What Can We Agree On, After Atlanta?

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919 in ‘The Second Coming.’ Yeats was describing the world after the Great War, but it aptly describes American education today{{1}}: polarized, shouting at, but rarely listening to, each other. We disagree about dozens of issues: the Common Core; whether ‘opting out’ of the Common Core tests is appropriate (or even legal); the role of unions; the effectiveness of charter schools; the federal role; the amount of standardized testing; how to evaluate teachers; poverty’s impact on children’s learning, and more.

Now, out of the blue, we have two{{2}} points of agreement: 1) Draconian punishment for the Atlanta cheaters is unjust, unseemly and counter-productive; and 2) students are the losers when adults cheat.

By now everyone knows that 11 Atlanta educators have been convicted for cheating and could be facing serious time behind bars. Thoughtful observers like Richard Rothstein, Robert Pondiscio and David Cohen are weighing in. Mr. Rothstein’s piece takes the deepest dive, and so I suggest you start there.

Even though everyone agrees that kids{{3}} were cheated, we don’t agree on what should be done. Should they be offered free tutoring? Or is an apology enough?

And we disagree about who’s really to blame for the cheating in Atlanta. Superintendent Beverly Hall was too ill to stand trial and died before the decision was handed down, but for many the buck started and stopped with her.{{4}} Others blame the unrealistic demands of No Child Left Behind for the cheating in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio and Austin, Texas.

Everybody’s got a villain, whether it’s Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top; an obsession with ‘data-driven decision-making; education profiteers; greedy teacher unions; or a right wing vendetta against those same unions. {{5}}

Can’t we agree on something else? I suggest two big ideas that everyone who is genuine about putting kid first can support. One, expose hypocrites and hypocrisies, wherever they may be. Two, school spending should be transparent, because we are talking about taxpayer dollars, and sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Of course, the two are related, because hypocrisy often involves money and secrecy.

To me, the biggest hypocrites are those who preach, “Poverty can never be offered as an excuse” (for poor student performance) but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is “It’s the teachers’ fault” when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate.

These preachers disguise their mendacity with words of praise for teachers, calling them ‘heroes whose brave work changes the lives of their fortunate students blah blah blah.’ Sounds great, but when it comes from those who discount all the other factors that affect outcomes, it’s hypocrisy. They’re setting up teachers and schools to be blamed.

How satisfying and convenient to have a simple, easy-to-grasp analysis. And how hypocritical.

OK, poverty is not an excuse, but surely substandard housing, inadequate health care, poor nutrition, abuse and abandonment (all of which are more likely in high poverty areas) are factors in poor academic performance. So why are these hypocrites either standing by silently or actively opposing efforts to alleviate poverty and thereby improve the lives of students outside of school?

Are they benefiting personally? Are they mouthing the words of their rich and powerful supporters?

Even if these so-called “thought leaders” genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids {{6}}? At least 30 states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars, as the Hechinger Report made clear recently. “The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts, the federal Department of Education pointed out last month. That’s a national funding gap of $1,500 per student,” Jill Barshay reports.

And money matters. The centrist-right Alliance for Excellent Education has addressed this issue in a report that demonstrates the clear link between poverty and academic outcomes.

According to the Alliance’s report, 1200+ high schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent can be found in nearly every state.{{7}}

“These high schools predominantly, and disproportionately, enroll traditionally underserved students. In Michigan, for example, African American students represent only 18.4 percent of K–12 students in the state, but they account for 69.1 percent of the student population in the lowest-performing high schools. In Massachusetts, Hispanic students represent 16.4 percent of K–12 students, but they account for 51.3 percent of the student population in the lowest-performing high schools.

Nationally, of the more than 1.1 million students attending these low-graduation-rate high schools,

  • 40 percent of students are African American, even though African American students make up less than 15.7 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population;
  • only 26 percent of students are white, even though white students make up 51 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population; and
  • 70 percent are students from low-income families, even though students from low-income families make up 50 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population.”

So let’s ask, “Who benefits?” Whose lives would be disrupted most if the status quo were to change and we stopped “underserving” so many poor kids and so many non-white kids? Who gains an advantage from the current situation? To answer those questions, follow the money…..

We might want to start the investigation with charter schools, both the for-profit and the non-profit varieties {{8}} (because, when it comes to money, they’re almost indistinguishable). Rarely do they disclose how they spend their public tax dollars. And why should they, when their political enablers don’t demand it?

I hope you are following Marian Wang’s reporting on this issue for Pro Publica. She documents how some charter operators are laughing all the way to the bank, taking your dollars to put in their accounts.

However distasteful you may find the notion of adults diverting dollars from the education of kids to their own personal use, what they’re doing is legal. Politicians and charter authorizers have made it legal, and we ought to ask them why they don’t demand transparency. How are they benefiting?

The leadership of the charter school movement is culpable here, it seems to me, for not strongly supporting transparency in all financial matters. I put the question to Nina Rees, the Executive Director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NinaR@publiccharters.org) in June, 2014. Here’s the relevant part of my letter:

What I wonder is how many Charter Management Organizations {{9}} are playing fast and loose with the system. Here’s one case in point: We are looking into a CMO that is growing; its records indicate that its President owns the building his charter schools operate in, and so he billed the CMO for rent—a hefty sum. The CMO pays him a salary, a 16% management fee and an additional 7% or so for ‘professional development’ for the staff. In recent years he has added categories, notably ‘back office & support’ for nearly $300,000 and ‘miscellaneous equipment rent’ for $317,000. In FY 2008 he billed for $2.6M, but in FY 2012 the number climbed to $4.1M. His 5-year total is $15.8M….and he’s a CMO, not an EMO.
We have a number of other examples, which prompts my questions: who’s minding the store, and whose responsibility is it?
Is it the role of national organizations like yours to set standards for transparency? State politicians? I have no idea but would love to hear your thoughts.

She responded almost immediately:  “I would say it’s the authorizers more than anyone else – if they fail, the state lawmakers. We are here to shine a light and guide though, so if you think there is a systemic problem, it’s important for us to know.”

She seems to be saying that her national organization bears no responsibility for policing the charter movement, for pushing states to write tighter rules, or for calling out the profiteers.  That’s someone else’s job.

“Remedial education” is another money pit. Follow the money, you will discover that big bucks being spent on remedial education at every level, and, while some kids get ‘remediated,’ the situation never changes. The adults in charge may be wonderful, likeable human beings, but their jobs depend on a steady stream of failed students, meaning that they do not have a stake in fixing the system. I wrote about this three years ago when I announced that I was leaving PBS {{10}} to make my fortune in remedial education.

Follow the money: How many millions of the $100 million Mark Zuckerberg donated to ‘fix’ Newark’s public schools have gone to consultants? How much money goes into the trough labeled ‘professional development’ and is never seen again? How much are school systems spending on highly paid central office staff ($100K+ per year) whose job it is to go watch teachers they don’t trust to do their jobs? How much of the increase in college costs is directly attributable to spending on administrators? Quite a lot, according to the New York Times. {{11}}

Schools would be improved if we’d agree to: Follow the money. Call out the hypocrites. Demand transparency. And stop blaming teachers.

Do you agree?

—-

[[1]]1. And perhaps our society as a whole.[[1]]
[[2]]2. I am not counting our agreement that ‘children come first,’ because everyone has to say that. It’s what people actually do that reveals their true beliefs.[[2]]
[[3]]3. In some cases the cheating was essentially covered up. Washington, DC, where massive cheating took place, lacked the political will to go after the adults who were responsible. Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her deputy, Kaya Henderson, controlled most of the investigations and were aided by an inept and uncurious Inspector General. Mayor Adrian Fenty and his successor, Vincent Gray, preferred to believe that schools were improving, and the Washington Post raised no objections. Thousands of students received inflated scores, and no adult has been held accountable. (http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6232 , http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6332) [[3]]
[[4]]4. The obsession with higher tests scores in Atlanta and elsewhere precedes NCLB. Dr. Hall arrived in Atlanta in 1999, but her predecessor, Benjamin O. Canada, had already eliminated recess, so that kids could spend more time getting ready for tests. Dr. Hall kept that ball rolling, but she didn’t give it the first push.[[4]]
[[5]]5.Peter Cunningham, Arne Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, told me after the Atlanta cheating came to light, that Secretary Duncan believed that ‘tighter test security’ would solve the problem.[[5]]
[[6]]6. Are you thinking that most Americans believe in helping the neediest? As the Bible (Acts 11:29) has it, “And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief….” But in 1875 a fellow named Karl Marx copied the Frenchman Louis Blancin’s rephrasing: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That gives politicians an out, because nobody interested in a political future wants to echo Marx, even if he was borrowing from the Bible.[[6]]
[[7]]7. Nineteen states have at least 20 such schools. California and New York have 105 and 199 of these schools, respectively, while southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, have more than fifty; Georgia has 115.[[7]]
[[8]]8.I don’t want to live by a double standard or knowingly hold charter schools to a higher standard. Teacher unions have had corruption issues, and their national leadership hasn’t made much of a fuss. The American Medical Association is not upset, not publicly anyway, about Medicaid and Medicare fraud committed by some doctors, and so maybe it’s unfair to expect the supporters of charter schools as the last best hope to be raging against the frauds and cheats.[[8]]
[[9]]9. CMO is the term for non-profit public charter schools. EMO’s are set up to make money and represent somewhere around 12% of all chartered schools.[[9]]
[[10]] 10. In the same vein, I announced last week that I was joining the Board of Pearson Education.[[10]]
[[11]]11. From the Times op-ed: “Interestingly, increased spending has not been going into the pockets of the typical professor. Salaries of full-time faculty members are, on average, barely higher than they were in 1970. Moreover, while 45 years ago 78 percent of college and university professors were full time, today half of postsecondary faculty members are lower-paid part-time employees, meaning that the average salaries of the people who do the teaching in American higher education are actually quite a bit lower than they were in 1970.
By contrast, a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.”[[11]]

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17 thoughts on “What Can We Agree On, After Atlanta?

  1. Excellent piece John.
    The costs of the reform movement is an enormous drain on the system. In NYC I’m betting the real money that goes into the classroom that affects kids directly is less than it was before Bloomberg took over.
    Just look at the costs of trying to evaluate teachers — and let’s compare that to how it was done throughout our history — a principal — and imagine of the money went directly into the classroom and we went back to the old system?
    In fact the profession itself – and the difficulties in teaching – often root people out – and I know people who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the job for any length of time – who became supervisors or out of classroom people. And I speak as someone who taught self-contained elementary school in Brooklyn (grades 4,5,6) for 18 years followed by 12 more as a computer cluster teacher – which I basically viewed as being out of the combat zone. And by combat I don’t mean with the kids but with the people running the schools and the board of education. (No one cared what I did with kids and computers in the late 80s and 90s.)
    By the way – I was lured out of the classroom which I loved by a test-prep crazed principal who wanted me to not take trips until after the test — I refused — one more reason for tenure. She finally wore me down by undermining any attempts at creative teaching.
    Find me teachers in inner city school who stay in the classroom for decades and they will be rare birds indeed.
    It does take a lot of people to run a school – and there are ways out for people who can’t or don’t want to do the job.

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  2. In a society that really resonated with “The economy, stupid” following the money may get us further than talking about what constitutes a meaningful education. If that’s what it takes to get us back on track, so be it. As one example, I would like to see how much Eva Moskowitz is personally gaining from her charters. I keep seeing the hundreds of people in the same slogan-covered Tee shirts that she sent to Albany.

    May that transparency not stop at punishment for mis spending, but also lead to conversations about the best ways to use our financial resources to serve children. In my book it includes better education for teachers and administrators, as well as more equitable distribution of funds to schools.

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  3. Definitely agree. On all points.

    Am also astonished and very pleased you authored this, John. Never would have predicted it. I think you’ve been learning and growing, and I really appreciate that. Thank you ever so much!

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  4. Terrific piece, John. In addition to calling for more transparency, how about some way to demand it as part of the process of building something that is reliable, dependable and worth the gazillions of dollars being invested?
    Even the names of the federal programs are disgusting. Just think about the words and the meaning. “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” Who thought up those monikers? We are all being left behind and losing the race. Those are the wrong choices. We need something more related to learning and teaching such as “Learning that Works” or “Learn, Grow and Succeed”
    Surely the professionals can come up with something better both in name and in programs. As Ken Robinson so eloquently points out, the paradigm has to change or it’s the same old stuff.

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  5. Hey John — ‘Very interesting, worth sharing with others and getting the conversation going and maintained. Thanks for composing and posting this. ‘Just one concern, though:

    I know you don’t intend to do this, but it’s popular in many circles to disparage the tossing of money to inert professional development and education consultants as if they are superficial, not a good use of scarce funds. As someone who was in the classroom for a long time and now writes books about teaching/learning and coaches teaches and principals, I have found that some PD and education consultants are liberating, transforming in what they provide and worth every moment in their company. Absent the new/divergent tools and perspectives they offer the educators they serve, those educators and building leaders are left to their own, single dimension, echo chambers. We learn new ways to teach, lead, and think about education all the time, and consultants and PD experiences are great sources to stimulate the conversation and their practices. We shouldn’t bemoan what is so professional: Keeping up with thinking in the field. I’ve lost count of the number of ed consultant and PD experiences I’ve had that have changed my thinking and practice dramatically for the better. Now, as someone who is keeping up with the research that teachers don’t have time to read and working in schools and with teachers, principals, and superintendents almost 24/7 trying to provide practical solutions but also help them solve their own problems and not be reliant on outside consultants to do it for them, I honor these educators time and needs by making the presentations and writings as useful and up to date as possible, every time I visit a school. Some building leaders don’t understand the needs of their faculty or how to be a leader instead of a boss or manager, and the PD they provide misses the mark, furthering our cynicism, but not all of it is a waste. When we categorically declare it suspect in budgeting and school priorities, it makes it more difficult for everyone involved to embrace its positive benefits and spend energy and resources making it useful. – Rick

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  6. Thanks for a good piece. But you’re missing something vital here, first indicated by your highlighting blogs from three white men as the “thoughtful observers” who should be guiding our thoughts on the ultimate impact and meaning of this travesty. All three focus on the test validity/cheating/accountability aspects–which are, of course, the obvious surface features of the story.

    I suggest you read Brittney Cooper’s excellent piece in Salon, “America is criminalizing Black teachers: Atlanta’s cheating scandal and the racist underbelly of education reform” (http://www.salon.com/2015/04/08/america_is_criminalizing_black_teachers_atlantas_cheating_scandal_and_the_racist_underbelly_of_education_reform/) or Jose Vilson’s blog on “Recruiting Teachers of Color in the Time of Race to the Top”(http://thejosevilson.com/recruiting-educators-of-color-in-the-time-of-race-to-the-top/).

    This story is really about humiliating the veteran teachers who are best positioned and willing to work with, and make a positive lifelong impact on, children in our poorest schools.

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  7. High stake tests for cash bonuses and honors are a big mistake. Our real mistake is our reliance on the Scantron God. If students had to do essays, portfolios, projects, maps etc. then cheating my administrators would be almost impossible. Multiple choice tests are academic junk food and get dumbed down constantly. Even AP US history has been dumbed down to four answers rather than five and NO PENALTY for guessing. And 55 questions instead of 80. And so it goes.

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  8. How I wish someone would come to Denver and spend time researching what is going on here. As a former Denver public schools board of education member, one who was in the “minority” for eight years thanks to the politics of the “reformers” (after winning the election in 2009, they bought the deciding vote and turned him from the neighborhood school advocate into a “reformer” on steroids with various promises), I am pretty convinced that DPS is a poster child for all of the reforms mentioned here and in other posts. As the public often focuses on “reform” issues such as testing, and superficial fixes are offered, the whole entire system is being privatized. Colorado has the highest test-based teacher evaluation legislation. 50%!!! Over 60 charter schools, over 20 non-union so called “innovation” schools, but most importantly no transparency and accountability and awful academic results in ten years. Denver also has a significantly INCREASING achievement gap, increasing resegregation of schools, incredible teacher and principal turnover, a system of choice that is creating chaos. It is very difficult to find out where taxpayer money is going, especially regarding charter schools. The DPS administration, like most schools districts I assume, does not keep records of charter school spending, teacher and principal turnover, things that would help drive further expansion or contraction and hold charters truly accountable. While charters do have to respond to such inquiries, it is difficult to pursue when there are so many different entities. And most of these charter schools receive either refurbished or brand new, taxpayer funded facilities while neighborhood schools struggle with outdated facilities.

    One of the goals of “reform” here is to rid the system of professional educators. This is being done for several reasons, not the least of which is pension costs. But even more timely, I believe, is the high turnover in school employees will soon leave a district with employees who have never witnessed or been a part of what public education was meant to be: a cornerstone of our democracy where equal educational opportunities we’re available to all. The inequities continue to grow here, and as a flyover state Colorado continues to fly under the radar.

    Jeannie Kaplan
    Former DPS board member

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  9. The ed “reform” movement was characterized by cheating and smoke and mirror “improvements” from the very beginning. Not only that, but this cheating was exposed for all to see. For example, 60 Minutes did an episode on the illusion of the “Texas Miracle” and yet the leaders of that particular scam were actually promoted and rewarded. When Michelle Rhee bragged about her students going from the sixteenth percentile to the ninetieth in one year, many people, including journalists, accepted and praised this as an amazing feat, even though any college graduate should have known it was impossible. This woman then went on to Washington D.C. where test scores, like those in Atlanta, rose to “miraculous” heights. Yet, there was no thorough investigation and no one went to jail. Why not?

    This is what I’d really like to know: Where were our great education journalists when all this was going on? Where were you, John?

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  10. Although there are those in “poverty” that can overcome it, they are not the majority. The focus must be on specific effects of poverty, not only to do a frontal attack on those issues but to understand kids with obstacles will progress at different rates and in different ways.

    The reality is that all kids are different in many ways. Until we have the kind of systemic reform that reduces 2nd class achievement (the test) and places a priority on 1st class, whole child achievement, we will never see successful schools. Be they charter, choice, chance, public, all are under the same failed system and, as evidenced by recent “data” none will succeed in preparing students for a real future.

    What do we do until we resolve the problem of poverty? We empower kids to follow THEIR pathway to success, no matter how diverse. We empower parents to be full partners in the process. And we ALLOW teachers to take back their profession.

    As assessment drives the curriculum, the higher ups must ALLOW schools to implement quality plans that will innovate away from the test to systemic reform. How many decades must we continue to use the 18th century system of education?

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  11. At the very core of educational failure is the dominant and pervasive notion of imposing on students “what to learn ” over “how to learn”. The later is not the primary purpose of public school policy or purpose. Schools are dominated by a pedagogy driven by indoctrination and short term memory exercises. The good ole days of industrial indoctrination are still in place along with an aversion to revealing the fallacy and mythology of race, which assigns the caste system to people of color by ignoring the truth that supports racism. Beneath it all is the unnoticed drift to a vocation driven a public educational system designed to indoctrinate children into the injustices of industrial capitalism as if they were the natural order of humanity rather than the promotion of a mental illness that thrives on alienation and isolation – racism.

    The smaller problem of the schools is to shift instructional modality away from didactic to dialogic pedagogy followed by putting the money for education in the classroom directly that would allow teachers and their allies to decide how best to make or allow students to become active and innovative learners.

    The larger problem is the public health epidemic of racism, a mental illness that permeates every aspect of American life to some degree. Everyone is infected or exposed to an infection that was created to dominated labor in a capitalist economic system – slavery. Race the mythology that validated the caste system of slavery, was real and an honest definition of human value. When the 13th amendment was signed most of the capital in America disappeared. The schools and the dysfunctional epistemology of the disciplines imposed by a mandatory educational system presented work as the purpose of life. Human being who are designed from birth to learn are now led to believe that the schools are the way to learn, thus denying them their birthright of inquisitiveness and the ability to make meaning out of experience.

    Research has replace critical thinking. Inquiry is no longer honored, besides inquiry is not an efficient use of the educational dollar or unit of time, and inquiry might lead to intellectual autonomy.

    Neither the smaller or the larger problem can be fixed or resolved easily and besides we’ve moved the money off shore and out of the reach of those who need it most, the poor. We’re all bozos on the bus! and suffering from racism, the epidemic of isolation and fear that creates the illusion that we are alone and vulnerable.

    Those Black teachers in Atlanta simply wanted to make a little extra money on a testing system that had little or no value to the children who took the tests. The achievement gap is a natural and expected out come of a system designed to create disparities among children of color. But the legal system is designed to punish the same teachers of color as unfairly as it treats the students of color.

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  12. Dear John,
    At the very core of educational failure is the dominant and pervasive notion of imposing on students “what to learn ” over “how to learn”. The later is not the primary purpose of public school policy or purpose. Schools are dominated by a pedagogy driven by indoctrination and short-term memory exercises. The good ole days of industrial indoctrination are still in place along with an aversion to revealing the fallacy and mythology of race, which assigns the caste system to people of color by ignoring the truth that denies racism. Beneath it all is the unnoticed drift to a vocation driven public education system designed to indoctrinate children into the injustices of industrial capitalism as if work was the natural purpose of life. For over a hundred years the schools have purposely avoided the myth of race in order that racism might have a stool to stand on.

    The smaller problem of the schools is to shift instructional modality away from didactic to dialogic pedagogy that supports inquiry and the natural effort of children to make meaning out of experience.

    The larger problem is the public health epidemic of racism, a mental illness that permeates every aspect of American life. Everyone is infected or exposed to an illusion that was created to control labor in a capitalist economic system. The mandatory public schools an invention of the industrialists, an instrument of indoctrination conditioned children to the caste system of industrialism that said that the purpose of life was work. Human being who are created from birth with the ability to learn were now led to believe that the school was the way to learn, thus denying them their birthright of inquisitiveness and the ability and authority to make meaning out of experience. .

    Neither problem can be fixed or resolved easily and besides we’ve moved the money off shore and out of the reach of those who need it most. We’re all bozos on the bus suffering from the epidemic of racism that promotes isolation and fear and the illusion that we are alone and vulnerable.

    Those Black teachers in Atlanta simply wanted to make a little extra money on a testing system that had little or no value to the children who took the tests. The achievement gap is a natural and expected out come of a system designed to create disparities among children of color. And the legal system is designed to punish the same teachers of color as unfairly as it will treat the students of color.

    Like

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