families to support them. While there are many good foster parents, there are also many who take on the care of a student with disabilities and do not understand the IEP process. LAUSD encourages “surrogate parents” to help with these homeless and foster youth with IEP or 504 plans, but there aren’t enough to make a big difference for every child.

      Charter schools often require, on top of uniforms and other commitments, that families sign compacts and volunteer time or money as part of the enrollment agreement. Explain to me how a homeless child will have a chance in such a system? There is no outreach for them, because charters don’t want those kids either.

      It’s as you say – choice is more about how much money you have. We used to joke that API – Academic Performance Index – actually stood for Annual Personal Income.


      • Sonja,

        One of my students in Shiprock, NM was just writing about the lack of resources schools provide to foster care students. She was showing the bureaucratic hell they had to go through — often by the time their records arrive at the school they have to transfer to another one. Then, if their credits don’t transfer they have to start over. Then we wonder why so many drop out. And I’m guessing that if resources are tight or non-existent in public schools, they’re even tighter and more non-existent in charters.

        LOL — API = Annual Personal Income. Here in Colorado, I used to joke that they could just distribute schools’ test scores based on median family income and save everyone the time of taking the test.


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