Posts tagged ‘Diane Ravitch’

April 29, 2012

Ten Things You Should’ve Read About Education This Week (in case you haven’t already)

Illustration from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. Original caption: Fig. 1.–Fruit of the pine-apple (”Ananas sativa”), consisting of numerous flowers and bracts united together so as to form a collective or anthocarpous fruit.

This is one of those weeks where there was too much going on to reflect. So, I collect:

1. Housing Policy and Educational Opportunity: Some Notes, Rachel Levy, All Things Education blog, April 24, 2012

If you’re interested in the questions that come up in the debates around zoned versus citywide elementary schools – issues about access and prohibitive housing costs and the importance of socioeconomic diversity to student achievement – this is chock full of important links. (Loosely related to this was a piece in the New York Times about a housing fight in Texas. Then there’s this, on political discussions in Washington, D.C., about whether charters schools can be neighborhood schools. (I don’t have time to connect the dots at the moment.)

2. Believing in City Schools, Adam Bednar, North Baltimore Patch, April 26, 2012

The Village Parents have been models of active citizenship when it comes to informing the community about the public school options in Charles Village. This week they brought a panel of parents from Roland Park, Mt. Washington, and Federal Hill – attractive neighborhoods with zoned elementary schools that have managed to lure scores of middle and upper-middle class families into their classrooms – to tell their stories. It was a great small event. Glad Adam Bednar was there to cover it. (There are obvious connections between this story and the housing concerns in the previous post, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

3. As school facilities crumble, executive suites get remodeled, Erica L. Green, Baltimore Sun, April 26, 2012

After the heady effects of the Village Parents event, this story was a downer. The District spent $500,000 on renovations to the central office, half of which went to spruce up the executive suite of the chief of information technology. This story comes against the backdrop of a push to raise $1.2 billion – a fraction of the total needed – to fix crumbling public schools. City Schools CEO Andres Alonso chalked it up to “a bad judgment call.” Right. The story makes me question my willingness to work within a system whose leaders’ have their priorities so crooked. I’m sure I’m not alone.

UPDATE: BCPSS Chief of Information Technology Jerome Olberton resigned his post in January 2013 and took a $185,000 chief-of-staff position in the Dallas public school system.

4. Critics seek more oversight of renovations at school district headquarters, Erica L. Green, Baltimore Sun, April 27, 2012.

City Schools advocates who have to fight for funding in Annapolis have more to be disappointed about than I do. The choicest part of this follow-up piece is where the chief information officer, Jerome Olberton, explains himself by claiming that the reason he needs to improve his department’s work space is to attract more highly qualified applicants. Um, to ask the obvious, how about upgrading school facilities to attract highly qualified teachers?

5. The suite life on North Ave., Sun editorial, Baltimore Sun, April 29, 2012

As a follow-up to Erica Green’s breaking news story, the editorial board weighed in with their view on why the allocations were “more than just bad judgment.”

6. Politics and Education Don’t Mix, P.D. Thomas, The Atlantic, April 26, 2012

News of the crazy renovation expenditures for North Avenue got my mind singing a refrain that’s been in the back of my head for a long time. It goes like this: “It’s the Bureaucracy, Stupid.” I have yet to write that post. Thomas’s opinion sort of takes care of it for me.

7. PD, Jess Gartner, jessgartner.com, April 22, 2012

The newest voice in Baltimore education blogging belongs to Jess Gartner, a teacher who has way more than the average level of commitment to her students. She took on Professional Development a week ago. Ms. Gartner is optimistic about the potential of the Common Core Standards to give teachers more autonomy. She is also far more positive than I am about the potential of the free market to solve problems that I would argue are of the free market’s own making. I commented with a note on Pearson, the educational content powerhouse that is making the kind of tailored instruction that Jess Gartner imagines a difficult dream to realize. She commented back. More on that below.

8. Mass Localism for Improving America’s Education, Yong Zhao, April 24, 2012

I think Jess Gartner would like this post. God knows I do. It talks about creativity, about autocratic rule, about radical localization of decision making. It should be required reading for anyone who works at North Avenue. Especially the ones at the top who moved here from New York and Boston and Atlanta via the Dallas/Fort Worth area and… you catch my drift. Is it me, or is Baltimore run by out-of-towners?

9. A Very Pricey Pineapple, Gail Collins, New York Times, April 27, 2012

Picking up on that Pearson thread I brought up earlier was Gail Collins, who uses a pineapple as a juicy pretext for talking about privatization of public schools. The topic is a yawner otherwise, isn’t it?

10. New York’s Bargain Basement Tests, Diane Ravitch, Diane Ravitch’s blog, April 28, 2012

Diane Ravitch started her own personal blog this week. In this post, she explains the appearance of said pineapple in a test item on a New York state test that Pearson had produced, originally for Texas. Pearson seems to be the goose that laid the golden pineapple.

SPECIAL BONUS: The Common Core: The Technocracts Re-engineer Learning, Anthony Cody, Education Week Teachers’ “Living in Dialogue” blog, April 27, 2012

Like everyone else who reads opinions online, I gravitate toward those that articulate what I already believe. I try to do more than that – to read people I disagree with, to argue with people I wish I agreed with, to question my own positions, which are highly flexible on all but my worst days. This piece articulated all my misgivings about the Common Core. It also made me want to move to Nebraska, a state that held out against No Child Left Behind because its education commissioner values local-level initiative. Just like me. (Not that I have anything against imported fruit.)

December 31, 2011

The Thought Evolution of a City Mom: Backstory (2010)

The most important book I read in 2010

I was minding my own business the other day when an African-American man – a critic – tweeted at me about the first line of this post: “‘I hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform before October 20, 2011,'” he mocked, “are you serious?”

Well, yes. (Though me not giving something “much thought” is another man’s spending hours in quiet contemplation.) I live in Hampden, a notoriously white neighborhood in Baltimore City, the land of failed desegregation, redlining, and massive white flight. While the principal of my zoned elementary school is African American, when thinking (as I have done a whole lot) about how to make my neighborhood public school more attractive to parents like me – parents who prefer the farmers’ market to Royal Farms – race is not my primary concern. Class is.

Flashback to 2010

I started thinking about all this way before my son – my only child – turned one. It was the year To Kill a Mockingbird celebrated its 50th anniversary. And it was then, as I wondered if it might be easier to attract Hampden’s middle-class white parents to a predominantly poor black school in Charles Village than to our predominantly poor white one, that I made a literary parallel: We were Atticus Finch, enlightened defenders of equal rights under the law. Those other Hampden parents, they were Bob Ewell. Lucky for Atticus, he didn’t have to worry about the Ewell children’s bad habits rubbing off. Because after the first day, those cootie-ridden truants never showed up.

This is a caricature of immense proportions, I know. But when nouveau parents living in Hampden spot their first teenage girl with a cigarette between her fingertips and her adolescent palms around the handlebars of a hand-me-down stroller – time to check the listings in Roland Park. (Am I right?)

Sensing my mindset was warped, I decided to call the principal of Hampden Elementary and see the school for myself. We set up an appointment. I took the first hour of that morning off work. She didn’t show up.

At that point, I had ties to two fledgling parent-led charter start-ups with visions of organic lunches and Reggio Emilia-inspired ateliers. My allegiance was (as you might expect) teetering. I felt the urgency of what we/they were doing. I knew the tide was in our/their favor. But I couldn’t help feeling how selfish it seemed, how precious, how entitled, how gentry.

Determined to persist at Hampden Elementary – by 1) reading the charter school chapters of a high-priced sociology text that my boss had handed to me (pictured), 2) a tenuous email relationship I had struck up with the acting chair of the Hampden Community Council’s Education Committee, and 3) a few conversations with neighborhood parents who were thinking along the same lines I was – I cut ties with the charter efforts. “I’ve decided to take my energy for improving Baltimore schools and commit it to Hampden,” I explained in an email to one founder. That was May 4, 2010. (The other tie would prove a bit more complicated to sever.)

For the rest of the year I ratcheted down my intensity in the school department. I noticed when Diane Ravitch came to town, giving a voice to thoughts I’d had about the charter movement and sparking some new ones. I kept in touch with my new friend at the HCC. I went to some panel discussions at Margaret Brent that parents in Charles Village set up. I held onto my vision of sending my son to the neighborhood public school. A school that kept parents like me in the neighborhood well after their kids turned four. A school he could walk to.

My son started to walk that September. And that was the greatest excitement of 2010.

2011 was a different story…

September 27, 2011

Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton?

You can buy an N.W.A.-inspired Straight Outta Compton cap today from Zazzle.com. Word.

Two stories of class ventriloquism jumped out at me last week. You probably heard about Mitt Romney’s delusions of middle class brotherhood. Romney, who has a net worth of at least $190 million, called himself one of “us.” (Which was, if you think about it, a nice acknowledgment that you ought to be if you’re going to attempt to represent “us.”)

Then there’s a story of political inauthenticity you may not have heard. It’s about an experiment in Compton, California, with a piece of legislation called the parent trigger. Here’s the story: ‘Parent Trigger’ Law to Reform Schools Faces Challenges.

Here’s some background, organized as a sort of Q & A.

What’s the “parent trigger”?

It’s a California law that “empowers” public school parents to do one of four things:

  1. Allow a charter school nearby that is “doing better” than the local school to take it over. That’s called a charter school conversion.
  2. Have half the staff fired, bring in new leadership, and get more local community control over making changes. That’s called turnaround.
  3. Force the school district to find a new principal and make a few other small fixes. That’s called transformation.
  4. Gain “collective bargaining rights” by collecting names on petitions.

(If this is raising questions in your mind about the person firing people, finding new leadership, and granting community control – or why you need a law to create a petition – we’re in the same boat. Grab a paddle.)

How do parents get their finger on the “trigger”?

First they find out if they’re school is failing. (Apparently, they might not know that.) Next, they organize more parents. “Parents” may be current parents, future parents zoned for the school, and parents whose children are set to feed into that school. Who calculates the total, I don’t know, but if 51 percent signs a petition demanding one of the four prefab options that the authors of the law built into it, bang. They’ve pulled the trigger.

Who drafted the parent trigger law, and who got it passed in California?

The parent trigger law was introduced by Gloria Romero, a former California state senator. She is now the director of the California branch of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER. Ben Austin drafted the law. Austin is a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and a policy consultant at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator. Austin has a seat on the Los Angeles school board – California governor Jerry Brown dismissed him from the state education board – and he is the executive director of a nonprofit called Parent Revolution.

What’s DFER? And why should I care?

DFER is a political action committee run by hedge-fund managers and investment bankers. Closely tied to KIPP charter schools and Teach for America (the single largest donor to which is now the Walton Family Foundation), DFER’s aim is to close the “achievement gap” between students in poor black Harlem and their peers in rich white Scarsdale. To that end, the PAC raises money for Democrats who push an education agenda that includes the closure of “failing” public schools and the proliferation of charter schools. It’s an agenda shared by the Obama administration, and it’s being pushed by their education reform competition, Race to the Top.

In Baltimore, DFER has supported two candidates for public office (that I know of). One is Bill Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus who worked for Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Andres Alonso before running for state senate. (You can watch him tell the story of how he got elected here. It’s cool.) He put forward a version of the parent trigger law called “The Parent Empowerment Act” this year. (You can see Senator Ferguson’s legislative agenda from February on his Facebook page.) It didn’t pass. DFER also backed mayoral candidate Otis Rolley, whose platform included mayoral control of the public school system, making charter laws more amenable to outside operators, and providing means-tested vouchers to children in the lowest performing middle schools. He didn’t win.

What’s remarkable about DFER is less its political track record than its rhetorical strategy. DFER presents its interests as the interests of children. (In effect, its spokespeople have appointed themselves spokespeople for America’s mainly urban, mainly black and brown public school children.) DFER pits the interests of these children against the interests of unionized teachers, who are, in the DFER narrative, ultimately responsible for high dropout rates and abysmal performance on high-stakes standardized tests. DFER does not admit that lack of school funding or poverty is an important determinant of academic performance, citing academic outcomes at KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone as evidence of what great instruction can do. DFER’s critics point out that the PAC has a stake in undermining the pull of teachers’ unions, the largest single source of funding for the Democratic Party, in order to wrest power and political influence in its favor. Many on the right support their aims. Indeed, their agenda was effectively authored by George W. Bush.

What’s the deal with Parent Revolution?

When Diane Ravitch warned her Twitter followers to watch out for “astroturf” parent groups, I bristled. How can anyone question the authenticity of parents who are organizing on behalf of their own children? But I didn’t understand what she meant by “astroturf” – a group that adopts the populist guise of a grassroots organization in the interests of parties that are neither populist nor grassroots. Independent bloggers at Solidaridad have been calling Parent Revolution “astroturf” for years. This story in a March 2011 article in Mother Jones magazine is more mainstream, explaining the group’s corporate ties.

Parent Revolution operates on a $1 million budget, funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Education historian Diane Ravitch argues that the Gates, Walton Family, and the Broad Foundation combined invest far more funding in education reform than any foundations before them, with unchecked power to expand charters, vouchers, and other business-inspired reforms.

In Compton, Parent Revolution paid organizers from outside the community to gather signatures in support of a charter school conversion at McKinley Elementary School. Their second-in-command allegedly invented a group called “McKinley Parents for Change” and claimed on its behalf a desire to open under new management. The group never told the P.T.A. at McKinley that they were circulating a petition.

Volumes of news stories and opinions have already been published on the battles over the parent trigger law and its expansion across the country. (I particularly like California community organizer-turned-teacher Larry Ferlazzo’s take.) Ben Austin’s summary of the Compton results in that story I mentioned from the Times shows a level of awareness that ought to lead to a major course correction:

We came in with a prepackaged solution of a charter school and didn’t have enough of a deep buy-in from enough parents, and we didn’t develop enough leadership,” Mr. Austin said.

This year, he said, the organization will rely on the local parents’ unions to ask for the specific changes they want. In some cases, it may be as simple as more consultation from school leaders.

Now what?

DFER and Parent Revolution continue to organize “parent unions” across the country from the top down. The rhetoric pitting teachers against “kids” drones on. Billionaire philanthropists keep throwing money at a problem that they argue a shift of wealth from the top can’t fix. And Diane Ravitch keeps tweeting her fingertips ablister to keep concerned citizens up to date on the latest expressions of all this misguided reform.

Meanwhile, off the national radar, middle class parents like me are taking notes on cautionary tales like the one from Compton. We’re trying to learn how to breathe new life into local public schools that already have lives of their own.

Please share your own suggestions and cautionary tales in the comments section.

June 21, 2011

Hey Baltimore, Do We Need Neighborhood Public Schools?

The mural on the wall of my neighborhood school, Hampden #55

Here’s Diane Ravitch’s answer:

“Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is a place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors. For more than a century, they have been an essential element of our democratic institutions. We abandon them at our peril.

Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king. But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhod public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.”

from The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

What’s yours?

June 12, 2011

“Portfolio”: The Vocabulary of Education Reform in Baltimore City – Lesson One

When I first read the term “portfolio” in an official document put out by the Baltimore City Public School System, I pictured an artist’s portfolio. Then my brain did a little Rubik’s cube turn. The word wasn’t coming out of the art world. It was borrowed from the world of finance and investing.

The document bears the name of Andrés A. Alonso, Ed.D., Chief Executive Officer.

Pause there: Chief Executive Officer. Alonso is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. Call a school superintendent a CEO and, just like that, you turn a government entity into a corporation. The highest aim isn’t to do whatever it is your office is responsible for doing – in this case, educating a city’s young people. It’s to turn a profit.

What’s in the BCPSS portfolio? Schools. Our CEO is keeping the ones that perform and dumping those that don’t. What constitutes “performance,” at least right now, isn’t measured in dollar gains and losses. It’s measured in test scores – the currency of the public school market. Its measured in the percentage of students who are passing state tests.

Critics of education reform – the most outspoken of whom has been education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch – say testing and choice are undermining the American public school system. Whether or not you’re a fan of test-based accountability or vouchers or the charter school movement (or even of Diane Ravitch), it’s difficult to argue that test scores say very much about what’s gone on in a particular classroom. What is clear is that performance on tests is being used to justify significant decisions about whether or not to close individual schools and give merit pay to individual teachers.

In Baltimore City, more than two dozen public schools have been closed since 2007 with more slated for closure. An even higher number of charter schools have been founded. And some of them have been closed.

My question isn’t whether those closures were needed. My question is whether we’re using the right metaphor. Are schools stocks? Is the system a portfolio?

In the world of investing, ads for mutual funds, stocks, and bonds are always accompanied by this caveat: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. It’s a warning to investors – especially beginner investors – to resist the impulse to chase high returns. (Click here for a primer on “performance chasing” by Joshua Kennon.)

It would be great if school system CEOs would repeat that to themselves like a mantra. As “stakeholders” in the education of our children and our nation’s public, we might want to repeat it to ourselves, too. Here’s how that might sound:

  • Think it’s a good idea to close a school because passing percentages are low? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • Tempted to weight your portfolio toward charter schools because a few have raised test scores dramatically and seem to have narrowed the achievement gap? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • Won’t look at your neighborhood public school because only 85% of students are proficient in reading? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

If these analogies don’t work, it’s because the public school system is not a portfolio. Schools are not companies. Test scores are not currency. Though it has become serious business to think as if they are.

Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System gives an account of when American public school leaders started thinking this way. It’s an important book to read right now. Hers is an important voice. But it’s up to us – parents and guardians, students and teachers, principals, taxpayers, school system employees and advocates for reforms that work for all students – to evaluate whether treating our public schools like stocks is a good idea.

What do you think?

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