Too Few Answers

Right now in the debate over whether Pittsburgh ought to sign a contract with Teach for America, “TFA” stands for Too Few Answers. Two weeks ago I posted six questions that our school board ought to be asking before it agrees to any deal with the organization. [See “Six Questions for Teach for America”] That piece generated considerable discussion and just got picked up nationally. [AlterNet.org, 11-21-13]

The Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition also launched a petition asking the school board to delay a vote on the Teach for America contract (and two other issues), until the four new board members are seated in three weeks. As that petition states, “This newly elected board represents the largest board turnover in over two decades, and the new board, duly elected by Pittsburgh voters, should have its say in these important issues.” Over 1,000 people have now signed the petition on-line and in hard-copy formats. (Please sign here and spread the word through your networks.) That is over one thousand Pittsburghers who are paying attention to this issue and have spoken up about a school board matter – that’s not something that happens everyday in this city.

Since I posted the original TFA piece two weeks ago, I have also heard from numerous teachers, teacher-educators, teachers in training, former TFA members, TFA employees, concerned parents, and more. I met with Nicole Brisbane, TFA’s New York-based managing director for new site development, who helped answer a number of my questions. But for every answer, I have heard many new questions, which I have tried to organize into themes below.

Here are four more questions (bringing our total to 10) that the school board needs to ask, followed by three letters to the editor that warrant serious attention. I respectfully urge our school board members to read these, numbered 7 – 10, and then consider all ten questions that the community has brought before it. This is what authentic community engagement looks like. And right now, we have Too Few Answers.

7.  What is a “qualified” teacher for our students? TFA managing director Ms. Brisbane told me that TFA recruits are required to earn their Master’s degree in the two years while they are teaching, so presumably after this point they would have the same certifications as our professional teachers. But Olivia Grace, a teacher-in-training at a local university, pointed out on the blog, “Even in an excellent program, I recognize my first year [teaching] will be my hardest, and that I won’t feel completely competent for at least 5 years.” What do we mean by “qualified”?

Superintendent Dr. Lane has said that it is “pretty hard for us to pull in effective and qualified candidates” in math and science. [Post-Gazette, 11-9-13] But would TFA corps members actually be qualified in these fields? They are certainly not experts. Teach for America recruits college grads from many majors, such as history and literature: would the district be able to restrict its hiring to math and science majors? Dr. Lane also told the Post-Gazette, “We’ve got lots and lots of applications” for elementary teaching spots. Since these are presumably qualified teachers – they have teaching degrees, plan a career in teaching, and clearly want to teach in our district – could we not assign these folks to high school math and science classes? Wouldn’t they actually be more qualified than TFA recruits?

Dr. Lane explained that TFA candidates are attractive because of their “commitment to kids in impoverished neighborhoods, children of color” and she called that “powerful.” [Post-Gazette, 11-9-13] Would that not make certified teachers (even elementary level teachers) applying to work in our district even more attractive, as they plan to dedicate their careers to our children in Pittsburgh? Could we re-visit the grow-your-own concept with the proposed Teacher Academy?

Finally, parent Pam Harbin notes that Westinghouse and U.Prep are generally named as the particularly hard-to-staff high schools. But almost a quarter of their students (24% and 23% respectively) receive special education services – far above the district-wide total of 17%. Pam asks, “How much special ed training do TFA corps members get?” In other words, are TFA recruits qualified to teach our neediest students in our neediest schools?

8.  What is the relationship between the Gates grant and TFA? The motion before the Pittsburgh school board calls for spending $750,000 for a three-year contract with TFA, to be funded by our grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. [Post-Gazette, 11-20-13] Is this a requirement of our grant? Could we spend those funds on other teacher training programs, such as our former proposed Teachers Academy? Or other desperately needed student programs?

9.  What is the long-term plan for TFA in Pittsburgh?  Right now the district tells us that they plan to hire up to 30 recruits. Ms. Brisbane told me it will likely be 15-20 this year, but the contract will be written for 30 to cover the costs of hiring a local executive director. So is the school district covering additional program costs beyond the per-head finder’s fee? At $5,000 per head that TFA charges for each recruit, the proposed $750,000 three-year contract would yield 150 TFA corps members. That would be 50 recruits a year and no one has been talking about that many. If we are only hiring 20 recruits a year for three years, that should cost the district $300,000 – does that mean the additional $450,000 in this contract from our grant money is going to support the local TFA startup costs? What happens after the three-year contract is up – who pays to keep the program going at those rates? Pittsburgh high school teacher Jon Parker commented on the blog:

there is no way on earth that TFA is coming here for 15-30 positions. It may be that number of positions in year one, but when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2015, TFA will have its foot in the door and will not be settling for 30 positions. In Charlotte, NC, Clark County, NV, and Chicago TFA contracts have meant furloughs of experienced teachers who were replaced with TFAers. Ultimately, even with the finder’s fee, a first step TFA teacher will cost the district less money in the short term. Unfortunately this decision will most dramatically impact our students and their families negatively. Pittsburgh needs teachers who want a career in front of our students, not a 2 year commitment. If we are financially strapped, we should be investing our resources in lasting change not a short-sighted contract rushed through without time for public consideration and meaningful dialogue.

10.  Do we need a short-term solution?  The school board is feeling pressured to make a quick decision on the TFA contract “because of the lengthy recruiting and screening process done by Teach for America.” [Post-Gazette, 11-20-13] We’re told time is running out and we need a short-term solution. But Dr. Josh Slifkin, who teaches at both Allderdice and Chatham University (and is a Pittsburgh Public School parent), warns, “I can’t buy into the concept of TFA as a ‘short term solution.’ I’m tired of short-term solutions by organizations who claim to have the silver bullet that will save public schools.” Dr. Slifkin continues:

I have taught scores of graduate and undergraduate students, so many deserving a full-time teaching position in PPS, who remain on the sub list (I see former students all the time—in my school, at my children’s school), have waited so long that they have given up on teaching, or have (finally) found meaningful full-time teaching positions in other local districts. And some of these are those oh-so rare STEM teachers.

PPS needs to do a better job working with our local universities, actively recruiting the talent, and posting and hiring in a timely manner (i.e., before the 11th hour). There are ‘highly qualified’ teachers out there, at preK through secondary levels, who are willing to give a lifetime to teaching, not just a ‘short-term’ (2 year) commitment. … Also, my Chatham students won’t come with a ‘finder’s fee’ attached to their employment. Public education remains a civic duty and civic right, not a way for private institutions to profit. TFA is not and will never be the answer here.

In addition to these new questions, I urge the school board to consider the comments from these three letter writers.

City schools, avoid Teach for America
[Post-Gazette, 11-15-13]
Teach for America is wrong for Pittsburgh (“Pittsburgh Schools May Hire From Teach for America,” Nov. 9). It is from personal experience that I come to this conclusion.

I was a 2010 TFA Philadelphia corps member. I am currently teaching at a charter school. Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane has stated she wants Teach for America for hard-to-fill positions where a diverse applicant pool is difficult to attract. If she is genuinely looking for a diverse applicant pool, then she should avoid the hype that is Teach for America.

With Teach for America, Pittsburgh is guaranteed a specific kind of teacher; one who is inexperienced, unqualified and poorly trained. Not only will the Pittsburgh district receive an influx of unqualified teachers, but a revolving door of inexperienced teachers working with the students who most need a highly qualified one will be opened. One must look no further than urban districts like Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore where TFA has set up shop to see that an invasion of bright, idealistic and hard-working 20-somethings do not have the answers our district is looking for.

My daughter started school this year in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I believe she deserves the very best and I have seen great potential in PPS. When poor decisions like this are being made by our leadership, one cannot help but question their motives. We can all be sure of one thing: Schools located in our wealthiest suburbs, like Upper St. Clair and Fox Chapel, continue to seek well-qualified career teachers for their already advantaged students.

JORDAN JONES
Park Place

Teacher recruits
[Post-Gazette, 11-19-13]
I read with dismay the proposal by the Pittsburgh Public Schools to hire Teach for America (“City Schools May Hire From Teach for America,” Nov. 9). Any data-driven educator would shun TFA, given its poor outcomes and the rapidity with which its untrained “educators” leave the profession.

Furthermore, the stated rationale given by the Pittsburgh district for working with TFA is that there is a shortage of teachers for certain sciences, like biology and chemistry, in the district. Before working with TFA, the Pittsburgh district should be required to detail publicly its outreach efforts to recruit certified teachers from local universities. I can attest that there are numerous qualified, well-trained and certified science and math graduates in this region.

So, what really is the reason for bringing in Teach for America?

TOM GORDON
Point Breeze
The writer is a professor in the College of Education at Slippery Rock University.

Avoid TFA’s Trap
[Tribune Review, 11-25-13]
Last fall, I was accepted to Teach for America (TFA) in Philadelphia. This autumn, I urge Pittsburgh to reject falling in its trap. TFA is a temporary teacher program. Recent college grads receive five weeks training and commit to two years in the classroom.

After Philadelphia closed over 20 schools and laid off 1 in 5 veteran educators, it placed a cheaper bunch of more than 100 inexperienced TFA corps members in lead teaching positions. Art, music, libraries, counselors, and even nurses were deemed superfluous, leading to the recent tragic death of a 6th grade student.

The community here is outraged at these assaults and fighting back. Last spring, students organized the largest walkouts since 1967. Thousands took to the street to demand support for their teachers and their future.

When I echoed concerns I heard in the community about the role of TFA in harming the district’s schools, the organization told me to silence myself. When I refused, and continued to stand in solidarity with the Philadelphia community demanding support for their public schools, TFA kicked me out.

While TFA claims to provide teachers for hard-to-fill subjects, recruits will not be prepared for them. Last fall, the program encouraged me to join a conference call entitled “Being a great math or science teacher no matter your major.”

If the Board signs a contract with Teach for America it pursues an illusion, not a solution. We must not let TFA do further harm in Pennsylvania. Our students deserve better.

JAY SAPER
Philadelphia

Can or Con

It must be all the spring rain – new corporate-style reform groups are popping up like weeds. The latest one just appeared in Pittsburgh on Tuesday with an Op Ed piece in the Post-Gazette promoting teacher evaluation. [Post-Gazette, 5-21-13] Called PennCAN, this group is an off-shoot of the Connecticut based ConnCAN, which has started a national effort known as 50CAN. So who are these “cans” and what are they saying?

ConnCAN was founded by investment manager Jonathan Sackler, who is also on the board of an oil and gas production company, a real estate investment company, and several pharmaceutical companies. He is also a trustee for Achievement First, which operates charter schools in four cities, as well as on the board of New Schools Venture Fund, which raises money to “invest” in “education entrepreneurs,” with a long history of funding charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs).

Ten of the eleven members of ConnCAN’s board are hedge fund managers. In other words, these are not educators thinking about what is best for students: these are financiers who know about making money for their portfolios. Not surprisingly, ConnCAN promotes charter schools, vouchers (“money that follows the student”), teacher evaluation systems that eliminate union protections, and school turnaround (shorthand for firing teachers and principals, or even closing “under achieving” schools). ConnCAN makes bold claims about its work, though Rutgers School of Education scholar Dr. Bruce Baker recently shredded their assertion that their reforms are working in Connecticut. [School Finance 101, 3-7-13.]

Last fall, Mr. Sackler wrote a check for $50,000 to a superPAC (it’s largest donation) that is trying to eliminate the local, democratically elected school board in Bridgeport, Connecticut and replace it with a politically appointed board under the supervision of a corporate-reform mayor. Sackler’s ConnCAN has spawned a national effort, 50CAN, which is working to do the same thing in other states: for instance, in Minnesota, they supported the campaign of a pro-charter, Teach for America alumnus. (Unfortunately, Teach for America seems to be in the corporate-reform camp: a topic for a future blog post, but for starters, see educator and TFA alumnus Gary Rubinstein’s analysis of TFA’s biggest claims.) The chairman of 50CAN’s board is Mathew Kramer, the President of Teach for America, which also put money into that Minnesota race. [DianeRavitch 2-2-13] Other 50CAN board members include the presidents of two charter school chain operators and a representative from DFER (Democrats for Education Reform).

Jonathan Pelto, a former Connecticut state legislator, writes about ConnCAN and related groups explaining, “The charter school industry is spending record amounts to lobby government officials and buy local boards of education.” And he warns, “Backing up their lobbying effort is a broader strategy to change the rules and change the players as a way of ensuring they can build their charter schools and further privatize America’s public education system.” [Guest post on DianeRavitch 2-2-13; also see his alarming 12-2-12 analysis of the group’s teacher evaluation and explicitly anti-union work in Connecticut.]

So is this what we’re seeing here in Pittsburgh with the arrival of ConnCAN’s sister, PennCAN? The group actually started working last year and is just now moving into our part of the state (they’ve been advertising for a public affairs manager who lives in or has connections to Pittsburgh), but their agenda is clear. They want to expand charter schools and advocate for “systems that authorize schools,” which I take to mean a state-authorizer bill that would eliminate local control. (We already defeated this once last fall: see “Where are the Real Republicans?”) They also promote vouchers, which they call “scholarships to attend high-performing schools of [the student’s] choice, whether they be district, charter, private or parochial.” And, of course, PennCAN wants a “statewide evaluation system that incorporates student achievement” – in other words, using high-stakes-testing to evaluate our teachers. The only point of agreement it appears our grassroots movement has with this group is that we ought to preserve funding for early childhood education. [PennCAN 2012 Policy Agenda]

PennCAN’s opening salvo here in Pittsburgh focused on teacher evaluation, an issue that already has some traction given the district’s $40 million Gates Foundation grant for just that. And we’ve seen other local Gates-funded organizations promoting teacher evaluation, including A+Schools and Shepherding the Next Generation, giving the idea additional legs. [See “Big $” and “Astroturf”] Now guess who is funding the national 50CAN? You guessed it: the Gates Foundation. And the Waltons. And Google and Jonathan Sackler, to name a few.

Here in Pennsylvania, the operation is being funded by a Catholic group (the Catholic church in Philadelphia has been lobbying hard for vouchers and tax credits to help keep religious private schools afloat: See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”). PennCAN donors also include the William Penn Foundation, now being sued by our sister-grassroots organization in Philadelphia for illegal lobbying efforts aimed at promoting more charter schools in that district. [See “When Foundations Go Bad”] And don’t forget Janine and Jeff Yass – that would be the Jeff Yass who made Pennsylvania’s top campaign donor list in the fall. He and two other of the top political donors in our entire state – Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik – went to college together and then founded a Philadelphia hedge fund company. Then they founded the Students First superPAC to funnel millions of their dollars, plus those from out of state donors, into the races of pro-voucher candidates. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”]

So that’s who we’re dealing with. Nice bunch of corporate-style reformers bent on privatization. We’ll look at their claims more closely in a future piece, but for now, we’re calling this can a con.

Big $

The way some of them throw around the green stuff, you’d think corporate-style education reformers were made of money. Oh wait. Some of them are. As Big Money plays a bigger and bigger role in shaping public education, it can be hard to keep all the players straight – from wealthy individuals, to foundations, superPACs, astroturf groups and corporations. Here’s a handy reference guide.

1.  Individuals
Some of the wealthiest people on the planet are pouring their money into corporate-style education reform. Some are doing this through foundations (see below) and others are happy to invest their millions in politics to shape policy or directly into charter schools as money-making investments. Some have a profit motive and others seem more ideologically driven (to privatize public goods, oppose union rights, etc.) One thing all of these folks have in common? Not one is an educator or education researcher. And none of their ideas is based on evidence of what actually works for kids.

  • Start here in Pennsylvania with charter school operators like Van Gureghian, Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donor. He makes so much money that he and his wife bought beach front property in Florida worth $28.9million, while he’s been fighting for years to keep his salary a secret. [See “Soaking the Public”]
  • Recall that 4 of the top contributors to all political races last fall in our state had ties to charter school operators. Wealth advisors are on record recommending that people add charter schools to their investment portfolios, especially in places like Pennsylvania. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”] Cyber charter schools are particularly lucrative investments, as the public taxpayers are currently over-paying them by $1million every single day. [See “One Million Per Day”]
  • How about folks like Philip Anschutz? He’s the oil billionaire with ultra-right politics who owns Walden Media, which made the anti-public school films, “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.” He funds groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights, environmental regulations, and union rights. [See “We Won’t Back Down Either”]
  • Then there’s New York Mayor Bloomberg, who likes the idea of privatizing schools so much that he put $1million into the Los Angeles school board races last month to try to maintain a corporate-reform minded majority there. Too bad his horse didn’t win. [See “School Boards Matter”]

2.  Foundations
The “big three” foundation are Gates, Broad, and Walton. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls them the “billionaire boys club,” though each has a slightly different emphasis. And there are others.

  • The Gates Foundation is currently funding teacher evaluation systems throughout the country. As I have argued before, not only does this focus on the wrong thing, by avoiding the issue of poverty (or even early childhood education where many agree we might most effectively concentrate our resources), it starts with the faulty assumption that we have a plague of bad teachers. Though the foundation itself has warned that teacher evaluation should not be based solely on high-stakes-testing, this is exactly what is happening all over the country (or in many places, student testing is being used for a large portion of teacher evaluation). The Gates Foundation is so large and distributes so much money that it can essentially set policy through its grant making. And combined with the Great Recession, school districts and other beneficiaries have not been able to say no to the money nor been willing to point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes (i.e. that his “reforms” don’t work). Gates has also launched a clever campaign to shift public opinion, by strategically targeting grants to community organizations (for example, over a half-million to A+Schools this year) and astroturf groups (see below) in communities where they are working.
  • The Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with “road”) Foundation runs a non-accredited superintendents training program premised on the idea that business executives with no education experience will improve urban school districts. Both the current and former Pittsburgh superintendents are Broad Academy graduates (though Dr. Linda Lane is an educator). The Foundation promotes teacher effectiveness and competition (i.e. charter schools), and drafted President Obama’s current reform strategy. They also literally wrote the book on how to close schools, using Pittsburgh as an example. Eli Broad also continues to spend his personal millions on corporate-reform, putting a half-million into the LA school board races this spring alone. [Los Angeles Times, 4-24-13]
  • The Walton Family Foundation derives its money from Wal-Mart and gave $158 million in K-12 education grants last year to promote charter schools and voucher programs. Its current top grantees include Teach for America, which has come under increased scrutiny for its method of placing young college graduates with only a few weeks of training in urban schools with the neediest students, where they stay only two years. (Teach for America, by the way, is looking to set up shop in Pittsburgh and has been making inquiries about hiring a local executive director. Stay tuned.) Here in our state the Walton Family Foundation is also funding the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. And they fund Bellwether Education Partners, the group hired by Pittsburgh Public Schools (through subcontract with FSG) to craft its education plan. [Walton Family Foundation 2012 Grant Report]
  • Let’s not overlook the role that other foundations play in education reform. Remember a decade ago when the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and Grable Foundation (the big three education philanthropies in Pittsburgh) yanked their funding from the school district, forcing them to introduce new reforms? [Post-Gazette, 7-10-02] The history books have yet to finish writing that episode – and there were no doubt both positive and negative long-term outcomes – but it illustrates the power that foundations can wield over a school district.
  • What about when a venerable old foundation starts behaving badly? Our big sister grassroots group in Philadelphia, Parents United, recently filed a legal complaint against the William Penn Foundation “based on the fact that they had solicited millions of dollars in donations for an exclusive contract” with a consulting group, with an agreed “set of ‘deliverables’ such as identifying 60 schools for closure, mass charter expansion, and unprecedented input into labor and contract negotiations – without the School District of Philadelphia being a party to the contract.” After a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center that concluded the foundation was essentially engaging in illegal lobbying and funneling private donations for the purpose, Parents United joined the Philadelphia Home & School Council, and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP in bringing the complaint. [Parents United, 2-14-13]

3.  SuperPACS
The Citizens United ruling opened the door to massive spending by corporations in politics and ushered in the era of superPACS. Without spending limits, now we are seeing just how much influence money can buy in politics (where education policy is set).

  • Students First PA PAC (not to be confused with Michelle Rhee’s national organization, see below), started in 2010 by three Philadelphia investment brokers to funnel millions into the state races of pro-voucher candidates. Co-founder Joel Greenberg is on the board of the American Federation for Children, a national group run by Betsy DeVos with mega-wealthy (and ultra-right) backers including the Koch brothers, who have used the super PAC to channel their out of state dollars into Pennsylvania politics. [See “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”] And Gov. Corbett tapped Joe Watkins, the chairman of Students First PA, to be the Chief Recovery Officer for the struggling Chester Uplands school district last year – a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen house, since he now has the power to hand those public schools over to charter operators. [See “Taking the Public out of Public Education”]
  • Fighting Chance PA PAC shares a name with a campaign launched by the “Pennsylvania Catholic Coalition” last spring, an effort associated with the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has been lobbying hard for voucher legislation to fund its struggling schools. The new PAC was entirely financed by three wealthy Philadelphia hedge-fund founders who started the Students First PA PAC, because apparently one super PAC on your resume is just not enough. And their largest contribution? To Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican from Beaver County (site of the proposed Dutch Royal Shell cracker plant) who introduced last year’s voucher-in-disguise EITC tax credit bill. Rep. Christiana also received money from the Walmart PAC. [See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”]

4.  Astroturf groups
Astroturf groups are fake grassroots organizations. They are funded by deep pockets, manipulated to look like local efforts to give the impression that they represent real community opinion. But they are as authentic as a field of plastic grass.

  • Operating at the national level are groups such as Michelle Rhee’s Students First. Rhee is best known as the former Chancellor of the D.C. school district where she publicly fired a principal on film as part of her massive school closure effort there. She became well known for supposedly increasing student test scores, but there are now serious questions of large-scale cheating (by adults). Students First promotes her privatization agenda of charters and vouchers as well as merit pay and teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes-testing. The Walton Family Foundation just gave the organization $8 million. [Washington Post, 5-1-13] At the same time, Rhee has been caught inflating the number of members in her organization to make it appear that it has a much broader base of support by using deceptive petitions (for un-objectionable issues such as anti-bullying) on the progressive change.org site to capture the names of unsuspecting new “members.” [DianeRavitch, 8-3-12]
  • Parent Revolution practically wrote the book on how to create an astroturf organization. Founded in California by a charter school operator – with major backing from Gates, Broad, and Walton – the group got a “parent trigger law” passed and then hired agents to convince two towns to turn their schools over to the them. But many parents later said they had been purposefully misled and filed lawsuits to try to stop the conversion of their schools to charters. [See “Won’t Be Silent”]
  • Closer to home, we learned just last week that the Gates Foundation is backing a new astroturf group here in Pittsburgh. Called Shepherding the Next Generation, the Washington D.C. based organization has been trying to recruit churches – especially in our African American communities – to preach the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation. [See “Astroturf”] Having one of the wealthiest people on the planet funding outside organizations like this to come into a community and shift the public conversation seriously erodes democracy. This is not about promoting an authentic community dialogue, but about promoting a specific ideology of school reform.

5.  Corporations
Perhaps not surprising, corporations control some of the big money at stake in corporate-style education reform. Here are a few to keep your eye on.

  • Testing companies have significantly benefitted from the dramatic expansion of testing under No Child Left Behind. Nationally, we are spending $1.7 BILLION a year testing our kids. [Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, report Nov. 2012] And corporations like Pearson Education, Inc. and McGraw Hill spend millions lobbying state legislatures to keep their products in favor. [Republic Report, 5-4-12] The new national Common Core Standards are also creating a bonanza for companies that make textbooks and assessment materials.
  • Pennsylvania has a contract with Data Recognition Corporation. Taxpayers in the Keystone state are footing the bill for average spending of $32.2 million a year on testing students. [Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, report Nov. 2012] That’s a lot of money that is not getting spent on actually educating children.
  • Struggling school districts are increasingly turning to hybrid or “blended” learning models to deliver content at least partially on-line as a cost-savings measure. A major 2010 Department of Education review of the literature found that blended-learning does not offer better learning outcomes for students, but it will surely be good for corporate bottom lines. Pearson is promoting its Connections Learning as the solution to schools looking to close their achievement gap and reduce the cost of teachers.
  • Finally, don’t forget about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council where corporate members write business-friendly laws and have them introduced word-for-word into state legislatures. In education reform, ALEC promotes the unregulated expansion of charters and vouchers, keeping both unaccountable to the public while taking away control from local democratically elected school board officials. In Pennsylvania, ALEC issued a guide helpfully pointing out how legislators could get around our troublesome constitution, which prevents public money from being spent on religious schools. The Gates Foundation granted $375,000 to ALEC from 2010-2013, before cutting all ties with the organization last spring after becoming the target of an online petition that gathered over 23,000 signatures in just a few hours. [SeeThere’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”]

Now that’s a lot of money coming from a lot of sources. It’s helpful to think about the “big tent” metaphor here: there are many Big Money players in this tent, with multiple motivations. Clearly some are driven by profit motive and stand to make a lot of money. Some share ultra-right interests in de-unionization and de-regulation and are happy to push those interests in the field of education. Many others are driven by an ideological agenda of corporate-style education reform. One thing is for sure: all that Big Money under one big tent is having an enormous impact on our public schools.

Astroturf

They’re heeeeeere! Yes, we’ve been watching the astroturf groups set up shop in Pennsylvania, and now they are here in Pittsburgh. Astroturf groups are fake grassroots organizations. They are funded by deep pockets, manipulated to look like local efforts to give the impression that they represent real community opinion. But they are as authentic as a field of plastic grass. (For a great example, see this explanation of Parent Revolution, an astroturf group in California funded by venture capitalists interested in charterizing public schools through parent trigger laws.)

The first astroturf group popped up here like a weed last month just as the weather started to warm. Called “Shepherding the Next Generation,” this Washington D.C. based group received money from the Gates Foundation to start working in Pittsburgh. They’re not hiding that fact – it’s right there in small print at the bottom of the flyer they are passing out to local churches in an effort to recruit them (though it’s not on their web site). They call themselves an “alliance of Pittsburgh religious leaders who strongly support community efforts to make sure our children have the best chance at succeeding in school and later in life.” So far, sounds good, right?

Well, first of all, there is no alliance. The group just hired an organizer who has been approaching churches – especially those in our African American communities – to try to encourage them to join. Want a real alliance of religious leaders who have been actively working on public education for the past three years? Try PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, with over 50 area congregational members (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, and everything in between).

What Shepherding the Next Generation is really up to is promoting the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation: “We work to educate our clergy members about the critical elements for improving our schools, focusing on teaching effectiveness and helping kids to succeed. The clergy then, in turn, help educate their congregations and the public. … while also encouraging  Pittsburgh Schools to adopt the most effective ways to hire, retain and train good teachers.” [SNG flyer]

shepherding the next generation p1 shepherding the next generation p2

As we know, the Gates Foundation has been pouring its money into teacher evaluation programs around the country, including $40 million to the Pittsburgh Public School district for teacher evaluation. [See “The VAM Sham”] The problem with this is twofold. First, it focuses on the wrong thing. Gates and the corporate-style reformers who promote teacher evaluation will always say that teachers are the most important “in school” factor affecting learning — but really, this comes out to about 15-20% at most of measurable factors. By far the biggest influence on student learning is out-of-school factors.

And this is where poverty is the real story. So while Gates and others are pumping money into teacher evaluation and trying get “better” teachers, they refuse to acknowledge (or at least downplay) the very real role of poverty and its impact on our kids and learning. A favorite line of the corporate-reformers is that “poverty is no excuse” for student performance. But this is a huge equity issue. What if those organizations put all that money into real poverty programs? It pains me to think about our clergy here in Pittsburgh being urged to talk about fixing education by making teachers better, while ignoring poverty — the issue that should be near and dear to the hearts of all our faith leaders.

Second, even among in-school factors, we have to ask why the corporate-reformers are so focused on teachers. This starts with the assumption that we have a plague of bad teaching. And this is just not what I am seeing. Of course we want good teachers in front of every child. And of course we need to make sure that poor teachers are shown the door. (Though remember the definition of “bad” is a moving target – a “bad” teacher this year might have been great last year, and may be good next year – and much of what we really value in teaching, such as inspiring kids, cannot be measured on a high-stakes-test.) What I am seeing are teachers struggling with massive budget cuts, years of inequitable resource distribution, a drastic narrowing of the curriculum due to high-stakes-testing, and teachers battling a tidal wave of de-professionalization and vilification.

What if Shepherding the Next Generation put its time and resources into fighting for adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for our schools? Or lobbied Harrisburg for charter reform that would save our districts millions of desperately needed dollars? What if it helped us have a conversation about the impact of mass school closure on communities of color? What if it worked to help us build local schools into community centers, filled with vibrant resources for the entire neighborhood? Or helped us find creative business partners to fill unused school space?

Even those who are still fans of Gates and his agenda ought to be wary of this astroturf phenomenon. Having one of the wealthiest people on the planet funding outside organizations like this to come into a community and shift the public conversation seriously erodes democracy.

Now how about this group: the “Center for Public Justice” is another Washington D.C. based organization that just waltzed into town. In a Facebook invite that went up last week, the Center says it “has embarked on a new pilot program in the city of Pittsburgh called Christians Investing in Public Education.” What that investment will be is not clear. What is clear, however, is the Center’s evangelical religious mission. The group calls homosexuality “abnormal and immoral” and an “unhealthy form of human relationship.” [CPJ website] They oppose gay marriage and don’t believe in reproductive rights.

They do believe in our public taxpayer dollars being used to fund private religious schools, despite the fact that it’s against our state constitution. (See discussion of the Blaine Amendment, under “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”.) The Center believes that “public funding should be offered without regard to the religious, philosophical, or pedagogical differences among the variety of certified schools parents choose.” To this end, the group explicitly promotes vouchers and religious charter schools.

The Center also wants to de-regulate what is taught in school. They argue, “Schools receiving public support, whether via vouchers or directly, should be free to hire staff and to design curricula that reflect their distinctive educational, philosophical, and religious missions.” What this really means, of course, is that teachers ought to be able to teach creationism in science class. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that this violates the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution (the separation of church and state). There is even a 2005 federal decision that came out of a Pennsylvania court case ruling that “intelligent design” and creationism are the same thing and may not be taught in public schools.

This is a hot topic right now, as a Post-Gazette report this past weekend revealed. Almost 20% of science teachers believe in creationism. And a Penn State survey found that despite the law, between 17-21% of teachers bring the concept into their classrooms. [Post-Gazette, 4-28-13] Have you seen the 4th grade “science” quiz making the rounds on Facebook this past month? It shows the astonishing way in which “young earth” creationists (who take the Bible literally and believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary) are teaching school children that people and dinosaurs lived together on the planet.

Unfortunately, this Center for Public Justice group planned to host three sessions this week – using Pittsburgh Public School space – to meet with parents, teachers, and school administrators. The Education Law Center verified that the school district has a facility use policy allowing all groups to request space. This is obviously a good thing as far as free speech is concerned. But it also means that our own public schools might be forced to host bigoted groups like this one bent on privatizing them right out of existence. So we have to stay vigilant about organizations that pop into town and ask lots of questions.

Fortunately, after we started doing just that last week, the Center announced that it is “postponing” its sessions. Who knows if their decision is related or if they will be back? But we better be on the lookout, because these groups with clear privatization agendas and astroturf organizations have found the road to Pittsburgh. They might be surprised to learn that Yinzer Nation is no fan of the fake stuff – even Heinz Field has real green grass for our beloved Steelers. And PNC Park sports the real stuff for our Pirates, too. Astroturf us? Git’aht!

School Boards Matter

Pittsburgh’s school board is about to get a major shake up. Five of its nine spots are open this year, and there are multiple candidates running in some districts. Because of the nature of city politics, many of these seats are likely to be decided in the May primary, so we just have a couple months to get to know those who are running.

Making this election cycle more confusing, the city has just re-drawn school board lines, moving entire neighborhoods into new districts. [See Post-Gazette, 11-12-12 for list of changes.] And the new map does not align with other political boundaries such as those for city council, state representatives, or even school catchment areas. But these are extremely important races and it’s worth taking a minute to make sure you know which district you are in.

New board members will be making crucial decisions about school closings. (And we know for sure Pittsburgh will see more devastating loss of neighborhood schools in the next couple years.) Board members also sign-off on accepting grant money from foundations and approve contracts with consulting firms. [Remember “PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?”] And they approve new charter schools, which are frequently opened to replace the public schools that just closed.

In fact, charter schools and the use of high-stakes-testing for teacher evaluation are two of the hottest school board issues across the country right now. In Los Angeles, mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to take over the school board in 2006 as several other large cities have done (called “mayoral control,” this has been a key strategy to remove power from democratically elected school boards, allowing for swift imposition of the corporate-reform agenda, especially school closure). When his attempt failed, Mayor Villaraigosa switched to backing school board members who support corporate-style reforms. He solicited donations from New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave a whopping $1 million, and from Michelle Rhee, whose StudentsFirst group gave another $250,000. [New York Times, 3-4-12]

We need to seriously question why these wealthy individuals and astro-turf groups are dumping millions into the Los Angeles school board races. The good news this morning is that it appears all those dollars did not work: with returns now in, it looks like school board member Steve Zimmer, a moderate who dared to question privatization, has retained his seat against an opponent who was backed by the mayor, Bloomberg, and Rhee, as well as the Los Angeles Times editorial board and billionaires Eli Broad (of the Broad Foundation that trains school superintendents) and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. [DianeRavitch, LA Upset] That’s a major victory for public education advocates in California – and a lesson for us in Pennsylvania.

School board elections matter. They matter a lot. And one of the benefits of being in Pittsburgh, say, and not Los Angeles, is that – at least so far – we don’t have ultra-wealthy outsiders tromping in with their dollars and agendas, trying to trounce on our democratic process. So please do your part and get to know your local candidates. Here’s the perfect chance to ask questions and learn where your future school board members stand on privatization, school closures, charter reform, high-stakes-testing, and sticking up for adequate state funding: on Monday, March 11, 2013, PIIN will host a town hall meeting from 6:30-9PM with all the school board candidates at University Prep 6-12 at Milliones, in the Hill District (3117 Centre Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219).

In advance of this town hall, Yinzercation has been working with a coalition of education partners to develop a vision statement for Pittsburgh public schools, including a pledge for school board members. Members of the coalition include PIIN, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Action United, OnePittsburgh, and A+Schools. We want school board members who are more than just fiscal watchdogs in these challenging financial times. With the district scheduled to run out of money in 2015, it will be too easy to let budgets drive decision-making.

In other words, we need school board members with vision, who are:

  1. Careful policy makers and objective evaluators of data and research-based reforms
  2. Wise stewards of public school resources
  3. Promoters of public education as a public good
  4. Fearless advocates for restoring adequate State funding for our schools
  5. Advocates for enhanced revenues and fair executors of the school board taxing authority to ensure that everyone pays their fair share.
  6. Committed to achieving equity by supporting teachers, parents, students and community members in developing school specific plans to implement the District’s Equity Plan.
  7. Real partners with all stakeholders to set the highest professional standards and nurture collaboration across our school system
  8. Leaders who engage parents, educators, administrators, and community members in authentic, ongoing dialogue that improves our school and enriches our democracy
  9. Committed to implementing community driven solutions that come from real engagement and collaboration between parents, students, educators, administrators and community not outside consulting firms.

This is some of the language we have been working on. What do you think? Please come to the town hall on Monday and get this crucial conversation going. Keep the grassroots in our elections so there’s no room for the billionaire corporate-reformers to play with Pittsburgh’s school board.

The VAM Sham

It’s a new year, but for public education it looks like we may be seeing more of the same old thing. Tonight the Pittsburgh School Board will be reviewing a new teacher evaluation plan developed by the District based on highly problematic data drawn from all those high-stakes-tests our kids have been taking. Not only is the data bad, but the uses to which it is being put should be setting off alarm bells in every parent’s head as it actually damages our schools, our teachers, and even our children’s education. To understand why, Yinzercation talked to Dr. Tim Slekar, an education researcher and Head of the Division of Education, Human Development and Social Sciences at Penn State Altoona.

Pittsburgh’s plan comes just as Pennsylvania has introduced a new law mandating that every school district in the state must implement a teacher evaluation system, basing half of the evaluation on classroom observation and the other half on “multiple measures of student achievement.” We’ll get to these halves in a moment, but let’s start with the very premise of this new evaluation system. Pennsylvania and many other states around the country have introduced these laws as part of the corporate-reform-movement, which rests on the idea that public schools are failing, and that we must measure students with tests that will then be used to hold teachers accountable and even close down or “turn around” low performing schools (often by firing all the teachers). This seductive reasoning centers on the assumption that teachers are responsible for how their students perform on tests and that tests are an accurate measure of their teaching.

However, there are multiple problems with this logic. First, and perhaps most importantly, Dr. Slekar explains that abundant research demonstrates that out-of-school factors are far and away the largest contributors to student achievement. As much as 80% of student achievement can be directly attributed to issues such as family stability, number of books in the home, exposure to cultural resources, and whether or not a child had breakfast before school. Of the remaining 20%, teachers are certainly the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, but by no means the only one.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) did a major study a few years ago in collaboration with 25 countries around the world looking at effective teaching. They concluded, “The first and most solidly based finding is that the largest source of variation in student learning is attributable to differences in what students bring to school – their abilities and attitudes, and family and community background.” The report noted that, “Such factors are difficult for policy makers to influence.” [OECD “Teachers Matter” report, 2005]

Furthermore, while teacher quality definitely matters, the OECD report found that most measures of teaching effectiveness have concentrated on factors that can be easily quantified – usually correlating student test data with teaching credentials, years of experience, and such. While there is a positive relationship between these things, the research shows that these matter to a “lesser extent than may have been expected” and that the teacher characteristics “which can be vital to student learning” are “harder to measure.” These include the things we should all care about in our teachers, such as “the ability to convey ideas in clear and convincing ways; to create effective learning environments for different types of students; to foster productive teacher-student relationships; to be enthusiastic and creative; and to work effectively with colleagues and parents.” [OECD “Teachers Matter” report, 2005, p. 2]

Another huge problem with the current frenzy of teacher evaluation systems is that they are also premised on the idea that we have too many “bad” teachers and must get rid of them. As evidence, the “reformers” often cite the statistic that current evaluation methods result in 99% of all teachers in the state receiving a satisfactory, or “qualified,” grade. The logic seems to be that we couldn’t possibly have so many qualified teachers. Naturally, a sensible counter-argument would be, “Why not?” It’s not like we’re hiring people off the street: teachers have to go through many gates, including training, certification, and then hiring by a school district, before they get their own classrooms.

While there may be a handful of ineffective teachers in any given district, I’m not seeing a plague of bad teaching: if anything, the teaching I see on a regular basis is quite good, despite the immense odds stacked against our teachers. Sure, where there is ineffective teaching, I want an improvement plan put in place, proper supports offered to that teacher, and then if none of that works, guide the person out the door. This is why we have a three year probationary period and the best districts train principals in good observation and feedback techniques, then make sure they have time to perform this most critical function.

In fact, if you think about it, the very best teaching evaluation system would be highly qualitative, one in which the principal takes on a teaching mentor role, creating what Dr. Slekar refers to as “a framework to discuss the classroom experience.” If anything, if there is a problem with current evaluation systems based on observation, it’s not that too many teachers receive a satisfactory grade, it’s that the quality and quantity of observation is insufficient (frequently just a quick once a year visit) and often inconsistent across districts (varying from building to building). The solution to that problem has nothing to do with student achievement scores.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. The entire evaluation system depends on what Dr. Slekar calls “the mythology of objectivity.” This is the idea that we can quantify everything, come up with the perfect formula, and reduce all aspects of teaching to numbers that will not lie – after all, they are numbers. But this lure of objectivity masks the reality that every standardized test we give our kids – and then want to use to evaluate our teachers – is in fact subjective. Slekar explains that the PSSAs are not objective measures at all and actually contain a great deal of cultural bias which continue to skew scores against our poorest students and students of color.

But even if we assume for the moment that those high-stakes-tests our children are taking yield legitimate results, there are still serious problems with using those tests to evaluate teaching. First, they were only designed to measure student achievement – not how well our teachers are teaching. As any scientist will tell you, when you want to examine something, the measurements have to be designed to actually look at what you’re interested in. And second, they completely omit many of the most important elements of teaching – you know, those very things we as parents and concerned community members think about when we recall our very best teachers.

Now let’s get back to that new state mandate which requires districts to base at least half of our teachers’ evaluations on student test scores. This half is supposed to use “multiple measures of student achievement,” but what that really amounts to is using the PSSA scores and breaking them apart and putting them back together in different ways. Pittsburgh has been working on a system to get out ahead of the new law, and wants to use a slightly different breakdown of percentages within this half than the one dictated by the state: the district “proposes 5 percent for building-level results, 30 percent for teacher-specific data and 15 percent for elective data,” which in most cases means “student surveys of individual teachers.” [Post-Gazette, 12-31-12]

For the building-level and teacher-specific data, Pittsburgh wants to use what is known as Value Added Measurements (VAM), which take into account how much a student has grown academically in a year, rather than taking a single snapshot of year-end performance on a test. While VAMs sound like a huge improvement, the reality is that VAM systems are still in the experimental phase and so far there is no evidence that any of them work. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) reviewed VAM research funded by the Gates Foundation and found that “a teachers’ value-added for the state test is not strongly related to her effectiveness in a broader sense. Most notably…many teachers whose value-added for one test is low are in fact quite effective when judged by the other.” What’s more, the researchers warned, “there is every reason to think that the problems with value-added measures … would be worse in a high-stakes environment,” calling the results of the study “sobering about the value of student achievement data as a significant component of teacher evaluations.” [NEPC, Review of “Learning About Teaching,” 2011]

Dr. Slekar explains the problem with VAM quite simply: “Value Added Measurement systems will incorrectly rank teachers one out of every three times—at best.” [@theChalkface, 1-2-13] Just last week, education researcher Dr. Mercedes K. Schneider published an excellent investigation of the VAM system proposed by the state of Louisiana. Her careful analysis is worth reading in full if you are interested in the mathematics behind these measurements, but the crux of the problem comes down to this: VAM systems rank teachers, and in any ranking some will be at the top and some will be at the bottom (I find this itself a problematic underlying assumption). If you are going to use a tool to rank the teachers, then it ought to at least be stable, reliable, and consistent.

Dr. Schneider uses this analogy: “It is like standing on a bathroom scale; reading your weight; stepping off (no change in your weight); then, stepping on the scale again to determine how consistent the scale is at measuring your weight. Thus, if the standardized tests are stable (consistent) measures, they will reclassify teachers into their original rankings with a high level of accuracy. This high level of accuracy is critical if school systems are told they must use standardized tests to determine employment and merit pay decisions.” However, the VAM system frequently re-ranked teachers who had been at the top, down to the middle or the bottom, even when they had not changed a thing in their teaching. The bottom line? Dr. Schneider says, “I would discard the bathroom scale.” She concludes, “Yes, teachers should be evaluated. However, attempting to connect teacher performance to student standardized test scores cannot work and will not improve education in America. VAM does not work; it cannot work and needs to be discarded.” [“Value Added Modeling (VAM) and ‘Reform’: Under the Microscope,” 12-28-12]

So if VAM is a sham, why are we wasting our time – and untold taxpayer dollars – on this stuff? Pittsburgh appears to be smitten with the idea that it can keep jiggling the numbers until it finds the magic formula: the district says it will adjust for variables like “free- or reduced-price lunch eligibility, the number of English language learners, the number of gifted students, and other characteristics.” [Post-Gazette, 12-31-12] But as Dr. Slekar remarked, “VAM is garbage in, garbage out. There’s no research that shows a way to account for out of school factors. This is all in the experimental phase. No one has done it. In two different years you get two different results.” He asks, “How can a teacher be successful one year and not the next? When researchers look at this over 3, 4, 5 years, the reliability is zero.” And he points out that those teachers getting bad VAM scores can be the very ones who get the highest ratings from parents, those who inspire kids and are most humane.

Dr. Slekar also points out the difficulty in combining this VAM and student test score data with the other half of the teacher’s evaluation, which is supposed to be classroom observation. In Pittsburgh, this half comes from a system it developed called RISE (Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation), based on the work of education researcher Charlotte Danielson. But Slekar argues that RISE is a “distortion of [her] original work on quality teaching. Danielson’s qualitative system of evaluation was never meant to be merged with a invalid and unreliable quantitative evaluation system—Valued Added Measures.” [@theChalkface, 1-2-13]

At this point your head may be spinning. What’s the big deal? Why should we care? The take away is this: we are wasting precious resources on a system that will not give us good results, resources that we know would be far better spent on early childhood education, or even textbooks for our schools. Pittsburgh may feel it has no choice other than to comply with the new state law, but it has been preparing this system for a while. I would like to see our elected school board representatives have a real conversation about this at tonight’s meeting, find its backbone, and take a public stand. Enough is enough. These high stakes tests – and the VAM sham they perpetuate – are damaging our schools, our kids, and our teachers.

 

Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

When Foundations Go Bad

Money talks. And sometimes money buys contracts with companies that have an agenda to privatize our public schools. That appears to be the case with Philadelphia’s prominent William Penn Foundation: last week parents in that city accused the venerable foundation of contracting with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to develop a plan to close dozens of public schools while opening many more charter schools. They charge the foundation and consulting company with essentially acting as lobbyists to influence policy decisions in the School District of Philadelphia. Here’s why we should care in the rest of Pennsylvania when good foundations go bad.

Parents United for Public Education – a fantastic group of Philadelphia public education advocates that organized back in 2006 (Yinzercation’s big sister) – filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting a formal investigation of BCG’s behavior. Joining Parents United in the complaint was the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. The groups had requested a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia before making their decision to file the charges, saying, “Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

It turns out that the William Penn Foundation signed a contract with BCG explicitly stating that the group would recommend expanding charter schools, target 60 public schools for closure, and influence labor negotiations. [The Notebook, 7-9-12] Philadelphia has a state-imposed “School Reform Commission” (SRC) and could be the poster-child for what a state-privatization plan does to a city. [For details, see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”] Parents United discovered that the Boston Consulting Group’s contract actually specified that it would influence the SRC before an important vote it made back in May. That’s when the commission decided that, despite the District’s severe financial crisis, it would approve adding 5,416 new seats in charter schools across the city (expanding charters from 25% to 40% of the entire District) at an eye-popping cost of $139 million over the next five years. [The Notebook, 7-19-12]

The William Penn Foundation clearly got what it paid for with the Boston Consulting Group. With unprecedented access to key decision-makers as well as data from the District, the BCG has been acting as a lobbyist on behalf of the privatization agenda, able to push their plans behind closed doors. As Parents United points out, “No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

And it gets worse. The foundation solicited private donors to help fund the BCG contract and then kept their identities a secret by funneling the dollars through a separate agency. Those donors include individuals and groups affiliated with charter organizations. [The Notebook, 6-6-12] As Parents United explains, this lack of transparency matters, “because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors. From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different….” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

What’s more, this kind of thing is going on all over the country, with big-money foundations investing their philanthropic resources in corporate-style education reform. These include the Broad Foundation (which has trained a large number of urban school superintendents, including Pittsburgh’s own current and immediate past leader, in corporate-style management practices) as well as the Gates Foundation (which has given Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million for teacher evaluation efforts). I agree with Parents United that, “what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Philadelphia grassroots movement for public education is making a real difference. Just one week after Parents United sent its letter of intent to file an ethics complaint, the William Penn Foundation board met; one week later, the foundation’s president, Jeremy Nowak, publicly announced his resignation. Nowak had been widely regarded as the guiding force behind the foundation’s turn towards school privatization. Parents United co-founder Helen Gym, noted that, “William Penn, under [Nowak's] stewardship, went from being this beloved Philadelphia foundation to being a controversial and very conservative promoter of a very special kind of reform agenda.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 11-30-12]

The lessons for us here on the other side of the state? We must pay attention to the role of large foundations, which are increasingly entering the “education reform” business with little more than an ill-formed notion that school privatization will cure what ails us. Southwest Pennsylvania is also home to many venerable foundations with a proud history of supporting children, families, and education. It’s time for these foundations to partner with our community – in full transparency and with parent participation – to tackle the serious equity, policy, and resource issues confronting our schools. Foundations can absolutely be a force for public education and for the public good. How about it Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Grable and others – are you ready to be vocal advocates for our public schools?

———

Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.