Saturday, December 14, 2013

When Broad Comes To Town: Taking A Sledgehammer To Crack A Nut

Below is a guest blog from a concerned local teacher, submitted via private message to my Mother Crusader Facebook page. The author revealed his/her identity to me, but requested anonymity, which I have chosen to respect. 

Understandably, emotions are high here in town on both sides of this issue. My hope is that this distanced, dispassionate analysis of the current state of affairs in Highland Park, and how they relate to the national corporate reform movement, will help to inform everyone in the Highland Park community.

To Members of the Highland Park Community-

Good evening. I am a teacher in a nearby school district and a longtime resident of Middlesex County. Upon learning of the happenings in Highland Park schools, I have been monitoring the situation from a distance. I write to inform you regarding troubling recent trends in public education since so many of you have engaged in the work of determining the future of your school district.

In recent years, there has been a heightened public discussion as to how best to prepare our youth for the twenty-first century. Much of this discussion is necessary, as our world is changing. However, the predominant meme has been that our public schools are failing to adequately prepare students for this world. Attacks upon public education and the work done by education professionals are frequent and commonplace by politicians and the media. Granted, it’s a sexy soundbite and fear sells. But saying that our public schools are the primary problem oversimplifies the issue and redirects much of the blame from larger problems in American society that schools alone cannot solve.

Much of the attack upon public schools is based upon the United States’s ranking on international tests given by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). On the most recent test, administered last year, the United States ranking was 26th in Math, 21st in Sciences, and 17th in Reading among the thirty-four OECD countries that participated. Obviously, this sounds bad. However, much of this poor performance can be attributed to the fact that the United States has a far larger percentage (20%) of students who come from impoverished backgrounds than the other OECD countries. An extensive report from the Economic Policy Institute extensively examines how the United States’ rankings would be much more favorable if poverty was factored into the 2010 results. For a shorter summary, the National Association of Secondary School Principals compared how United States students from various socioeconomic groups performed against nations based upon poverty rate and the findings display a strikingly different picture of how our schools compare to the rest of the world.

So when articles like this and this come out to argue that we’re doing something fundamentally wrong with our public schools without mentioning the poverty effect, it means the writer hasn’t asked or looked into the fundamental question “Why are our students performing the way that they are?”

I bring this up not to downplay the need to improve our schools - there’s always room to examine and find ways to further the interests of our youth. Yes, the performance of students in many impoverished areas of our country is seriously troubling, but the result is somewhat predictable when so many students in those schools come from a background that makes attaining school success more challenging than it is for most.

Rather, I bring this up to show that the “crisis in public education” is a largely concocted meme that “corporate education reformers” are pushing and from which they have the capacity to profit.

The “corporate education reform” movement is not new. Over the past fifteen years, billionaire philanthropists have been pushing an education reform agenda for our public schools. The predominant sponsors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli & Edith Broad Foundation. An article from Dissent Magazine is available for you to read here, and a number of books noted in its resources and a quick Google search on “corporate education reform” can support many of the ideas in the article.

However, I’m going to specifically focus on the Broad Foundation’s impact in shaping the public education reform movement over the last decade or so. A bit about Eli Broad - he's a billionaire philanthropist who is a major supporter of corporate reform of schools. One of his basic beliefs is that reform is best achieved through “disruption” and the shaking up of institutions in order to transform them; he wrote a bestseller on this principle. About fifteen years ago, Broad created a training academy for prospective superintendents to train them to be "disruptive forces" in their districts. Though one would think that districts would shy from hiring a "disruptive" superintendent, look at the Board of Governors of the Broad Foundation for Education Furthermore, Arne Duncan was on the Board prior to his selection as Secretary of Education. Then look at the Alumni page and scroll through some of their dossiers. How did so many of these individuals find their way into such positions of power? Influence. Eli Broad and others aligned with the corporate reform movement have sway with politicians and ensure that many graduates of the program get nice landing spots. In time, these individuals train others in their ways and the movement spreads.

Look at some of the school leadership tenures of Broad Academy - an accounting is done by Diane Ravitch here. Other prominent school reformers like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein have had likewise tumultuous tenures. An advocacy group called Parents Across America provides some background on Broad-style reforms.

Up until now, the corporate education reform movement has focused upon large cities. One of the primary efforts of the movement has been to close underperforming schools and/or replace them with charter schools, many of which are for-profit. Given your town’s recent history, I don’t need to educate you on charter schools. However, I will point to a 2009 study by Stanford University that shows that 17 percent of charter students score better than, approximately half score comparable to, and 37 percent score worse than their academic peers in traditional public schools.

A further effort by the leaders of corporate school reform is the expansion of standardized testing and the implementation of scripted, internet-based, or other instructional programs that claim that they will enhance student scores.

These efforts highlight opportunities for private business to vastly expand money-making enterprises in public education. An article from Salon furthers the point.

A fear of mine is that as private business expands into our public schools under the auspice of the corporate reform movement, positions of school leadership can become a pathway to personal enrichment. Look at Washington and the revolving door of legislators, their staffs, lobbying agencies, and corporate positions. Once individuals quit their positions in public service, they often immediately move into lucrative positions with companies whose financial interests they advanced. Do we have the ability to safeguard against school decision makers profiting or going to work for a company that benefitted from choices made? And given the high turnover ratio and short tenures of superintendents and other school leaders, how do we ensure that they are acting in the best interest in the long-term health of the school district over advancing their own career interests?

Furthermore, wouldn’t reformers who are placed in positions of power benefit by casting their schools as failing or struggling upon their arrival so that they can claim responsibility for any improvements? In such a position, it might be advisable to hire a data analyst to ensure that the reformer was able to prove his or her effectiveness as a school leader. It also incentivizes cheating to ensure results.

Here in New Jersey note that Christopher Cerf, a Broad Academy of Superintendents graduate, was named to the Commissioner of Education post by Governor Christie. Cerf is undoubtedly someone that is very tied in to the corporate school reform movement, both philosophically and financially.

As part of New Jersey’s No Child Left Behind waiver, Mr. Cerf implemented seven regional achievement centers (RACs) to boost performance in schools designated as “Priority” or “Focus”. The State didn't have the money to fund them, so the Broad Foundation agreed to pay for the initiative. As such, it would hardly be surprising that those who would be appointed to positions of authority in the RACs would be individuals who would subscribe to Cerf’s ideas about school reform in action. Somehow, Mr. Capone was hired as an Executive Director of one of these RACs following his controversial stint in Delaware. And now he’s in charge of your school district.

I do not know Commissioner Cerf. I do not know Eli Broad. I do not know Bill Gates or the Walton Family. Nor do I know Mr. Capone or the extent of his relationship with corporate school reformers beyond Mr. Cerf, though I’d be interested to know. Their beliefs about the need for widespread school reform may be well-intentioned. However, I do question the possibilities of profiteering resulting from the introduction of the corporate reform movement here in our local schools.

I likewise question their methods. I’ve already put forth my perspective that America’s schools (and those of New Jersey, as one of the strongest education states) are not in a full-blown crisis. Our schools can always improve. But advocating disruption and a wide overhaul of the way in which we deliver education to the masses of our youth could be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Corporate school reformers’ results have been mixed, at best, but a trend of hostile labor relations and community outrage have been frequent in places where they’ve served.

But what matters most in this discussion: the students. Who knows what will result if “disruption” becomes a common approach in running our schools? If curricula are constantly changed and educational programs are adopted and quickly dropped in favor of new ones, how do we as educators know what’s actually working and what’s not? How do communities and educators ensure that things that work are left in place when a disruptor wants to institute fundamental change to justify his or her hire?

I’ve had the privilege of working as an educator for the past ten years - public service matters to me. But I’m not alone in that. I’ve found that the vast, vast majority of teachers are individuals who are constantly focused upon trying to refine their individual and collective practices in order to benefit their students. Teachers are reformers. When a child is in front of us who doesn’t understand what we’re teaching, we adapt. It’s what we do. When a school initiative isn’t working, we attempt to communicate and work with our administrators to find fixes or adopt something new. We do this not for us - we do it because it’s right for the kids.

Yes, this is but one side of the story. I’m sure there are those who can put forth a full critique and counter-argument. I only wish to inform you of information I have found in my research so that you can make decisions going forward with a full understanding of the larger forces that may be a part of what’s going on within your school community.

I end this by saying Highland Park schools are not failing. Is there room for improvement? Of course, there always is. But beware of sledgehammers.

Best of luck.

-A Friend

P.S. Good resources to keep an eye on NJ public schools and the corporate reform agenda are Bruce Baker’s blog, Diane Ravitch’s blog, and NJ’s EdLawCenter.


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